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Curtin--One of Labor's Great Leaders

It is a humbling experience to be here today as the Member for Fremantle. It can sometimes be a little daunting when I consider the great Labor figures who have also had the privilege of representing the people of Fremantle--John Dawkins, Kim Beazley Senior, and the man we are all honouring this morning--John Curtin.

John Curtin, I think we would all agree, is one of Australia's great Prime Ministers and one of Labor's great leaders.

Elected Prime Minister without a majority in either House, Curtin led Australia through a very difficult period in our history--the Japanese Army were waging war in the Pacific and a constant threat to Australian security; the threat was considered all the more acute because Great Britain was unable to assist.

Every Australian was in some way affected by the war effort. Curtin felt personally responsible for Australian troops abroad and for the burden the war placed on the average Australian. It was not an easy to time to be a politician, let alone Prime Minister. He once went to a party meeting having not slept for days thinking about the thousands of troops on the water without any protection.

The Parliament Curtin led was full of great personalities and Labor legends, men like Ben Chifley, Frank Forde, Doc Evatt, Jack Beasley, Eddie Ward, Arthur Calwell and Billy Scullin. His Parliament also boasted the first woman member of the House of Representatives-Dame Enid Lyons.

Dorothy Tangney, a Western Australian, was the first Senator.

While talent abounded in Curtin's Parliament, his abilities were highly regarded. Fred Daly wrote that Curtin was the "best speaker that he had ever heard in Parliament...a magnificent orator, fluent, emotional, sincere and convincing."

Fred Daly should know--he sat in Parliament for 32 continuous years.

John Curtin was always a pioneer. Along with being the first West Australian MP to become Prime Minister of Australia, he was one of the first political leaders in this country to support equality between men and women.

As one of his biographers, Irene Dowsing, tells us, "as long as he could remember he had thought of women as men's equal, never his subordinate, entitled to equal civil rights including equal pay for equal work."

Women's Roles and Expectations

The upheavals caused by war were to have a lasting impact on Australian society, particularly women's roles and expectations and John Curtin's policies contributed to these changes.

From 1941 under John Curtin's leadership, women joined the industrial and agricultural workforce to "attain the scale of production approved as a war objective". In unprecedented numbers, women moved into areas that had been closed to them. Women worked as aircraft mechanics, x-ray technicians, meteorological assistants, instrument repairers, telegraphic operators and drivers. John Curtin was really one of the first foremen who enabled women to take on non-traditional occupation.

It was a period of great change for many women as they took on roles that had barely been imaginable, let alone possible. We are all familiar with the images of women working in factories, driving tractors, and tilling the land. Women's expectations shifted as they learned new skills and took on unexpected challenges.

In 1943, John Curtin said in a Women's Weekly interview about women's wartime role: "The home remains her citadel, but the factory and the workshop have become her arena." He said that when the war was over "most women will ultimately be absorbed into the home."

As we know this marked yet another turning point for Australian women as they were expected to make way for returning ex-servicemen, resourceful, and ingenious in a wide range of occupations and situations. These changing expectations mark a significant shift in the social fabric of this country.

This year's centenary of women's suffrage is opportunity for us to examine the past and to look to the future and to map new political goals for women. One important area in need of review I believe is how we balance work and family. This is an issue which impacts on both women and men.

We have seen huge technological change in our time--labour saving devices, fast foods, smaller families--a whole lot of social pressures have contrived, if you like, to produce benefits for men and women alike, that have changed the way our society functions, I think irrevocably.

If you'll forgive me, I'll indulge in a personal anecdote because I think the experience of my generation is very typical of the experience of a great many Australians. Like many of my generation, I was born mid-century--a postwar, post-Depression baby, arriving into an expanding economy and what appeared, on the face of it, to be settled social values.

In that time education was seen as something that happened before you got married-for women particularly. Women were still expected to resign from work when they got married and got pregnant. At the time you couldn't take out a contract or a loan in your own right as a married woman and there was very limited access to tertiary education.

Many of those life certainties, as they might have appeared, have now exploded.

Married women, as you know, have increasingly found employment outside the home, some 53% of married women do work outside the home compared with 29% in 1966. And around 50% of married women have returned to work by the time their youngest child has entered school--so even when they're not in the workforce when their children are young, they typically return.

Now clearly a lot of these changes have produced tangible benefits for women and their families, but they have also produced significant social tensions-and nowhere is this more evident, perhaps, than in the workplace.

Now those tensions exist not least because women and men both try and squeeze themselves into social structures that were designed for, and by, an earlier age.

The Need for Change in the Work Place

Our work places are, I think, struggling with the social and economic changes of the last two decades and I think we now need to respond to those pressures in order to get a better economic performance out of all of us, men and women alike. More productive and I think more efficient work places will respond to those changed needs and some, of course, have.

But a lot of our work places are still organised around a fairly outmoded model of work and family life. And the stresses and difficulties that a lot of working families face when they're trying to balance work and family life reflect either a profound ignorance, but more precisely, I think, an ignoring of the changes that have taken place in the family and in the work place in the past 20 years.

It's a bit of fiction for instance that you don't have any family responsibilities and therefore don't need time off from time to time to look after a sick child for instance.

Traditional assumptions about the structure of the family, the roles of its members and patterns of decision-making clearly don't apply anymore. And there are a lot of female-headed households for instance--the majority of which are amongst the most poor and disadvantaged. So even the idea of family has been blown apart.

Now in some respects we might resent and be disappointed by those changes. I think there are those in the community who feel that way, but the changes have occurred and they're not likely to be reversed. And these stresses of balancing work and family life exist for all workers, right from the chief executive in a relatively plush boardroom to workers on the less plush shop floor. And I think all of us have to modify our behaviour and our work places in order to accommodate what is a social reality.

For instance 40% of workers have dependent children under the age of 14. That means they are going to have those family responsibilities, they're going to need to make a phone call from time to time, they're going to have to have a more flexible set of working arrangements because of those responsibilities.

And many workers have responsibilities other than the day-to-day care of children. Elderly parents--we're an aging community and there's an expectation, which is being met by the way, that families take more care of their own relatives with some sort of community support, because their parents are saying "We don't want to be in institutional care. We want to have our family, in part, care for us."

So despite the stereotype, ours is not a rejecting society, and in fact, a great many families have additional responsibilities beyond their dependent children. One recent study, to give you the feel for it, suggested that 58% of employees take time off work in a 12 month period to care for family members, so it's happening.

Juggling work and family can clearly be a very difficult balancing act at the best of times, even when everybody is healthy. But it becomes a nightmare when one family member gets sick or is disabled in some way.

Some of you may be aware of a study that was commissioned by the Department of Industrial Relations last year which found the most common reason for parents missing work was to care for sick children. The second most common reason was to provide care during school holidays-again something that we haven't really taken account of in our work structure.

Interestingly, women and men take the same average number of days off work to fulfil family responsibilities. Mothers are more likely to take time off to look after sick children and I think if you look at a range of studies you'll find typically women take time off to look after their families rather than for themselves and that can sometimes lead to some unfortunate consequences when they are actually ill.

Unfortunately a lot of work places still operate on the presumption that there's someone at home to look after these ill children or children who have holidays and other needs. And it's a situation that doesn't leave working parents with many options.

A significant number of employees currently use their own sick leave, as I just suggested, to deal with family responsibilities and clearly I think we need to regularise some of the existing arrangements rather than pretend that they're not doing that.

But having said that, clearly work and family are dynamic and changing concepts. Both are integral to most women's lives and most workers' lives. People want to be able to do both, they want to have a reasonable accommodation between the demands of work and the demands of family. And anyone who in the contemporary environment tries to promote the split between women in the work force and women in the home, doesn't understand the lives of Australian women today.

Because many of us are still being confronted by the stark choice of career on the one hand and family on the other--that's the way it feels--but few are making that choice. Even if it's for a brief period, the majority of women when they stay home, they stay briefly and then return to the work place.

Women aren't prepared to make the choice anymore, neither are their partners and husbands. They want to be able to retain their caring roles while making a productive input to the work place and enjoying the fruits of promotion and improving their status in the work place.

The Challenge for the Future

So that is the challenge I think we face as a community. We have to face the future and actively challenge those structures, to challenge the institutions and the attitudes that constrain us from fulfilling the different and varied roles we have to play, whether it's caring or career or both simultaneously.

Now in Government we've clearly recognised the need for change. We haven't necessarily responded to it in every field, but by ratifying the ILO convention which recognises the needs of workers with family responsibilities, we've set ourselves a goal, a framework within which to improve the extent to which we are responding to those needs.

Child-care places is an obvious example-increased fivefold from 46,000 in 1983 to 240,000 in 1994. And we aim to meet all work related child care demand by 2001 and we're well on the way to doing that.

We've also introduced the child-care cash rebate which you'd be aware of. For the first time child-care is being recognised as a legitimate, work-related expense and parents, as you know, are now entitled to a 52-week period of unpaid parental leave so they can make some of those adjustments in the care of a new baby.

Interestingly, I think women may end up leading the campaign for workplace reform--not because it's only women who serve to gain from it, but because they, at the moment, pay the highest price. Men I think have a lot to gain too. And, most significantly, so do the children of future generations.

Our party is leading the challenge in this whole area. The Labor Party is the party of reform--economic, social and political.

This was once again demonstrated at the recent National Conference when delegates voted to change the party's rules to ensure women were put forward as candidates for at least 35% of winnable seats by the year 2002. This was an historic decision and ensures the Labor Party will continue to be the party best able to respond to our ever changing world.

Australia during Curtin's Prime Ministership faced many military, social and economic challenges. Despite the constraints of the time, the Curtin Government was committed to preparing Australia for the challenges of peace time.

In 1944, the Pharmaceutical Benefits, or free medicine Bill as it was known, was introduced. The medical profession vigorously opposed it and challenged the legislation which was declared invalid in the High Court.

It wasn't until 1949, after Labor's defeat, that the medical profession co-opted with the Menzies Government to implement this important safety net.

Curtin's postwar planning also saw the Sickness and Unemployment Benefit Bill introduced, pay-as-you-earn taxation introduced and passed in Parliament.

Curtin's policies were aimed at winning the war, but he never lost sight of the important reforms Labor governments should introduce. Today we are faced with many challenges and uncertainties. John Curtin, the great Labor Prime Minister, and let's not forget, Member for Fremantle, should be an inspiration to all of us who are committed to seeing our society adapt to our ever changing needs

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