Ann Symonds (1939–2018): an Appreciation

Hilary Golder and Deirdre Hyslop

In tributes to the late Ann Symonds, the same two words recur: passion and persistence. Joining the Labor Party in 1967 and the Labor Women’s Committee (LWC) in the early 1970s, Ann typified a generation of activists galvanised by opposition to the Vietnam War and by second wave feminism. She was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council in the years 1982-98, part of a cohort of women politicians who brought new priorities into the party. As a feminist and member of the Labor Left for over fifty years –familiar with defeat and disappointment – Ann learned that persistence was the key to any progress on questions such as prison reform, young people’s rights and services, gun control and drug law reform. It was a quality that sometimes drove Labor colleagues to distraction.

Child care was the issue that first raised Ann’s profile in the party. In the 1970s she was both privileged and frustrated to be a ‘middle class housewife’. She had married the arts academic Maurie Symonds in 1965, becoming stepmother to Katharine, Meredith and Michael, and later mother to Rachel and David. After giving up her own teaching career she enlisted in the LWC campaign to address the complex needs of the growing number of mothers in the Australian workforce, many of them corralled in low-paid women’s jobs. The LWC was by no means the only women’s group to argue that the reformist Whitlam government was not alert to those needs: child care barely rated a mention in the party platform. What distinguished Labor women was a chance to rewrite party policy.

As usual New South Wales sent no women delegates to the party’s 1973 National Conference in Surfers’ Paradise. But Ann Symonds, Jeannette McHugh and Anne Gorman paid their own way to Surfers, bringing the child care resolution passed at the recent NSW Women’s Conference. This resolution called for a comprehensive service that would be publicly funded, needs-based and community-driven. The trio came armed with statistics on the problems of working mothers and testimony from women including horror stories of having to leave babies in their cots with a few bottles of milk. They lobbied the men so effectively that the LWC resolution was carried. The Education Minister, Kim Beazley Snr, complained that Labor policy had been hi-jacked by non-delegates ‘on the vague grounds that a lot of women want it’ (SMH, 17/7/73, p. 12). For Ann the exercise demonstrated the value of policy making that began with the lived experience of its subjects.

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Ann Symonds at ALP Conference
Source: The Politics of Social Change Foundation

The subsequent history of child care reminded her that left-wing feminists cannot rest on early victories, but have to keep fighting the same battles. She watched the growth of the ‘child care industry’ and the way both sides of politics framed the issue instrumentally as a means of increasing women’s workforce participation. In the 1990s, when the federal Labor government was determined to make public services more efficient by promoting ‘competitive neutrality’, Ann argued that the approach was especially inappropriate in areas like child care. The issue crystallised her disappointment with the neo-liberal turn in her own party, a disappointment that seeped into her last speech to the Legislative Council in 1998.

Ann’s early insight into the importance of building policy on the ‘expert’ testimony of its subjects animated her constructive work in the Council as Deputy Chair and then Chair of its Standing Committee on Social Issues (SCSI). Well-researched reports on adoption, women in prison and children of imprisoned parentsdemonstrated her continued interest in the rights of the vulnerable and her ability to find common ground across the chamber. This was evident in her energetic parliamentary after-life as she pursued the causes of prison and drug law reform.

Ann’s commitment to keeping women out of prison dated back to the1985 Women in Prison Task Force Report of which she was a co-author. For the rest of her life she worked to have its radical recommendations implemented and she was a tenacious supporter of the No Women’s Prison Campaign in 1999 conducted at the western Sydney site of the proposed new correctional centre for women.

Ann also championed the children of prisoners, those who served ‘an invisible sentence’ and were frequently overlooked in government policies and programs. In 1997 the Standing Committee on Social Issues, chaired by Ann Symonds, produced the Children of Imprisoned Parents Report that remains the key document in the field. In 2019 the Keeping Women out of Prison (KWOOP) Coalition took up the task of monitoring the progress of its recommendations.

Ann was the much-loved patron of SHINE for Kids (originally the Children of Prisoners Support Group) and energetically promoted its programs to maintain the bond between child and incarcerated parent. When a residential Mothers and Children’s Program opened in Jacaranda Cottages at Emu Plains Correctional Centre in 1996, Ann was enlisted as patron. Until her health forced her to stop in 2014, she attended monthly committee meetings to assess applications from prisoners hoping to have their children reside with them. The interests of those children were always her priority and she reminded everyone that the Corrective Services Commissioner had – and should use — the power to release mothers from custody on special licence to care for their dependent children in the community. Finally, she was involved in post-prison programs, serving on the board of Guthrie House, the not-for-profit residential service for women on probation or on parole. For Ann, this was another example of the need to listen to the real experts. Guthrie House (opened in 1979 as the Women’s Emergency Shelter and Training Scheme) was the legacy of Sandra Willson, longest serving female prisoner in NSW, who pushed government welfare agencies to fund the state’s first halfway house for female parolees.

Corrective Services NSW Women’s Advisory Council (previously Network) was re-established and Ann was its Chair. The Council included senior members of relevant state and federal government agencies, non-government organisations and academics. Ann flourished in the role, leading the Council to gain funding for research on the impact of separation of children and their mothers due to maternal incarceration as well as a study, Women as Victims Women as Offenders by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Her belief in collective action fitted well with the group who were inspired by her leadership and enthusiasm. For example, members of the Council negotiated a pilot of Victims Counselling for women and men in custody which was implemented across the state. Specific training in trauma-informed practice for Corrective Services staff also resulted from Ann’s ability to motivate people.

In 2015, three years before her death, Ann funded a scoping study for a program to keep women out of prison. The Miranda Project, with further funding from The Hon Elizabeth Evatt, was welcomed by magistrates and other representatives of the justice system. Its focus on Aboriginal women reflected Ann’s long-term concern about the scandalous over-representation of Aboriginal women in prison. NSW government funding enabled the program to be operational. Recent evaluation indicates that the project is achieving considerable success in keeping women out of prison, as Ann wished.

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Elizabeth Evatt AC (left) and Ann Symonds AO, November 2017
Together they were instrumental in establishing a successful innovative program that keeps women out of custody and with their children
Photographer: Inga Lie. Courtesy The Politics of Social Change Foundation

When Ann was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015, the citation singled out her work for drug law reform. Throughout the 1990s she was part of the campaign to shift the ‘Overton window’ that defined what was thinkable and doable in drug policy. In 1992 she issued her own report – a ‘rogue’ addendum to the SCSI report on Drug Abuse Among Youth – arguing that on-the-spot fines could be issued for possession and use of small amounts of cannabis. Next year she and Michael Moore, Independent Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly, set up the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform (PGDLR), a cross-party group who agreed that drug prohibition policies simply did not work and that harm minimisation should be the priority. This involved directing resources away from policing towards health and education. Cross-party collaboration meant that drug law reform could not be written off as a niche ‘lefty’ cause (although the Daily Telegraph did its best). In 1994 the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation was established to provide secretarial and especially research support to the PGDLR. The Foundation’s expert sub-committees – of nurses, doctors, lawyers, academics and users – demonstrated the breadth of support for reform. And research piled up evidence of which policies did and did not work around the world. Reformers, especially female reformers, always have to demonstrate that their approach is evidence-based not emotional. Ann herself built quite an extensive drug reform library and a formidable network of international contacts. She worked closely with Alex Wodak, then director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital and supported Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

Ann’s most significant contribution to harm minimisation came in 1997 when she took over as chair of the Joint Select Committee into Safe Injecting Rooms. Committee member Ian Cohen watched as this ‘very patient and determined’ reformer tried to shepherd her colleagues towards accepting safe injecting rooms as a first instalment of change. She could not persuade the majority to recommend an injecting room trial when the report was completed in 1998. Ann argued this stance contradicted the detailed evidence set out in the report, from witnesses, submissions, research papers and the Committee’s own tour of overseas injecting rooms. But she had made sure that this evidence was on the record. She did not share the pessimistic view that reports just gather dust on the shelves. When Ann Symonds died, and Penny Sharpe proposed a condolence motion in the Legislative Council on 22 November 2018, she quoted Ann:

I always say to people, ‘You have to do the best reports. Do not limit yourself in what you put in. You have to put forward what you really want, because you never know when someone will want to pick it up and do something with it.’

In fact the ground was already shifting. In 1999 Premier Bob Carr convened a Drug Summit and a group of renegades, including Alex Wodak, set up an unsanctioned injecting room, called the ‘tolerance room’, in the Wayside Chapel at Kings Cross. This short exercise in civil disobedience kept the issue of an injecting room on the agenda and the Drug Summit recommended a trial. The people who set up the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, opened in 2001, had the benefit of the Joint Committee’s report, with its discussion of costs and benefits, along with detail of possible models. It is not too much to claim that this report helped to save lives. Ann Symonds never made the front bench but she did make history.

Hilary Golder is a public historian and a long-time friend and admirer of Ann Symonds. She is currently researching Ann’s work to improve conditions for women prisoners and their children.

Deirdre Hyslop (MA MEd) worked closely with Ann Symonds in various capacities on issues relating to women in prison and their children. Deirdre was a Board member of SHINE for Kids of which Ann was Patron. As Department of Justice Principal Advisor on Women and Executive Officer of the Department’s Women’s Advisory Council, Deirdre worked very closely with Ann who was Chair from 2008 till 2013. As Chair of the Mothers and Children’s Committee, Deirdre drove Ann, the Patron, to its monthly meetings. For over seven years the journey from Macquarie Street to Emu Plains provided great opportunities for planning and developing ideas. In 2015 Ann provided initial funding for the Miranda Project, of which Deirdre is Director.