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.
The book, the research and the archives
Noted professional historian, Dr Hilary Golder has been commissioned to write the book about Ann Symonds’ political career. It will be available online, with excerpts released along the way on this website.
Hilary Golder has been engaged to research and write about Ann’s political life in and out of parliament. She was able to talk to Ann about her experiences and is interviewing others with recollections of Ann’s contributions to social change in a range of areas.
Her research will also involve analysis of primary and secondary sources including material from the NSW Parliament and government departments, the ALP, social justice organisations and the media.
A major resource is the extensive archive documenting Ann’s political work. Dr Golder is ideally placed to undertake the disposal, arrangement and description of the 90 boxes of Ann’s records.
This is a major undertaking which enables Hilary not only to write Ann’s story but also to create an invaluable archive to be deposited in a public library where future scholars will be able to discover the details of a life devoted to social change.
By focusing on issues – before, during and after Ann’s parliamentary career – the book will highlight the contemporary relevance of her career. It 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
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.
In the beginning: The Making of a Not-So-Accidental Politician
Ann Symonds described herself an accidental politician and, when she arrived in the Legislative Council to fill a casual vacancy, some of her Labor colleagues were inclined to agree. Who was this housewife from the affluent Eastern Suburbs of Sydney? Barney French, MLC, heard her fighting ‘maiden’ speech and wondered aloud ‘What would you know about the workers?’ Ann’s male colleagues soon discovered that she was no privileged newcomer parachuted into a Council seat, but her path to Labor activism had been rather different from their own.
Women in Prisons Chapter
This is very much a work in progress. There is more editing to do and the in-text notes will eventually be transformed into endnotes.
This text is the first half of what will be a very long chapter reflecting Ann Symond’s long commitment to prison reform). It may seem perverse to post something unfinished. But online publishing allows authors to ask for feedback and assistance. I drafted most of this account of Ann’s work in isolation. First there were three lockdowns and now my access to sources has been curtailed by my role as a carer. I have Ann’s papers and her taped interviews but I need to talk to other people, both supporters and critics of her approach. I would welcome suggestions about contacts and alternative sources, as well as criticism of the text so far. I am quite prepared to be told where and how I have got things wrong.
Chapter 2 – Part 1 – Women in Prisons
When Ann Symonds became a Labor MLC in September 1982 she chose to join the three caucus sub-committees that focused on Women, the Arts and Corrective Services. She remembered that there was little competition for the last assignment: more ambitious members of caucus tended to see Corrective Services as a grim backwater.
By 1982, however, overcrowding and lack of services in women’s prisons were demanding a response. The activists of Women Behind Bars – ex-prisoners, lawyers and students – had been disappointed by the major review of the New South Wales prison system conducted by Justice J F Nagle in that late 1970s.
In Nagle’s report women’s experience of incarceration was subsumed into that of the male majority, except for one brief chapter that acknowledged problems ‘peculiar to women’ such as a lack of appropriate medical care.
Themes to be explored
From this point we 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 in/after prison and prisoners’ children
- Drug law reform (connected to AIDS policies)
- Women’s housing and homelessness
- Children and youth (children’s services, juvenile justice)
- Violence (anti-nuclear and anti-uranium activism, gun law reform).