Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Susan Ryan, John Fahey and the Catholic story

  • 08 October 2020
Recent weeks have seen the deaths of former NSW Liberal Premier and federal Finance minister, John Fahey, and former Labor federal minister, Senator Susan Ryan.

They were both exemplary public figures who not only made a major contribution to Australian public life but did so in a way that drew praise from all sides of politics.

Their personal stories illustrate many aspects of the journey Australian Catholicism has taken over the past fifty years. Ryan left the church while Fahey remained at its official core.

Ryan represents the human face of the shrinking church during this period. Relatively few Catholics practice their faith and the remainder form a vast tribe of cultural Catholics increasingly distant from the official church. She represents the lost potential of those, many of them educated women, who have left it all behind.

Yet while the church has been shrinking it has also been building new structures, including in university education through the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the University of Notre Dame Australia. Fahey, as ACU Chancellor, represented this development. These universities are playing an increasing role in Catholic life as illustrated by the presence of many of their staff in the processes of the Plenary Council 2021-22.

They both shared a commitment as republicans to fighting for an Australian Head of State. Fahey was a senior minister in the Howard government at the time of the 1999 republican referendum while Ryan was an influential figure in the new Australian Republican Movement (ARM).


'The lives of Ryan and Fahey may seem worlds away from each other... But Australia is fortunate that such leaders can maintain deep differences while working together in solidarity for shared causes.'  

Ryan emerged from the women’s movement and entered the Senate for the ACT at the 1975 elections. A feminist, she was Minister for Education and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in the Hawke government and the first 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.

After leaving Parliament in 1988, she remained a public figure in many senior government and non-government roles, most recently serving as federal Age Discrimination Commissioner. She fought for an Australian Bill of Rights and was Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). She was widely