Jeannette McHugh

Patron of the Evatt Foundation

 

Jeannette McHugh was a Member (Australian Labor Party) of the House of Representatives in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1983 to 1996. The first woman elected to the Parliament from New South Wales, McHugh represented the electorate of Phillip (1983-93) and — after that division was abolished in a redistribution — the electorate of Grayndler (1993-96). Her greatest victory was in the 1990 election, which secured Labor's fourth consecutive term of government under the leadership of Bob Hawke. In the context of a national swing away from Labor, Jeannette increased her winning margin with the strong support of the trade union movement in a contest against the high-profile candidate from the Liberal Party, Charles Copeman, the reactionary employer in the bitter Robe River dispute of 1986.

 

It is easy to forget how scarce women once were in Australia's national parliament. 'Wendy Fatin often tells the story of how she and I asked Hansard to call us "Ms"', McHugh later recalled, 'Hansard adjusted that day and they have never failed us since. The Comcar drivers would say, "Who do you work for, love?" When you said, "I work for the electors of Phillip", with sudden deference they said, "I'm sorry, Ma'am".' 'There have been changes not only in the number of women in Parliament', Jeannette said on retiring from the House of Representatives, 'but also in lots of other things. These changes include: the provision of child-care, where there are substantially more places; anti-discrimination legislation; affirmative action legislation; more girls staying at school to year 12; more girls getting into university; and more young women getting into a wider variety of professions. The whole choice range has changed for young women. However, I have to say again, until men and women share all responsibilities and all opportunities equally — from domestic duties to running the country — we will never realise our full potential as a nation, and certainly not as a Parliament.'

 

For many years, McHugh was a leading opponent of uranium mining within the Labor Party. Between 1990 and 1992, she chaired inquiries of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts into community-based biodiversity programs, the protection of coastal environments, the performance of Australian films, and tourism in the Indian Ocean territories. From 1992 to 1996 she served in the Keating Labor Government as the Minister for Consumer Affairs, making her the first woman from New South Wales to become a federal minister. Her achievements included helping to prevent banks from discriminating against low-income earners and ensuring that consumer protection was a basic government responsibility. 'We helped to entrench the truth that basic consumer rights are basic citizens' rights', she reflected.

 

'I never thought Jeannette and I would have all that much in common after her years in the Left in New South Wales', observed then Prime Minister Paul Keating, 'but she likes me and I like her.' Kim Beazley placed McHugh 'in the category of conscience of the Labor Party'. Once explaining why she was in the Left, Jeannette said that 'it meant, first of all, Vietnam, which was something that divided the country, if you like, between Left and Right. It wouldn't now. Child-care was once a radical left-wing issue. Nuclear issues were once spoken about only by the Left. The environment was once a left-wing preserve. And I think we do lead. I think we have led in urban development, in worrying about cities and their health, in putting issues like Aboriginal affairs and women's affairs and the environment as crunch issues for the country; and in advancing issues that once one wouldn't dare talk about, like the republic. So I think we are the leaders. Although we are not always recognised, we will always be needed. I certainly will always be in the Left.' 'She has some very well-developed views', John Howard allowed when he was the leader of the Opposition, 'and I respect her for that.'

 

Jeannette (née Goffet) was born in Kandos, New South Wales, educated at the University of Sydney, and became a teacher of French and German. For many years before entering parliament, she worked on social justice issues in housing, environmental, anti-nuclear, peace and women's organisations. Her husband is the former High Court Justice Michael McHugh AC QC, and she is also the chair of the Jessie Street Trust and a board member of Hoc Mai, the Australia-Vietnam Medical Foundation.

 

Jeannette McHugh was first elected to the Evatt Foundation's Executive in 1996 and served as Secretary from 1999 to 2006. She was made a Life Member of Evatt at the AGM of 29 November 2016 and retired from the Executive in April 2018.