Linda White Condolence Motion




Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle—Deputy Speaker) (11:20): It's with a heavy heart, but it's a great privilege to be able to stand in this chamber to offer some reflections on the phenomenal life of the late senator Linda White. Certainly, news of her passing was devastating for everyone who knew her, and I think we can see through all of the speeches made both in the Senate and in the House today that she had a large life that impacted tens of thousands of people. I know that her passing was devastating news to everyone who had the extraordinary privilege to have known, worked with, loved and embraced Linda White. That was especially so for those of us in the Labor family, of course. You could not ask for a better comrade by your side, and Linda was incredibly smart, she was witty, she was passionate, she was determined and she was really a fearless warrior for justice—and I will come back to that a little later.

She was dedicated, absolutely, to improving the lives of Australian workers. We knew that from her entire working life. She articulated that in her first speech. It's what she practised in her daily life. She was pivotal to so many critical battles and reforms in this country, and many of them have been so beautifully articulated by the speakers on this condolence motion.

We've heard much about her time as a very young woman working for McDonald's, and, while she did not win that fight at the time, it really did prove to her the power of collectivism and what that can achieve. And that sense of love and respect for collective action is something that really drove her throughout her life, and it's something that those of us that have been in the Labor movement for a long time also share and appreciate. A common thread for those of us that sit in the Labor benches, of course, is that acute understanding of just how powerful collectivism can be—when you are able to move yourself above and beyond the individual and think about the collective good and the power of collective action.

In 2012, while she was the national secretary of the Australian Services Union, Linda led the phenomenal campaign for equal pay for more than 200,000 non-government social and community service workers across Australia. A number of my colleagues have pointed to this moment and to this really extraordinary campaign that was so successful, often known and referred to as the SACS award. You cannot overstate the significance of that moment for a group of people—mostly women, let's face it—who were mostly ignored in Australia in industrial relations disputes and in conversations in this parliament. These were women who were low paid, on the fringes, doing incredibly valuable work but mostly unseen and mostly unheard.

Linda, who was always good at being able to think big, really drove that most critical of campaigns, a very successful campaign, for equal pay. I remember Linda prosecuting this argument at Labor conferences year after year, building the case. Her work with the Australian Services Union really enabled us to break through those terrible barriers that had been in place for those women, who, as I said, were mostly ignored, were without power and seldom had their voices heard. That was, of course, the antithesis of what Linda White ever wanted to see. So it should be of no surprise to those of us who knew Linda that she would want to take on this big battle, and she did. It was a relentless campaign over six years, and it changed the equal pay laws in our nation.

A long and detailed Fair Work Commission case was put to ultimately win those pay rises of between 27 and 43 per cent, plus safety net increases that got delivered over eight years. That's what I mean about Linda White being able to think big. She was not really content about just tinkering around the edges. She didn't suffer fools, but she was patient and she knew the work that had to be done in order to win that case. If it was going to take six years or eight years, she was up to that task. We should all be very, very indebted to her for that. You really cannot understate the transformational nature of that case, which changed the lives of women workers in the community sector forever. Some extremely underpaid people saw increases of some $700 a week in their pay, which even the most optimistic of us at the time would have thought was almost an unimaginable outcome. It was indeed a tremendous victory.

Linda taught us that, if you are successful woman, you absolutely have a duty, a profound obligation indeed, to bring other women along with you. It's a great lesson to learn. It's one that I take very much to heart. She took that responsibility very seriously and fulfilled that ambition with great distinction. I note the member for Jagajaga—I was in the chamber when she was speaking earlier—acknowledged how there are many of us Labor women who would want to thank Linda for her longstanding service and her doggedness to ensure that our party changed affirmative action rules.

She, like so many of us, was so proud to serve in Australia's first majority female government. It's a little-known fact actually in this nation, but we can say thanks to Linda. She would be the first to acknowledge all the women that came before her in that fight too. I'm going to come back to just how important her role was on the national executive of the ALP and the role she took in driving Australia's affirmative action commitments over a long period of time. With her own election into the Senate in 2022, she became part of, as I said, Australia's very first majority women government to be elected. It was very fitting that the woman who drove that change for us as a party over many decades was now part of that female majority government.

I will come back to some of her great work as a senator, but I do want to touch on two aspects of Linda's work that I got to see while working in close partnership with her. I had some really wonderful insights into Linda's capacity to make profound change. One of those was actually on the floor of a national conference for the Australian Labor Party back in 2015. I hadn't had a lot to do with Linda White at that point. I'd seen her, as I said, on the floor at conferences. We were both regular attendees from our respective state and territory branches at the national conference. She was in Victoria and I was in New South Wales, so we belonged to different branches of the party, and it was at the national conference that we would really get to connect.

I had a profound interest in making sure that Labor was going to accelerate its commitment to affirmative action as quickly as it could. This is something that Linda and I often spoke about. I recall that this conference was the one where we finally got the ruling changed to ensure 50-50 female representation in all of our power structures within the party, as well as for the preselection for winnable seats. This was a big moment for the Australian Labor Party. For those who had been around this debate for a few decades, leading up to this moment, there was a little bit of frustration about not moving more quickly. Without giving away too many secrets here, I will never forget one moment when I absolutely saluted Linda White.

We had been bogged down in some very difficult negotiations—as you can imagine, across all the states and territories and all the different component parts of the Australian Labor Party—and it was very uncertain as to whether we could land the 50-50 target at this conference or not. It seems extraordinary now, in 2024, to be saying that, but it was a very, very live issue. It was pretty tense. We were in negotiations, then morning tea, then back again, then lunch. It was going on and on, and I remember walking out, feeling a little bit dispirited and wondering whether we would pull this off this time or not. I walked out with Linda and she looked at me. I won't repeat everything that was said at that moment, but it was basically: 'Enough. We're going in there. It's 50-50 or nothing, and we're going in hard.' I was like, 'Woah, okay!' It was like music to my ears. Not only was she intelligent and brilliant at negotiating, but she had the ability to empower those around her to have the strength to go in alongside her and have many of those difficult conversations that had to be had about the importance of gender equality in our world.

I have held that moment with me in many, many subsequent negotiations and efforts to ensure that our party adheres to its affirmative action principles. As I say, it's not just about having women in winnable seats so that they get elected into parliament; it's also about ensuring that the very power structures within our party are alive to the significance of gender equality and the role that women play. Like the member for Jagajaga and indeed many of us, we are deeply indebted, as those who come behind and get to benefit from the work of Linda White and all of those extraordinary women who came before us to ensure that we could get a resolution up at the 2015 national conference that established targets for positions within the party and within union delegations. This was another important skill. Linda was able to bring some authenticity to the table in encouraging union delegations to ensure that they had targets for women. She empowered the party's national executive, then, to intervene when state or territory branches didn't adhere to the rules, where they didn't preselect or hit their 50 per cent target on preselection.

For Linda, making those rule changes was really important. It ensured that they weren't just hollow words at a conference when we got up to speak at the lectern, or, indeed, standing in parliament—that you did the hard yards. It ensured that we had real rules and regulations, with sanctions if they were not met. That was the work of Linda White, who moved that motion in the 2015 national conference, and it was Linda White that gave all of us the strength and courage to stand up and say, 'Enough. Enough is enough.' So, Linda, your legacy in that regard will live for many, many decades to come, and we are really, deeply indebted to you.

The second piece of work that I got to do with Linda White was here, in this place. Again, I'm going to refer to party business. I was asked by the Prime Minister to head up a working group to revisit the Labor Party's policies around sexual harassment, bullying and harassment. I was very fortunate to have some remarkable people on this working group, but you won't be surprised to hear that the national executive representative was Senator Linda White. I couldn't have been more pleased to be able to get to work with Linda on the next stage of our work together to ensure that not only did we have gender equity within our party but also that our party would be a safe and respectful place for women to participate at every level.

It was a very big body of work. It took a couple of years. For those that may not have a deep appreciation of the way that political parties operate, the Australian Labor Party is a federated party, a bit like this parliament. Federation means you've got to do a lot of negotiation across a lot of state and territory branches. I've got to say there were a lot of people who doubted this was even possible. Linda, of course, was one of those women you need by your side at that moment because she utterly believed in this project. She believed that no legitimate political party in 2022—it was at that time—could proceed without having codes of conduct and rules in place that were fit for purpose, ensuring that our party was leading efforts to ensure best practice.

There were four documents created. I cannot tell you how proud she was. Again, when everyone suggested that it was going to be an impossible task, it was Linda's drive and determination—and her reminding me constantly that this is our window of opportunity; this is our moment to get this done—that really helped sustain me and many others on the committee to ensure that we didn't waste our time, we didn't waste our duty, and that this body of work was completed. Linda felt that as strongly as I did.

Whilst I got to chair and often speak and do a lot of the front-leaning work, I could not have done it without Linda White. With her knowledge of national executive operations and of the way that all of the state and territory branches operate, she was critical in always sustaining me and others on the committee in having the hard conversations, the hard talks, that had to take place. But it comes of no surprise that she was somebody who had, all her life, championed safe, inclusive and respectful workplaces, and she proactively sought to prevent discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying wherever it lived. So of course she was going to be someone on the frontlines of making sure that we clean our own house up as a party before ensuring that we do so on the national stage, in legislation that would come before our respective houses here.

Linda, through her work with the ASU, was instrumental in the campaign around paid family and domestic violence leave. It was wonderful that that legislation got passed while she was here in the Senate. Likewise, she understood well that there was not just a gender pay gap that we had to tackle in Australia but a super gap as well—and a big one, and one that was growing. She said in her first speech:

Superannuation is yet another area where women get a raw deal.

And, my God, she was so on the money again. Of course she was right. The gap in retirement savings between women and men is greater than the gender pay gap. We know there's at least a 25 per cent difference in those balances now. She campaigned fearlessly for reform while she was with the ASU, and she would have been so gratified to see Labor announce superannuation on paid parental leave, which occurred sadly just days after her passing.

In spite of all of Linda's achievements—and I have only just touched on a few and on ones that were meaningful to me—we know Linda would have had a list as long as could be of all the things she still wanted to do. She loved to contribute. She was a solid worker and one that never lost sight of that big picture.

My thoughts are especially with Linda's beloved brother, Michael; her extended family; and her staff, who spoke so highly of her and admired her so deeply. She spoke so highly of them, and they admired her so deeply in return, and I don't underestimate the challenge that is there for all of her staff now. They are hurt and they are grieving. I really want to acknowledge Ben Armstrong, who has had to bear a lot in these last few weeks; the remainder of Linda's staff, Ekta, Ned, Ead and Amit; and all of her comrades who worked by her side, whether it was at the Australian Services Union or it was in the very broad Labor Party in which she played a role in for so many decades.

We have lost a good human in Linda White, and our hearts are heavy. But we are forever grateful for her selfless service, for her leadership, for her big thinking, for her courage, and there is no doubt that we are all very much richer for having had Linda in our lives. Vale, Linda White. You will be missed.