Opening Speech

Commissioner Dianne Foggo

15 April 2003

President & Members of the Commission, Honoured guests and friends

It is a great honour to speak at the opening of only the second Exhibition under the auspices of the Sir Richard Kirby Archives of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The first Exhibition was released to celebrate the Centenary of Federation of Australia and this second Exhibition of the Sir Richard Kirby Archives of the Commission is titled "Women and the Commission".

Initially the Archive Committee was challenged by the title of the Exhibition: should it be Women in the Commission, which would limit the Exhibition somewhat since we have had only 20 women who have been members of the Commission since 1904 when the AIRC's predecessor commenced.

Should the Exhibition celebrate cases which have been critical to enhancing the role of women in work and establishing gains for women workers so as to overcome the discrimination between employees based on their gender?

In order to encompass a broader context in which the Commission has been involved in assessing the work done by women, the roles played by women in work, and the work of women Members of the Commission, this Exhibition attempts to show the interaction of women with, and decision made by, the Commission

Not surprisingly the evolution of the equality for women in Australian society, and it is ongoing, has its parallel in the key cases before the Commission. The Commission will continue to strive to achieve true equality for all those who fall within its jurisdiction, by virtue of the objects of the Act which directs the work of the Commission.

This Exhibition seeks to provide a representative sample of the roles of women Members in the work of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and a number of key cases affecting women workers. It features a range of historical material including photographs, correspondence, campaign materials, Commission records and an oral history interview.

Like many other Australian legal institutions, the Commission's early history was created and shaped almost exclusively by men. Like many of the institutions in this land, and lands elsewhere, the progress towards having important institutions central to the fabric of the society reflect, by composition the society itself, has been a slow process.

The first women to be appointed to the Commission in the 1970s not only provided a fresh perspective to the institution, but also acted as role models for women throughout the industrial relations field generally.

In its near century-long history the Commission - and its antecedent bodies - has seen the appointment of 20 women Members. The first, The Honourable Elizabeth Evatt, was appointed by the Whitlam Government in 1973. The only woman to be a member of the High Court of Australia, the Honourable Mary Gaudron the second women Presidential member appointment. The first woman to assume the role of President of the Commission, Deirdre O'Connor, was appointed in 1993.

Today, 30 years after the appointment of Elizabeth Evatt, 24% of the Members of the AIRC are women. While we celebrate the role of women through this Exhibition, we are mindful that there is still scope to change the legal and industrial institutions of Australia in order that they may more accurately reflect the diversity and make up of the society they serve.

The women Members today, as have women Members in the past, play key roles in conciliation, mediation and arbitration throughout all the industries which make up the industrial landscape of this country. Many more women advocates and legal practitioners now represent their parties in seeking resolution of disputes. Importantly, their focus is not only on issues particular to women but also on issues which are critical to creating equitable conditions of work and recognizing equality in work regardless of gender, so that workers may take on equal roles in family responsibilities.

The Exhibition features materials from a number of key cases including the Equal Pay cases of 1969 and 1972, Maternity leave in 1975, Family Leave and Carers' Leave in 1994/95 and the Reasonable Hours test case in 2002.

A video interview with The Hon. Judith Cohen and Ms Pauline Griffin, two early women Members of the tribunal is also included. When I say "early" Members of the tribunal, the ascension of women to this august body is so sufficiently recent that we still find our retired women Members of such sound mind and body that they are able to join us to celebrate this Exhibition. The wheels may turn slowly but it is very important that we remember where we were and how far we have come. Reason indeed for celebration.

History is very important because if we don't celebrate it and understand it we are want to ignore its lessons and repeat less than glorious mistakes, to the extent that we fail to make progress and match the aspirations of the society and our culture. In this context it is important to preserve the recollections of Commission Members so that the work of the tribunal could be brought to life for future generations.

While the Commission, and its predecessor bodies, has a rich history and its fortunes have been to varying extents supported by government, institutions, workers and their employers, all those women who have argued or sat on cases before the Commission, and those women who have played a role, however modest, in the development of strategies which have been played out in these Court rooms, should feel part of this Exhibition.

Senior Deputy President Brian Lacy, Chairman of the Commission's Archives Committee, Commissioner Greg Smith and myself, as Members of the Committee set up under the auspices of the President, have been ably and willingly assisted by Helen Coulson, Peter O'Rourke and Judy Hughes in particular along with the employees of the Registry working with Jane Gibbons. We are particularly grateful to have had the support and hard work of these people.

I can scarcely imagine that I, along with my contemporaries on the Commission, both women and men, and the people who have played a part in the deliberations of the Commission, will one day be thought of as historic relics. If we fail though to record our history, those who come after us will fail to understand the past and the history which has fashioned their contemporary lives. They will be the poorer for that.

Thank you to all of you present, and to those who are not present but whose labours and vision have been part of the endeavours before this Commission and its predecessors, in enhancing the role of women in this society. The work is not complete but we can feel some satisfaction for the work in progress.

It is with great pleasure that I declare open the Exhibition of "Women and the Commission" presented by the Sir Richard Kirby Archive of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Commissioner Dianne Foggo

15 April 2003