Ann Symonds – Making a difference
The Honorable Ann Symonds AM did not get into politics just to ‘start a conversation’. Instead she fought for and achieved tangible gains for children, homeless women and women prisoners, while making progress in drug law reform.
Ann co-founded the National Foundation for Australian Women, was a founding member of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform and Vice-President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, was Patron of the Corrective Services Mothers and Children’s Program and of SHINE For Kids.
Ann’s pursuit of social change through three Labor governments (Wran, Unsworth and Carr) reveals both the possibilities and the frustrations of attempting progressive change through parliamentary politics. Other relevant questions spin off from this story.
How did a left-wing feminist refuse to be marginalised in the factionalised and male-dominated environment of the Labor Party?
And when we talk of progressive change is the ALP still fit for purpose? In her post-parliamentary career Ann was critical of the hollowing out of the party, and was perhaps liberated to try new alliances and solutions.
Noted professional historian, Dr Hilary Golder has been commissioned to write the book about Ann Symonds’ political career. It will be available online and in print, with excerpts released along the way on this website. Dr Golder’s research will include interviews together with written sources.
By focusing chapters on issues – before, during and after Ann’s parliamentary career –the book will highlight the contemporary relevance of her career. The book is definitely not intended to be a handbook for aspiring activists, but they should get something from the history of how and why progress was made and (sometimes) unmade.
Introduction: A Tale of Two Speeches DRAFT (end notes to be added)
The first publication commissioned by the Politics of Social Change Foundation focuses on the career of a woman who liked to describe herself as an ‘accidental politician.’
The late Ann Symonds was ‘catapulted’ into the New South Wales Legislative Council in September 1982. Having narrowly missed election to the Council in 1981, she was chosen by the Australian Labor Party to fill the casual vacancy caused when Peter Baldwin, a fellow member of the Labor Left, resigned to run for a federal seat. She was elected in her own right in 1984 and 1995, but retired in April 1998.
Ann was a left-winger in a party dominated by a winner-takes-all Right faction and a feminist joining a parliament where women were barely visible. Her arrival in 1982 brought the number of women in the then 44-member Legislative Council up to a resounding eight. This was better than the Legislative Assembly where two women were swamped by 97 men.
Even so the Council, which was in the final stages of transition from an appointed to an elected body, still had a reputation as something of a gentleman’s club. As a ‘socialist feminist’, who was active in the peace movement, Ann brought with her ideas and causes rarely discussed in the Council and not particularly congenial to the power brokers in her own party.
How did Ann address the double disadvantage of her faction and gender? The words ‘head on’ seem appropriate. The best introduction to her politics – and to the themes of this book – can be found in the first and last speeches she made in the Council. Her arguments remained quite consistent, but the reaction to them was strikingly different.
On 23 November 1982 she rose to make what was then called a ‘maiden speech’. Both the speech and its reception broke parliamentary conventions. New members usually spent time thanking the families, mentors and supporters who had made their arrival possible.
They were also expected to set out their political values and philosophies without engaging in full-throated attacks on those who held other values and philosophies. In return political opponents did not interject. Apparently no-one alerted the new member to these rules and her speech exploded all those conventions.
Although Ann admitted to a ‘natural trepidation’ Virginia Chadwick, watching from the benches opposite said to herself ‘She’s telling a fib. She’s not scared at all’.
Read more Ann Symonds – Introduction3 – Draft
Chapter 1. The Making of a Not-So-Accidental Politician
The first chapter will focus on Ann’s pre-parliamentary life and influences: childhood experience of poverty, Catholic education (restrictive rules but a strong social justice tradition), Teachers College, teaching career, marriage, children, involvement in community action (Bondi Pavilion etc), joining the ALP, helping to develop its childcare policies and serving on Waverley Council. All these factors helped shape the far-from-accidental politician Ann became. The chapter will also show that Ann belongs to a generation of Labor women, many of them ex-teachers who came to party politics through community – usually child-centered – activism. (Jeannette McHugh and Joan Kirner are other examples). Labor seemed their natural home, but there were always tensions.
Chapter 2. Labor Women
How did left-wing women operate in the Labor party? And what were/should be their priorities? Did they see class or gender as the primary site of inequality? This chapter discusses the role of the Labor Women’s Committee, which was an effective driver of progressive social change. At the same time the Committee continually debated that class v gender conundrum. And how does Ann’s brand of feminism work here?
Themes for following chapters
From this point various chapters will cover Ann’s work on selected issues before, during and after her parliamentary career. We have identified several themes that reflect Ann Symonds’ career, her issues and interests. They also have a wider relevance to the cause of progressive social change.
- Women’s housing and homelessness
- Children and youth (children’s services, juvenile justice)
- Women in/after prison and prisoners’ children
- Drug law reform (connected to AIDS policies)
- Violence (anti-nuclear and anti-uranium activism, gun law reform)
- Creativity and the arts
- Neoliberalism and its particular impact on women and children