Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s parting words on Saturday morning, announcing her resignation from Labor’s front bench and plans to leave politics, will reinvigorate the next set of female political candidates.
“Whilst it’s time for me to retire from politics, I do want to say to the next generation that they should think about public service,” Roxon said during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
“It is an enormously rewarding opportunity to fight for things that you believe in, and particularly for women I want to say that they should think about it. They can do it. It’s been proved, and we need you, and I hope that people will see this as an opportunity to think about moving into politics, not to think that it’s too difficult for them to do.”
Her words are certainly true, as we’ve seen from the gains that have been made – and continue to be made – by the women of Roxon’s generation.
Roxon entered parliament with Julia Gillard in 1998, along with current Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, shadow foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, and Speaker of the House Anna Burke. The number of women in Federal Parliament took a dramatic step forward during this time, jumping from 10% in 1993 to 25.4% following the 1998 election.
While there are still gains to be made across politics and government for women, Roxon’s 15 years in politics – including her time as health minister and Attorney-General – shows that limitations for women are breaking down. The hard work of government is no longer a man’s game.
Roxon is a global leader in health law reform. While her policies were sometimes controversial, Roxon was prepared to consult and gauge public opinion on issues of broad concern.
Her policy stances included her public battle with the tobacco giants, hospital reform and raising the excise on the contentious “alcopops” tax. More recently she’s led on anti-discrimination law reform and the Royal Commission Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse as Attorney-General.
As health minister she oversaw a $60 billion organisation and became something of a peacemaker in Commonwealth-state relations. She then steered the government through the courts over tobacco packaging as Attorney-General. As the top government lawyer she brought a female voice to Defence and the ADF.
Roxon is an important feminist of our time. While the two appointments she made to the High Court during her time as Attorney-General were both men, they were appointments made on merit not gender lines, and they were supported by leading academics and analysts.
Roxon’s upbringing and early career was an indication of what was to come. The niece of ground-breaking journalist and author Lillian Roxon, she was an associate to our first female Justice of the High Court Mary Gaudron, and has been advocating for more women in senior roles since her maiden speech.
As Roxon begins to adjust to life out of politics, she will be the inspiration for the next generation of female politicians and lawyers. She made it to the top of her game and instigated the changes she wanted, and those that were needed.
We can take a lot from Roxon’s time in parliament. Whatever side of politics you support, Roxon was a leader and a fighter. Roxon had direction on what she wanted to achieve in parliament, and her support for women was central to that.