GILES, Patricia Jessie (1928–2017)
Senator for Western Australia, 1981–93 (Australian Labor Party)

Pat Giles was born Patricia Jessie White, daughter of Eustace Frederick White, car salesman, shop keeper and accountant, and his wife Marjorie Eva, née Norris, schoolteacher, on 16 November 1928 at Minlaton, South Australia. The family moved to Melbourne, but the marriage was ‘violent and unhappy’. Marjorie and Pat returned to Adelaide in 1931, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to her second daughter. Marjorie and her children lived with Marjorie’s parents on what was then a semi-rural property at Woodville. As a result of the Great Depression, Marjorie could not find teaching work and so she took on whatever jobs she could find. Her daughters were often left in the care of their grandparents, who brought them up in accordance with strict Presbyterian values.

Educated at Woodville Primary School and Croydon Girls’ Junior Technical School, Pat worked in a bank for a year before enrolling in a general nursing course at the Renmark District Hospital. She later transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, qualifying in 1950. Moving to Perth, she topped the 1951 midwifery class at the King Edward Memorial Hospital and returned to Adelaide where she gained an infant welfare certificate, making her a triple-certificated nurse. On 23 August 1952, at the Woodville Presbyterian Church, she married Keith Emmanuel (Mick) Giles, a Western Australian doctor. The couple eventually settled on a two-acre block at Bassendean, Perth. Over the next seven years, they would have four daughters and a son. From 1960 the family spent two years in England, where Mick undertook specialist training in anaesthetics.

At Bassendean, Giles ‘became immersed in a life of volunteerism in her local community’ helping with patients at the Sir James Mitchell Spastic Centre in Mount Lawley, and delivering meals on wheels around the local area. As a staunch supporter of public education, she became involved in parents’ and citizens’ associations at the various kindergartens and schools that her children attended. Her passion for the improved school funding cause manifested in 1969 when she contested the seat of Perth at the October federal election as the candidate for the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) but was unsuccessful. At the state election of February 1971 she again ran as a DOGS candidate for the Assembly seat of Mirrabooka but failed once more. In the same year Giles was appointed to the Health and Education Council of Western Australia (1971–81) and she became vice-president of the Federation of West Australian Parents’ and Citizens’ Associations (1971–75) (the Western Australian Council of State School Organisations from 1973).[1]

Giles’ first foray into politics inspired her to broaden her intellectual base. Having matriculated as a mature age student in 1970, she began a full-time degree at the University of Western Australia the following year. Majoring in politics and industrial relations, she graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in 1974, and became a part-time tutor in industrial relations the same year.

In June 1972 Giles’ son committed suicide. She did not let this tragedy affect her motivation to continue along the path she had chosen; she later explained, ‘if I had stopped and given into my grief, I’d have gone right under’. Her marriage had been under strain for some time, and she and Mick divorced in 1975.

In 1972 she became a founding member of the Women’s Liberation movement in Perth and, in March 1973, she was appointed inaugural convenor of the Western Australian branch of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), having attended the first national WEL conference in Canberra two months earlier.

In the mid-1970s Giles was characterised as a ‘somewhat enigmatic figure in Western Australian public life’ with the capacity to forge ‘many different kinds of allegiances and sensibilities’. She was heavily influenced by Irene Greenwood, doyen of the feminist movement in Western Australia, who facilitated her attendance at the first United Nations World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975. The conference served the purpose of introducing Giles to the ‘arcane and complex world of international politics’.[2]

Giles joined the ALP while at university in 1971. Three years later she took up two posts which proved crucial to her career in the labour movement. The Whitlam Government appointed her as chair of the Western Australia Committee on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation. Very conscious that, until then, it had been an all-male committee, she regarded this brief ‘as the beginning of a giddy rise to fame for me—I can’t tell you what that did for my self-perception’.

By the end of 1974 Giles had also taken up a position as an organiser with the Hospital Employees’ Industrial Union of Western Australia (HEIU), and her partnership with union officers Owen Salmon and Jim McGinty proved highly successful, helping to transform the HEIU from a conservative union into an amalgamated union that went on to become the biggest in the state. Giles’ appointment came at a critical time. Salmon had sought to advance new concepts of equal pay, maternity leave and anti-discrimination measures, embedded in International Labour Organization conventions ratified by the Whitlam Government. With her training as a nurse and her involvement in feminist activities, the job seemed to have been tailored for her.

In 1976 Giles clashed with the WA Court Government over its decision to close the Tresillian Nursing Home at Nedlands, part of the Premier’s electorate, and transfer the hospital’s disabled children to Forrestfield, an outer suburb. Buoyed by public outrage over the proposal, Giles demonstrated her administrative and networking skills and coordinated her political and union contacts, including transport and ambulance drivers, to resist the proposed move. Subsequently, Court abandoned the move to Forrestfield, on the same day that half-a-dozen government MPs publicly dissociated themselves from the proposal. In retrospect, Giles regarded the Tresillian conflict as a high pointin her union career.[3]

Giles’ negotiating talents were increasingly recognised by her peers. In 1975 she was the first woman elected to the executive of the Trades & Labor Council of Western Australia (WA TLC); and from 1978 to 1981 she chaired the first women’s committee of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She was also a member of the Western Australian Advisory Council on Homeless Persons (1975–81) and the Review Committee of the Legal Aid Commission of Western Australia (1978–81). In the face of strong opposition and an unsympathetic chief commissioner, Giles acted successfully for the WA TLC in a 1980 maternity leave case before the WA Industrial Commission, describing this as one of her most significant achievements.

As Giles’ career in the labour movement advanced, so did her status in the ALP. She became the first woman to serve on the state Administrative Committee (1976–79), and was a vice-president of the state branch in 1981. At the 1977 federal election she contested the unwinnable House of Representatives seat of Curtin for the ALP. Her fortunes changed over the next two years; allied with the Left faction, she won preselection for the third position on Labor’s Western Australia Senate ticket for the 1980 election. After the withdrawal of John Wheeldon from the head of the ticket, Giles, with the crucial backing of ALP state secretary Bob McMullan and WA TLC secretary Peter Cook, overcame ‘enormous competition’ for the winnable second spot. Elected to the Senate in October 1980, her term began in July 1981. She was re-elected in 1983, 1984 and 1987.

In her first speech to the Senate on 16 September 1981, Giles attacked the Fraser Government’s treatment of marginalised sectors within the community—young people seeking employment, low income households, pensioners, single parents, homeless people, the handicapped, migrants, and Aborigines—all of whom had ‘their real choices minimised and their existence made precarious, too many of them are just one week’s wage or one welfare cheque off destitution’. She also pointed out that women ‘as workers and recipients of welfare are particularly vulnerable … to exploitation on the one hand and to the lack of support for themselves and their families on the other’. She made it clear that, while in the Senate, she would work towards a ‘more equitable distribution’ of Australia’s resources.[4]

Giles was particularly forthright when explaining female physiological matters, regardless of the bewilderment of some male senators. The subjects she discussed included abortion, contraception, toxic shock and the need for more child care centres (including in New Parliament House, a goal not achieved until 2009). Giles believed that parliamentary discussion of such subjects exposed ‘some of the concerns of the hidden half’, challenged ‘notions of what is personal, and what is public’, and introduced ‘into public prominence the strong possibility that the possession of a uterus is normal, and may be discussed like defence or taxation’.

The Hawke Labor Government’s election in March 1983, and its re-election in 1984, saw major legislative initiatives to promote women’s rights: ratification of the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in July 1983, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986.

In supporting the ratification of CEDAW, Giles argued that choice ‘and expanded opportunity towards equality is the tone of the whole Convention’, and while Australia had ‘made a modest start’ through the provision of community health services, ‘we have not tackled the much more difficult task of persuading the average husband and father that his responsibilities are changing too’. She commented that the ‘hysterical emphasis on the sanctity of the family and well-being of children’ by those opposed to ratification was ‘a shabby and unworthy ploy copied from the American opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, the so-called “moral majority” who are neither moral nor a majority’. Giles claimed that the Hawke Labor Government could usher Australia ‘out of the straitjacket of the past. Not only women will benefit from this; society generally will be richer. It is the best chance for equal relationships to flourish and for children to develop their skills and potential’.

In 1984, while speaking on the second reading of the Sex Discrimination Bill, Giles discussed the predictions of ‘doom and gloom for the family and Australian society if and when this legislation becomes law’. In dismissing those predictions, Giles pointed out that some ‘of the less palatable aspects of the family—its nuclear structure and its patriarchal dominance—are already in the process of modification’. During debate, the remarks of Liberal Senator Austin Lewis, that ‘compulsory close cohabitation’ between working men and women could upset marriages, moved Giles and her Labor colleague, Senator Rosemary Crowley, to laughter. Giles explained that the response had been prompted by ‘incredulity, bordering on shock, that such tired arguments could be resurrected in the course of this historic debate’.

In 1986 Giles described the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity For Women) Bill as ‘one of the crowning accomplishments’ in a ‘very fine’ record of commitment to women’s rights by the Hawke Government. Near the end of her Senate career, Giles took pride in the nation’s ‘ever growing and strengthening network of talented women’, noting that when her Senate term commenced in 1981, ‘the parliamentary establishment was predominantly male’, a situation which had changed by 1992.[5]

Over her twelve years in the Senate, Giles was a major contributor to parliamentary committee work. She chaired Estimates Committee B (1983–87) and the Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes (1983–87). As chair of the latter committee (at its inception, in 1981, the Senate’s first all-woman committee), Giles tabled two reports which made significant recommendations on the ownership, administration and quality of care in nursing homes and private hospitals. The committee’s investigative work into abuses of care drew considerable media attention. In presenting the committee’s final report, Giles expressed particular concern at investment in private hospitals by the Australian Industry Development Corporation, which she described as ‘totally inappropriate for a Commonwealth statutory authority’.

Giles also chaired the Committee of Privileges (1988–93), during which time the committee produced thirty-two reports. The committee’s workload stemmed largely from the passage of the ‘watershed’ Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 and the subsequent adoption by the Senate of eleven privilege resolutions in February 1988. Privilege Resolution 5, which allows a right of reply to any person referred to in the Senate ‘in a way which the person regards as adverse’, was the first of its kind in any legislature in the world. In 1993 Giles described as ‘extremely depressing’ the frequency of privilege references on allegations that witnesses had been prevented from fully participating in inquiries. She was particularly troubled by the fact that the people against whom the allegations were being made were ‘almost inevitably very senior and powerful members of the Australian public service’.

Between October 1990 and August 1992 Giles carried the additional burden of chairing the Regulations and Ordinances Committee, inspiring her to mention in her valedictory speech that the ‘increasingly heavy load of committee work in which I have been involved has been enlightening, and some of it exhausting and frustrating to the point of making one grind one’s teeth’. Despite the ‘technical nature’ of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee and the ‘unrelenting workload’ of the Committee of Privileges, she found chairing both committees to be ‘absolutely memorable’.[6]

As well as convening the ALP’s National Status of Women Policy Committee in 1983 and 1985, Giles also convened the Caucus Committee on the Status of Women, chairing it throughout her time in the Senate. This committee, which Giles regarded as ‘the liveliest and most productive of all Caucus committees’ proved to be a highly effective means of highlighting women’s interests within the government, with Giles using her position as senator ‘to provide timely letters praising the work of a women’s unit within government or helping to clear away bureaucratic blockages’. The committee’s agenda also included a watching brief to monitor any sexual bias apparent in policy or in the conduct of individual parliamentarians. The Women’s Budget Program, an audit initiative first published by the committee in 1984 which outlined the effects of budgetary policies on women and girls, was the first of its kind in the world and became a model for other countries. In 1990 Giles was appointed Special Parliamentary Adviser to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Violence Against Women.

Giles continued to involve herself in the international sphere throughout her Senate career. Dedicated to global peace, when the World Women Parliamentarians for Peace (WWPP) was formed in Stockholm in 1985 Giles became a foundation member and then president (1988–90), performing her duties in parallel with her Senate work. She represented the Australian Government at a number of international conferences and summits and, with a mind to promoting awareness of women’s issues, led separate government delegations to Nairobi, Harare and Ottawa.[7]

Giles retired from the Senate before her sixty-fifth birthday, at the end of her term. In her valedictory speech she thanked the Western Australian people for giving her twelve years in the Senate, allowing her to push for the social and human rights policies that she had espoused in the 1970s, ‘a gift beyond price’. Giles also told the Senate that although she was leaving the Senate, ‘not by any stretch of imagination’ was she leaving politics.

After leaving the Senate Giles chaired the World Health Organisation’s newly created Global Commission on Women’s Health (1993–96) and served as president of the International Alliance of Women (1996–2002). In Perth she remained an active member of WEL and convenor of the Women’s Health Care House (1993–99), and was a member of the board of the inter-university Centre for Research for Women throughout its existence (1993–2006).

In 1989 a women’s refuge centre was established in the northern suburbs of Perth, and named in Giles’ honour. The Patricia Giles Centre is a non-profit organisation that provides counsel, shelter and support for women and children who are subjected to domestic violence, and to men struggling to cope with marital problems. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Murdoch University in 1996, and in 2010 was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to the community through organisations and advisory bodies that promote the interests of women, and to the Parliament of Australia.

Much of Giles’ inner strength came from what she described as ‘the special excitement and challenge’ of the second wave of the women’s movement through the 1970s and 1980s’, which created the climate ‘for a generation of immense change’. Giles not only witnessed those changes, she played a vital role in achieving them.[8]

Wendy Birman

[1] Argus (Melb.), 16 June 1934, p. 10; Women’s Electoral Lobby of Western Australia (WEL), Broadsheet, Aug. 1997; Lekkie Hopkins & Lynn Roarty, Among the Chosen: The Life Story of Pat Giles, Fremantle Press; Fremantle WA, 2010, pp. 21, 24, 27, 44–5, 59–63; WA (Perth), 21 Nov. 1980, p. 6; News (Adel.), 25 Aug. 1952, p. 13; Lekkie Hopkins, Lynn Roarty & Sherry Saggers, ‘Pat Giles as a critical actor within the trade union movement of the 1970s’, Women’s Studies International Forum, No. 31, 2008, pp. 401–2.

[2] Hopkins et al., ‘Pat Giles as a critical actor within the trade union movement of the 1970s’, p. 402; Hopkins & Roarty, Among the Chosen, pp. 36–42, 69–70, 105; WA (Perth), 21 Nov. 1980, p. 6; WEL, Broadsheet, Aug. 1997; Lekkie Hopkins, ‘Pat Giles, Perth, and the politics of dress’, Outskirts Online Journal: Feminisms Along the Edge, Vol. 19, Nov. 2008; Judy Skene, ‘One thing led to another: a life of activism in support of women’s rights. an interview with Pat Giles’, International Review of Women and Leadership, Special Issue 1999, p. 24.

[3] Hopkins & Roarty, Among the Chosen, pp. 110–11, 113–16; Hopkins et al., ‘Pat Giles as a critical actor within the trade union movement of the 1970s’, pp. 402–4; Rhonda Jamieson, Charles Court: I Love This Place, St George Books, Osborne Park, WA, 2011, pp. 280–2; CT, 27 July 1976, p. 2.

[4] Hopkins et al., ‘Pat Giles as a critical actor within the trade union movement of the 1970s’, pp. 401, 407; Hopkins & Roarty, Among the Chosen, pp. 121–4; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 18 June 1993; WA (Perth), 21 Nov. 1980, p. 6; CT, 22 Dec. 1987, p. 3, 28 May 1991, p. 2; CPD, 16 Sept. 1981, pp. 787–90.

[5] CPD, 29 Oct. 1981, pp. 1855–7, 17 Nov. 1981, p. 2227, 13 Dec. 1988, p. 4056, 9 March 1989, pp. 768–70, 18 Oct. 1990, pp. 3353–6; CT, 16 May 1984, p. 21; Marian Sawer & Marian Simms, A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1993, pp. 156–7; CPD, 11 May 1983, pp. 402–4, 8 Nov. 1983, pp. 2308–15, 22 Aug. 1986, pp. 344–5, 23 March 1988, p. 1215; National Times (Syd.), 30 Dec. 1983, p. 33; Pat Giles, ‘Trust the women: women in the Federal Parliament’, Papers on Parliament, No. 17, Sept. 1992.

[6] CPD, 22 Feb. 1985, pp. 61–5, 29 April 1987, pp. 2025–8; Press Release, Senator Pat Giles, 1 Nov. 1984; SMH, 3 Nov. 1984, p. 1; Courier Mail (Brisb.), 3 Nov. 1984, p. 1; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1537–9, 1582–4; Committee of Privileges, Parliamentary Privilege: precedents procedure and practice in the Australian Senate 1966–2005: 125th Report, Canberra, December 2005; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 18 June 1993.

[7] Hopkins & Roarty, Among the Chosen, pp. 165–8, 190–1; Marian Sawer & Gail Radford, Making Women Count: A History of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia, UNSW Press, Syd., 2008, p. 170; Sawer & Simms, A Woman’s Place, p. 211; Marian Sawer, ‘Femocrats and Erocrats: women’s policy machinery in Australia, Canada and New Zealand’, Occasional Paper of the United Nations Institute for Social Development, March 1996, p. 6; Skene, ‘One Thing Led to Another’, p. 24.

[8] CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1537–9, 4 Feb. 2010, pp. 572–4; Hopkins & Roarty, Among the Chosen, pp. 206–10, 243; WEL, Broadsheet, August 1997; Pat Giles, ‘Address when opening Trust the Women Exibition’, Papers on Parliament, No. 17, Sept. 1992.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 517-521.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1981–93 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee G, 1981–83; B, 1983–87; D, 1987–88; F, 1987, 1988–90; C, 1990, 1993; E, 1990, 1991–92

Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, 1981–87

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1981–83

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1981–87

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1983–87

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1985–93

Select Committee on Television Equalisation, 1986–87

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1987–93

Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 1987–93

Committee of Privileges, 1988–93

Library Committee, 1988–93