Remembering Dame Enid Lyons

22 Aug 2018 speech

Ms FLINT (Boothby) (11:25): I, again, share your congratulations and acknowledgement of the member for Lyons's contribution. That was a lovely reflection on Dame Enid Lyons and her husband, Joseph Lyons, who were fine Tasmanians.


As we know, we're here to commemorate Enid Lyons's election to the House of Representatives. Yesterday, 21 August, marked the 75th anniversary of her election to the House of Representatives in 1943. She was the first woman elected to the federal parliament in the House of Representatives, and she went on to become Australia's first female cabinet minister.


Enid Lyons was a remarkable woman, and her career, her family life and her relationship with her husband, Joe Lyons, really reminds me of another remarkable woman, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I think there are a lot of commonalities between them, with their strong family life and their dedication to serving the public throughout their lives.


As has been noted, Dame Enid was born in 1897. Remarkably, she first stood for the Tasmanian parliament in 1925 when she had six children, and she only lost the seat by six votes. She was married to Joseph Lyons, who became the Tasmanian Premier and, of course, became the Prime Minister of Australia between the years of 1932 and 1939. Between them, they had 12 children, one of whom tragically died at the age of 10 months from pneumonia. By all accounts, Enid Lyons and Joseph Lyons were a very close couple. They had a loving relationship, and they supported one another in their public lives and public roles.


I do want to quickly read from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which notes, amongst other things, what was happening at the end of Joseph Lyons's life. He died at the age of 59 years, so he died at a very young age. Things had been very stressful for them around politics and his prime ministership. As the Australian Dictionary of Biography records:


His final months were miserable as his government became increasingly unstable. Apart from Menzies, there were other threats, particularly from Charles Hawker. According to Enid Lyons, Hawker was on his way to Canberra to challenge Lyons when he was killed in a plane crash in October 1938. … Although Menzies never issued a direct challenge, he made pointed public comments about lack of national leadership; through 1938-39 his claims were advanced in the newspapers of Sir Keith Murdoch, previously an enthusiastic supporter of Lyons. …


The dictionary goes on to say that Sir Joseph Lyons:


… was able to thwart the implicit Menzies challenge in the final months of 1938. On 14 March 1939 Menzies resigned from cabinet because of the deferment of the national insurance scheme. Not long after, Sir Joseph Lyons died in Sydney in hospital on 7 April 1939. This was an incredibly, understandably, stressful time for Dame Enid. She was 41 years old, she had 11 children, and her husband had just died at a very young age. As the Australian Dictionary of Biography also records: When Joe Lyons died on 7 April 1939, Enid, exhausted and grief-stricken, plunged into a depression that only fully lifted when a daughter, noting that their Federal local member was retiring, persuaded her to stand for the House of Representatives.


As we know, as I remarked, yesterday, 21 August, was the 75th anniversary of her election. I have read Dame Enid Lyons's speech a number of times since I became a candidate, in my previous life doing research and, certainly, since I've been elected. Her speech is really remarkable and I want to reflect on that today. I think, for all of us who get elected to this place, your maiden speech is one of the most stressful. It's a stressful moment, but it's also very emotional and very personal. I had the great honour of doing the very first maiden speech for this parliament, the address-in-reply speech. There have been nine women in this place who have given the very first speech to new parliaments—I think five Labor and four Liberal women. I want to thank the Parliamentary Library for gathering those statistics.


You certainly do feel the pressure when not only is it your maiden speech but you are the very first speech of all of the maiden speeches, so I can only imagine how Enid Lyons felt giving her first speech to the parliament. It really was a remarkable speech not just because she was the first woman—and, as I'll read in a moment, she took that responsibility very seriously—but given the political circumstances and the fact that Robert Menzies was still in the parliament and that her husband had recently passed away. So there she was amongst her husband's colleagues and with people who had caused him great stress at the end of his life, and caused her, of course, great stress as well. She delivered the speech with wonderful humour and made a very serious policy contribution, but she really held her emotions in check, which I think is just a remarkable testament to the sort of woman that she
was. It's a remarkable achievement and also a testament to the woman that she was.


As Dame Enid Lyons said in her first speech:


It would be strange indeed were I not tonight deeply conscious of the fact, if not a little awed by the knowledge, that on my shoulders rests a great weight of responsibility; because this is the first occasion upon which a woman has addressed this house. For that reason it is an occasion which, for every woman in the Commonwealth, marks in some degree a turning point in history. I am well aware that, as I acquit myself in the work that I have undertaken for the next three years, so shall I either prejudice or enhance the prospects of those women who may wish to follow me in public service in the years to come.


As we know, not that many women have followed Dame Enid—not as many as we would like—into public service in the House of Representatives. I believe it's something like 115 women who have been elected since Federation, and certainly since 1943 when Dame Enid was elected. I want to recognise her today for the fact that she was an absolute trailblazer. She is one of my heroes and one of the reasons why I've worked very hard as a female member of the Liberal Party to do my bit to encourage other women to consider putting their hand up to become candidates for the party.


I'm grateful to my good friend and colleague Nick Cater for working with me and engaging me through the Menzies Research Centre on a 2015 report Gender and politics, which examines women in the Liberal Party and what we can do to encourage more women to get involved. Nick is a true champion of women in the Liberal Party. We revised the report in 2017, and I commend it to everyone, particularly people in the Liberal Party. Have a look at the suggestions we have as to how we can encourage more women to put their hand up for preselection and then support them to become elected, whether it is for the state or federal parliament.

The most crucial message, though, I think, from the report is that the Liberal Party must always remain true to its principles when
addressing the issue of female representation in the party. Robert Menzies really did put this very well back in 1943 and I want to read this quote because it's really important and it explains why the Liberal Party, certainly on my watch, will do everything to prevent quotas being introduced, because quotas are absolutely inconsistent with our principles. We need to find the best people for the job, which means that we can never support quotas.

As Menzies said:


Of course women are at least the equals of men. Of course there is no reason why a qualified woman should not sit in parliament or on the bench or in a professorial chair or preach from the pulpit or, if you like, command an army in the field. No educated man today denies a place or career to a woman just because she is a woman.


But there is a converse position which I state with all respect but with proper firmness. No woman can demand a place or a career just because she is a woman. It is outmoded and absurd to treat a woman's sex as a disqualification; it seems to me equally absurd to claim it as a qualification in itself.


This is the beauty of the Liberal Party. This is why I am a Liberal: it is about giving people equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.