By Alison Humphry

10 January 2024

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you Freda for your Welcome to Country.  I acknowledge that we are meeting on the lands of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation and that these lands were never ceded. I pay my respects to elders past and present, and I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.


Thank you, Dave, and to the Australia Awards – South Asia and Mongolia team for inviting me to speak at this year’s Scholars Symposium. The theme of this Symposium is leadership and change making, and I have been invited to speak with you about my experience if leadership and changemaking, particularly for women.


I stand before you all today as the first Labor female President of the Australian Senate. In my role as President, I have the opportunity to model respectful debate and discussion in the Senate chamber. If anyone has watched Senate Question Time, you’ll know that this is no easy task.


What drives me are my values of equality, fairness and feminism. These are values that I have embodied throughout my career and especially in leadership positions I’ve held.


My first lesson in equality was taught to me inadvertently by my grandmother who always gave my brother more pocket money than me. When I protested this unfairness, Nana always responded that he got more because he was a “boy.” 


The other lesson she inadvertently taught me was about fairness.  We often had prunes and custard as a dessert, and we’d line the prune seeds up at the end of our desert and count them.  Yep, you guessed it, Bill always got more prunes than me!  Of course, I would loudly protest this unfairness to my grandmother and got a similar response to the pocket money story.  It was prunes and pocket money which started me on my journey of equality, fairness and feminism.


Finding myself at 21 bored with 2 children, I took myself back to high school, graduated year 12 and went off to Murdoch University to undertake a degree in education. 


Now none of that early feistiness had really disappeared but university life enabled to put that energy into protesting nuclear ships, the franklin dam, and Aboriginal rights.  Through social history I learnt the truth about the colonisation of this country, the marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and what when we colonised this country had taken away and refused to recognise.


I embodied my desire for changemaking in the Union Movement. As Assistant State Secretary of the United Workers Union, I led a campaign to increase the pay of education assistants. Education assistants at the time, and still are predominantly women, and First Nations women.


At the time, unions were a very male dominated workspace, it was my mentor and former State Secretary of United Workers Union WA, Helen Creed, who really worked to change that.


Affirmative action works. In Australia’s parliaments at both state and federal levels, Affirmative Action applies to all preselections in my party, the Labor Party. Women must be preselected in equal numbers to men in all seats.


The evidence is in, women represent the Labor party in historically high numbers in all parliaments   across the country. Most recently, here in Western Australia, my home State, women won more seats than men, making up 51% of the parliament.


We should no longer say women are only there because of quotas or that they did not achieve their preselection based on “merit.” Women have always been equally capable of representing our communities. It is the past structures, societal attitudes and lack of opportunity have held us back.


This continuous lifelong learning from my experiences of leadership and changemaking growing up, at university, in the union movement and in the party have shaped me and will continue to do so as I uphold my values of equality, fairness and feminism.


I was pleased to discover that there are currently 111 Australia Awards awardees including 59 female that are on long-term scholarships studying in Western Australia and that over 50% of the awards scholar registrants for this symposium are women.


As many of you would know the Australia Awards program is guided by the Australia Awards Global Strategic Framework with Gender equality and empowering women and girls as one of the six Long Term Priorities under the framework.  


Australia Awards are a whole of Australian government initiative bringing together international scholarships and short courses. For more than 70 years Australian Government scholarship programs have supported our foreign, trade and economic objectives around the world. And since the 1950s, over 100,000 people from partner countries have received an Australian Government Scholarship to study in Australia.


Australia Awards are also an important part of Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. More specifically Target 4.b aims to substantially expand the number of scholarships available to developing countries globally.


Equity of access is one of the five operating principles of the Australia Awards program with gender equality mainstreamed in all aspects of program implementation. All Australia Awards programs will seek to empower women, and will effectively address gender equality issues by:


  • targeting development sectors where women’s tertiary skills and increased participation in policy development, decision-making and technical implementation aspects of development are most needed in each country
  • promoting women’s leadership across initiatives or developing programs and support with a focus on women
  • providing awards for study and training that target gender equality and women’s empowerment issues
  • working with awardees, alumni and their employers to build organisational capacity to better use the skills and knowledge of women.


Education underscores prosperity, resilience and stability at all levels, and contributes directly to poverty reduction, economic growth, reduced inequality and enhanced stability.  The Australia Awards program, in its commitment to developing leaders and changemakers in the Indo-Pacific, intertwines seamlessly with issues of equality, fairness, and feminism.


Within the framework of the Australia Awards, there is a conscious effort to address gender disparities and promote gender equality. By encouraging the participation of women in the program, it not only recognizes the importance of women's voices and perspectives but actively works towards dismantling barriers that hinder their access to education and leadership roles.


As President of the Senate, I have had the privilege of participating in delegations and conferences globally. My role has taken me to Papua New Guinea, Tonga, India, where I have had the opportunity to engage women’s groups and organisations and see the development projects Australia partners with.

All are focussed on the empowerment of women and girls, nearly always run by women. These are important projects which enhance the lives of women, and in turn, their communities.


In Papua New Guinea I engaged with the PNG-Australia Partnership. This partnership is committed to building the capacity and visibility of Women in Leadership across the Pacific.


It acknowledges that supporting women’s leadership in the Pacific is key to reducing poverty, promoting economic growth and democracy and increasing the wellbeing of women, girls and their families. Enhanced representation of women in all levels of decision making can raise awareness, influence political agendas to respond to the needs of all and support more gender-responsive legal frameworks.


I met with 15 award recipients, and they shared their past, present and future experiences with me and explained how the study afforded by the Australia Awards allowed them to further their careers. Many of the award participants were women.


Their participation in the Australia Awards program supported them on their return to PNG to expand and leverage networks, build their professional expertise to make genuine contributions to PNG’s development.


In Tonga, whilst I didn’t meet with any Australia Awards participants or alumni, I had the opportunity to have dinner with a local women’s coalition, Feeyeah Feeyah ah Fafeenay to discuss the state and perception of women’s leadership in Tonga.


This coalition of fierce women leaders were building momentum to call on increased women’s participation in politics.  


Here in WA, I have worked with many First Nations Women in the lead up to the Referendum. The result of the referendum was really disappointing for so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those of us who believe in self-determination and justice for First Nations. But I don’t want to focus on that emotion today.


I wanted to focus instead on the inspirational women leaders and changemakers in the community that I met and worked with. Women like Kyra Galante, Narelle Henry and Gail Reynolds worked tirelessly for months on end.  The fight for the voice might be over but the fight for justice isn’t.


Everywhere I go, I see women leaders that are unafraid to stand up to the systems and cultures that try to inhibit them.


The impact of Australia Awards program will not be limited to the just yourselves.  Leadership development stands as a cornerstone of the Australia Awards program.  This emphasis on leadership is vital for cultivating leaders and changemakers who can inspire and guide their communities toward sustainable development and progress.


Australia Awards seeks to support enduring change in your homes.  Indeed, many Australia Awards alumni return to their home country to become key decision-makers themselves. When you return home as alumna, you will all be integrated with Australia’s world-class education sector with access to a broad ranging network of dedicated professionals to help you contribute to achieving your country’s development goals.


Australia Awards start with each individual but their impact spreads across countries and regions.


Our region is defined by the confluence of two great oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. In addition to cultural understanding, the relationships forged during these programs often extend to professional collaborations, research partnerships, and joint initiatives.


This initiative, backed by the Australian government, is a testament to Australia's commitment to nurturing talent, building capacity, and promoting sustainable development in partner countries across the vast and diverse Indo-Pacific region.


One of the key strengths of the Australia Awards program lies in its emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. It opens doors for individuals from different backgrounds, disciplines, and geographical locations, creating a cohort of scholars and fellows with a rich tapestry of experiences.


The impact of climate change is already, and will continue to be, catastrophic for countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Countries are experiencing far-reaching adverse impacts on coastal infrastructure, food and water systems, and health outcomes.


In Bangladesh, we are seeing an increase the country's flood risk, including the increasing frequency of extreme precipitation events and more erratic rainfall.


In the Maldives, we are seeing sea level rise.


And in India, we are seeing extreme heat and changing rainfall patterns.


It is estimated that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women, according to UN Environment.


Through the Australia Awards program we are creating a more interconnected region through the development of enduring connections and networks. It is our leaders and changemakers that can help us tackle these issues to promote equality and gender equity.


The Indo-Pacific represents a mosaic of culture, language and history. By investing in human capital to foster leaders and changemakers, the Australia Awards program aims to dismantle barriers, promote gender equality and promote justice in the pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive society.


By working together as leaders and changemakers in the region, we can work together to tackle issues like gender equality and climate change.