Women Say Something: Generations of Women

(7pm, Friday 15 February 2013, Paddington Town Hall)

Thank you, [MC] and good evening, everyone. 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.

I also acknowledge Christine Milne, Claudia Karvan, co-convenors Pete Urmson and Siri Kommedahl, Member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich and Deputy Lord Mayor Robyn Kemmis.

I congratulate Steph and the Mardi Gras Women's Committee for this forum which sold out in three minutes, three months prior to the event—the City was pleased to offer Paddington Town Hall as a venue.

It's important that Women Say Something and even more important that Women Do Something.

It can be risky, it might interfere with our plans or our daily routine, and if it's important enough it will almost inevitably force us out of our comfort zone.

Years ago I did something risky and right out of my comfort zone and experience. It completely changed the direction of my life. As a mother at home for the first time in my life with two small children, I found my Redfern neighbourhood in a run-down state with fast-moving traffic in every street and local children's playgrounds in a derelict state.

I tried saying something and I wrote to my state and local representatives who either didn't understand the problem or who flicked me onto some other uninterested authority or bureaucrat.

So then I did something, I walked the streets and gathered community support and ultimately founded Redfern Community concern. "You speak for us," the Greek neighbours said, "you be our voice."

And then I did something that a lot of people said was really crazy! Without any background in politics and in the shadow of inner city "tammany hall" politics (Peter Baldwin the federal Labor Member had just been bashed), I stood for and was elected to the South Sydney Council.

The following year, Council was amalgamated into the City, and my actions on Council must have resonated with residents because in 1984 I was re-elected together with a fellow women independent, giving us majority representation in the hitherto all Labor Redfern Ward.

I was devastated when in 1987 the Council was sacked by the State Government for political reasons. And It wasn't enough just to speak out about the outrageous manipulation of a democratic institution, so I did something. I stood for the 1988 State election as an Independent and became a Member of the NSW Parliament, first as the Member for Bligh and latterly as the Member for Sydney.

I was, as you know, forced to resign as a result of predatory legislation passed by the O'Farrell government last year.

I couldn't have envisaged it in the early days of "will I" or "won't I", that I would leave Parliament as the longest serving woman and the longest serving Independent in the history of the New South Wales Parliament.

When making your decision to speak out and do something you've got to ignore the negativity and the naysayers, and just go for it. I don't know how many people told me that it was not possible to get elected as an Independent and then, even if I was elected, I wouldn't achieve anything.

But I found I could achieve a great deal by directly representing and focusing on my community as a hard working local member, and I achieved a swing of 16 per cent at the next election (even though my electorate at that time included conservative voting areas like, Point Piper, Double Bay and parts of Bellevue Hill!).

And then in1991-1995, I held the balance of power in NSW Parliament, together with John Hatton and Peter McDonald, and we were able to do something! We negotiated much needed reform.

Our ground-breaking Charter of Reform introduced four-year fixed parliamentary terms and greater independence of the judiciary.

We achieved the Royal Commission into police corruption; whistle-blower protection; increased independence of the Ombudsman and Auditor-General and establishment of a Legal Services Commissioner.

These reforms were described as the most progressive in any Westminster system in the twentieth century—reforms that no major party would initiate without being forced to.

During that period, I also introduced three private member's bills that became law—one in particular will interest you. Homophobia was rife at that time and my anti-vilification legislation making it illegal to incite hatred of gay men and lesbians, was critical. I remember the pathetic scene of Fred Nile leaving hospital in his pyjamas in a wheelchair so that he could filibuster and vote against the bill.

Recent publicity at the renewed investigation into the 1988 death of Scott Johnson off Manly highlights how far we have come. The widespread discrimination and violence that so many gay people experienced demanded action.

In 2010 I successfully introduced legislation for same sex adoption, after having failed to get these changes passed a decade before in 2000. That bill passed in a nail-biting conscience vote, and now children can be adopted by both their parents if they are in a same-sex relationship.

I believe that if you do something and persist, you can get change.

But you can't rest on your laurels either.

In 2004, South Sydney Council and the City of Sydney were again sacked and amalgamated in what was a blatant attempt by State Labor to take control of our city.

Without any idea of ever returning to Town Hall, I was approached by a team of like-minded independents to stand as Lord Mayoral candidate and promote strong community leadership for our city. So it was decision time again. Will I or won't I do something?

It was the best decision and it has been an exciting challenge to steer our beautiful city forward over the past eight years.

In consultation with you we've set a pathway for the future with our action plan Sustainable Sydney 2030 with emphasis on our environmental challenges and responsibilities which include the use of LED lighting and solar panels and tri-generation precincts.

We've developed a new City Plan for the expanded LGA and we are beautifying our city villages.

And we do things like create wonderful parks and community gardens and well designed facilities.

We've campaigned for small bars, introduced bike lanes, and provide affordable spaces for artists and digital innovators. And we do much more.

I surmise that if I hadn't been motivated to do something about my local Redfern playground all those years ago, I wouldn't be here now as Lord Mayor doing the big stuff for Sydney.

So thank you again for this opportunity to welcome you all here tonight.

I conclude by saying it's important to say something and it's even more important to do something.

Have a happy Mardi Gras!