The deaths of major public figures are a time for reflection, not just on their own roles but on their era.
Recent weeks have seen the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court, and here in Australia the deaths of former NSW premier and federal finance minister John Fahey and former ACT senator Susan Ryan.
On the world stage, Ginsburg's death is the more significant, now caught up in the battle by Donald Trump to replace her, with implications not just for the US presidential election but for decades to come for the Supreme Court. However the Australians were also exemplary leaders, and faced somewhat similar issues.
Ryan, born in 1942, emerged from the women's movement and entered the Senate at the 1975 elections. A feminist and abortion rights activist, she was the minister for education and minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women in the Hawke government, and the first ever female Labor minister. Her proudest parliamentary achievement was the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, which declared illegal all discrimination based on gender, marital status or pregnancy. Later she sponsored the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act.
Although she left Parliament in 1988, she remained a public figure throughout her life in a variety of senior government and non-government roles, most recently serving as the federal Age Discrimination Commissioner. She fought for an Australian Bill of Rights and, as deputy chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000 to 2003, for an Australian head of state. She was widely admired on both sides of politics for paving the way for justice and parliamentary representation for women.
Fahey, born in 1945, shared Ryan's Irish-Catholic background, but not her party politics. He entered the NSW Parliament as a Liberal in 1984 and became the state's premier, succeeding Nick Greiner, in 1992. During his premiership, Sydney won the right to hold the Sydney Olympic Games - and he had chaired the bid team. Switching to federal politics, Fahey served as finance minister from 1996 in the new Howard government, becoming one of the few to have had successful senior careers in both state and federal politics.
Fahey, like Ryan, was a committed republican. His office became an incubator for the ARM leadership at a time when his party was seriously divided over the issue. Greg Barns, campaign director for the Yes case during the 1999 referendum, was his chief of staff, and another of his staff members, Marise Payne, now Foreign Affairs Minister, was Ryan's predecessor as deputy chair of the ARM under Malcolm Turnbull's leadership.
Fahey, too, made a major post-parliamentary contribution, after his retirement in 2001. Two of his causes were sport - especially rugby league - and his church, and he served both at the highest levels. He became a director of the Bradman Foundation, president of the World Anti-Doping Authority in 2007, a commissioner of the National Catholic Education Commission and chancellor of the Australian Catholic University in 2014.
For all that united them socially but divided them politically, Ryan and Fahey walked different paths as far as their church and their faith were concerned.
Ryan was educated by the Brigidine Sisters at Maroubra, and retained great affection for them. She credited them with her commitment to gender equality and social justice. She learned from the nuns that St Brigid was the equal of St Patrick as patron saint of Ireland. But not long after she left school, she parted ways with her church - unable, like many Catholic women of her generation, to reconcile her personal beliefs with the demonstrably unequal role of women in the church and its opposition to contraception and abortion. Broadly speaking, she remained a member of the Irish-Catholic tribe and, where possible, sought common cause on issues like human rights.
Fahey, a New Zealander by birth, was educated by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart at Chevalier College in Bowral. He remained faithful to his church throughout his lifetime, once training for a short time to be a priest, and keeping his rosary beads either in his hand or in his pockets for use at times of crisis or big decisions. He was a Liberal moderate committed to sexual equality, while remaining absolutely opposed to abortion and euthanasia. He was praised by the church for his service and orthodox faith, and in 2019 was honoured by Pope Francis with the award of the Knight Grand Cross of St Gregory the Great.
The lives of Ryan and Fahey may seem worlds away from each other and that of Bader Ginsburg, but all three were indefatigable in pragmatically working for justice through institutions, the former two in politics and later public life, the latter in the law as an advocate and for almost three decades in the US Supreme Court itself. Ryan and Bader Ginsburg were trailblazers for the right of women to equality and walked this path one step at a time - compromising where necessary, always with the long-term bigger picture in mind.
Fahey, an orthodox Catholic and a moderate in a conservative party, was resolutely opposed to the abortion rights element of what Bader Ginsburg and Ryan stood for. In the USA, such differences of opinion are mired in culture wars around church-state relations. Australia is certainly not immune to such toxic cultural warfare, but it is fortunate that leaders like Ryan and Fahey can hold deep differences while working side by side for other important shared causes.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.