International Women's Day ATO Morning Tea

(10am, 8 March 2013, Australian Tax Office, Goulburn Street)

Thank you, Deborah [Vegar, MC], and good morning, everyone. Happy International Women's Day!

I'd like firstly to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who live in our City.

On International Women's Day I also acknowledge some of the amazing women who are showing the way - a stand out for me is Aung San Suu Kyi, that steadfast woman of principle holding out for democracy in one of the world's most repressive regions.women are now playing their role in every aspect of life - we have medical researchers, lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats, bus drivers and over 50 per cent of the Tax Office staff - all women.

I want to start by talking about taking a stand and getting involved. The decision to take a stand / get involved can be risky, it might interfere with your daily routine, and if it's important enough, it will almost inevitably force you out of your comfort zone.

Years ago I did something risky, something right out of my experience and comfort zone - and it completely changed the direction of my life.

As a mother at home with two small children, I was dismayed that my Redfern neighbourhood was so run-down, with fast moving traffic in every street and children's playgrounds that were derelict and dangerous.

I wrote to my state and local representatives who either didn't get the problem or who flicked my letter onto some uninterested bureaucrat.

So then I did something. I went round to my neighbours, gathered community support, and ultimately founded Redfern Community concern. "You be our voice," my Greek neighbours mainly women urged.

And without any background in politics, and despite the recent bashing of a Federal Labor member, I stood for the Labor dominated South Sydney Council.

South Sydney and Sydney City councils had long been political playgrounds - being amalgamated or hived off or dismissed according to the political needs of whichever of the major parties held power in Macquarie Street.

I'd only been at South Sydney a year when it was amalgamated into the City, and four years later I was re-elected, together with another woman independent.

Three years after that, in the worst style of Tammany Hall politics, the Council was sacked by the State Government.

I was so angry at this blatantly undemocratic act that I stood for the 1988 State election as an Independent, becoming first the Member for Bligh and then latterly, when boundaries were changed, the Member for Sydney.

Then, in 2004 the wheel came full circle and South Sydney Council and the City of Sydney were both sacked and amalgamated in another attempt by the NSW Labor Government to take control of our city, and despite my Parliamentary commitments, when I was urged by a team of like-minded independents to stand as the Lord Mayoral candidate to provide community leadership for Sydney, I agreed - at first reluctantly.

Our election has given us great opportunities to improve life for our residents, our businesses and our visitors. We've set a visionary long term plan for our city which we are implementing.

We've beautified the city villages, created a series of award-winning parks and community gardens, and provided design leadership in award-winning buildings like the Surry Hills Library and Community Centre. We've campaigned for small bars, introduced bike lanes, and provided affordable spaces for creatives and digital start-ups. We provide great services and a strong financial position - no debt.

And if I hadn't taken action over my local Redfern playground all those years ago, I wouldn't have had the chance to do what I do great things for our city.

When I was forced to choose between Parliament and the City by the Coalition O'Farrell government last year, I left Parliament as the longest-serving woman, and the longest-serving Independent in the history of the NSW Parliament.

Yet I had been told continually, from those first days in Redfern, that it was not possible to get elected as an Independent, that I needed a party machine behind me, and even if I was elected, I wouldn't be able, as an Independent, to achieve anything.

But I found I could achieve a great deal by working hard for my community and representing them in Parliament.

And when, from 1991-1995, together with John Hatton and Peter McDonald, I held the balance of power in the NSW Parliament our ground-breaking Charter of Reform introduced fixed, four-year parliamentary terms and greater independence for the judiciary; achieved a Royal Commission into police corruption; protection for whistle-blowers; increased independence for the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General and the establishment of a Legal Services Commission.

These reforms were described as the most progressive in any Westminster system in the 20th century.

I introduced private member's bills that became law, or were included in government legislation, including anti-vilification legislation making it illegal to incite hatred against gay men and women; to allow for same-sex couples to adopt; to reduce costs on boarding houses and extend land tax exemptions to other low cost accommodation.

Other successful Parliamentary Members Bills kept the former showground in public ownership, providing vital revenue for the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust; opened government contracts with private companies to public scrutiny; and ended Kings Cross streets being used as de facto car sales yards.

My South East Forests protection bill and small bars bill were later included in NSW government legislation, while my Significant Personal Relationships Bill was a model for Tasmanian and Victorian law reform, ahead of the current campaign or equal marriage rights. Achievements in a Parliament dominated by major political parties and with my beginnings so unlikely.

This year, the theme for International Women's Day has been set as "The gender agenda: gaining momentum", whilst the ATO's own theme is "Youth and the next generation of leaders."

And looking around this audience, I can see plenty of talented young women who I hope will emerge as leaders for your generation.

Here in Australia, women still face inequalities in less privileged pockets of our society; there is still the well-documented disparity in incomes; there is still the residual misogyny and resentment against women, seen perhaps most overtly in denigration of the Prime Minister as a woman, while the Coalition Government in the NSW Parliament has 69 out of the 93 members, but only 9 women!

We can hardly believe what is happening in other countries - the recent horrific rape case in India. In South Africa, on average, a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by her partner or relative. Female genital mutilation is still practised in many societies.

In our own region, there are women who struggle to feed their children, who struggle for clean water, or for an education, or for their voices to be heard.

In my first election for State Parliament my Liberal opponent put a full page ad in the Wentworth Courier saying "Bligh needs a man for the job". I put an ad in the following week saying "the best man for the job is a woman"!

I won.

So that's the thought I'll leave with you today - anything is possible. Each of us has something to contribute and each of us has to work out what it is, and how, together, we can build a more just, equal and sustainable world.

Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today to celebrate International Women's Day!