CROWLEY, Rosemary Anne (1938– )
Senator for South Australia, 1983–2002 (Australian Labor Party)

Rosemary Anne WIllis (later Crowley), was born in Melbourne, Victoria on 30 July 1938, the second of six children of Monica Mary Willis, née Redmond, and Everard Joseph Willis, an accountant. Her family, her Roman Catholic upbringing, and her primary and secondary education at Kilmaire Brigidine Convent in Hawthorn between 1943 and 1955, combined to instil in her a passion for social justice and a vocation for community service. Rosemary won a Junior Government Scholarship in Grade 8 which enabled her to stay another four years at school and to gain her matriculation with five other girls. With a Commonwealth Scholarship she completed a medical degree at the University of Melbourne where she studied from 1956 to 1961. Rosemary was a Junior Resident Medical Officer (RMO) then Senior RMO at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, in 1962 and 1963. She worked as a Pathologist at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne in 1964.

In 1964 Rosemary married James Raymond Crowley whom she had met at university where he studied law and then psychology. They lived in Berkeley, California, where James was studying for a PhD, from 1965 to 1969. Berkeley was at that time seething with political activism such as civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement and draft resistance, and the beginnings of a women’s movement. In Berkeley Rosemary trained as a children’s and family counsellor. The Crowleys returned in 1969 to Adelaide, where James was appointed to Flinders University as a psychology lecturer. The couple, who had three sons, separated in 1986.

Crowley was Junior Clinical Assistant for the Paediatrics Medical Department at Adelaide Children’s Hospital from 1970 to 1971 and then Assistant for the Clinical Haematology Institute of the Medical and Veterinary Society of South Australia from 1972 to 1974. She worked as a parent education counsellor at Clovelly Park Community Health Centre from 1975 to 1983, lectured on child birth for the Mother and Babies Health Association (now CAFHS) from 1973 to 1983, tutored at Flinders University Medical Department from 1975 and was a Foundation Member of the South Australian Mental Health Review Tribunal from 1980 to 1983.

Having become politically engaged at Berkeley, Crowley joined the ALP soon after her return to Australia, and participated in the excitement of the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, and the disappointment of Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. She became Junior Vice-President in 1974 and in 1975 President of the Mitcham Branch of the ALP. In 1977 and again in 1979 she stood unsuccessfully against Australian Democrat Robin Millhouse for the seat of Mitcham in South Australia’s House of Assembly, and she contested unsuccessfully for preselection for the House of Assembly seat of Unley in 1982. In the same year, Crowley was preselected to stand for the Senate for the SA Labor Party and was placed in fifth position on the ALP ticket for the double dissolution election of March 1983. There were ten senators to be elected for each state and she was the last senator elected, waiting for a month before she found she had definitely won a three year term. She was re-elected in December 1984 and in July 1987, and in March 1990 and March 1996, when she was placed first on the party ticket.[1]

Crowley saw a clear connection between her work in health and community welfare and her role as a member of parliament. Looking back in 1995 to her entry to politics, she said: ‘My medical work was very much highlighting ill-health no individual doctor could solve … there was a lot of ill-health, unemployment, a lack of transport … Politics seemed the arena where decisions could be made to try to solve these problems’. Taking as the theme for her first election campaign the song ‘Bread and Roses’, associated with the 1912 strike of millworkers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she read a verse of the song in her first speech in the Senate, and said:

these words capture exactly what I want to offer as my contribution to politics … the bread and roses must go together, not bread first and roses later… . A person may have adequate food, clothing, shelter, a bed to sleep in and even books and paper, but the loss of freedom means a starving heart… . The quality of people’s lives is very much a part of what bread and roses means.[2]

Crowley’s arrival in the Senate coincided with the election of the Hawke Labor Government, a ‘heady and exciting time’ that saw, in 1984, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act, followed by other measures addressing the needs and rights of women. A contributor to Labor’s ‘Towards Equality’ document outlining policies for women leading into the 1983 election, and a member of the ALP Caucus committee on the status of women, she argued in the Senate and within the party for the legislation, which she later described as ‘earth-shattering’. Secretary of the Centre-Left faction of the ALP from 1984, in the November after she became a senator Crowley visited the women’s camp at Pine Gap (NT) in support of demonstrations against the arms race and the Australian/US facility. Crowley was a fitness enthusiast and, with Susan Ryan organised exercise sessions for ALP female parliamentarians. From 1984 she was convenor of a government working group on attitudes to and support for women’s sport, which in 1985 produced a report titled ‘Women, Sport and the Media’.[3]

During her first ten years in the Senate, as a government backbencher, Crowley was a strong advocate and defender of the Hawke Government’s health and social welfare reforms. She vigorously supported the program to restore Medicare, the Whitlam Government’s universal health insurance scheme, and other reforms in the areas of health, occupational health and safety, and family matters. She obtained Caucus support for a motion affirming publically-funded, needs-based child care, and participated in the preparation of child support legislation, introducing and enforcing child maintenance arrangements. She was a member of Senate standing and select committees concerned with community health and social welfare from her first year in the Senate, and participated in inquiries concerning private hospitals and nursing homes, children in institutional care, income support for the aged, human embryo experiments, accommodation for people with disabilities and various social welfare reform bills. Between 1989 and 1990 she chaired the Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance, which produced the report What Price Care? in 1990. When the Liberal Party’s ‘Fightback!’ package in 1992 proposed the virtual elimination of bulk billing, she said: ‘I will take the fight about Medicare anywhere, any time to the people of this country and beat the Opposition on Fightback dead’.[4]

In 1991 the Hawke Government, in response to recommendations of the Expenditure Review Committee, raised a package of health insurance amendment bills that imposed a Medicare co-payment of $3.50 on patients. Crowley, as a member of the Centre-Left faction and a member of the ALP Caucus committee examining the package, opposed the policy within the party, and stated publicly, after the change was endorsed by Caucus, that ‘We are looking at the death of Medicare’. Hawke agreed to reduce the co-payment to $2.50 but otherwise pressed ahead with the legislation, which became law as the Health Insurance Amendment Act 1991. The issue became critical to the struggle for the leadership of the ALP in late 1991, when Paul Keating promised to abolish the co-payment if he became leader. In December 1991, with the support of the Centre-Left, Keating was elected leader and became Prime Minister; the co-payment was abolished in February 1992.[5]

Following the re-election of the Keating Government in March 1993, Crowley was elected to the ministry by Caucus and Keating appointed her as Minister for Family Services, a new ministry created in anticipation of the International Year of the Family in 1994. She was also Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women from March 1993 to March 1994.

During her three years as Minister for Family Services, Crowley defended in the Senate a raft of reforms loosely aligned with the concept of ‘family services’. These included enhancing the Hawke Government’s program of financial assistance for families with increased family payments, additional payments for low income families, maternity allowances, disability support programs, carers’ pensions, student assistance and youth training allowances. Childcare was a high priority; the Keating Government was committed to increasing childcare places, and Crowley introduced legislation for cash rebates for the cost of childcare for working families and home childcare allowances. In December 1993 her department’s guidelines for the accreditation of childcare centres for funding created a furore in the press due to claims that they were too prescriptive, and included a requirement that Christmas carols, ‘culturally irrelevant’ for some children, should not be constantly played as background music in childcare centres at Christmas time. This was interpreted by the Opposition in the Senate as a ‘ban on carols’. She doggedly refused to be fazed by criticism and heckling in the Senate chamber, often by female members of the Opposition, who, she later said, ‘made hell for me’ during her time as minister.[6]

Following Labor’s defeat in the federal election of March 1996, Crowley returned her focus to Senate committee work. She chaired the Employment, Education and Training References Committee during inquiries into early childhood education, funding for government schools, adult and community education, and the status of the teaching profession. In 1998 she moved to the Community Affairs References Committee, where she chaired inquiries into the tax system, childbirth procedures, the Gene Technology Bill, public hospital funding, child migration and nursing. She was a Temporary Chair of Committees in the Senate from 1990 to 1993 and 1996 to 2002.[7]

Recognised as a pioneer among female parliamentarians, as only the fourth women elected to federal Parliament from South Australia, and the first from the Labor Party, the only female ALP senator from South Australia throughout her nineteen year term, and the first female minister from South Australia, Crowley was frequently invited to speak on issues of women and Parliament. She argued forcefully for initiatives to return more women to parliaments, believing that, when women were given a voice: ‘they opened huge possibilities for the whole of society. They dramatically extended the agenda, they broadened the topics for discussion … ‘ and that ‘… it is striving for fair recognition of the variety of talents and contributions that women can make … it is a matter of justice, it is a matter of equity and it is also a matter of best practice’. She said that ‘we must accept 50 per cent women in our parliaments and nothing less’. She was vigilant of the rights and conditions of female parliamentarians, insisting, for example, that Hansard cease the practice of converting pronouns in speeches into the masculine gender: ‘my recollection is I said ‘he’ and ‘she’ … and I did not want to find this all edited to be in the third person masculine’.

Crowley travelled extensively on parliamentary duties during her Senate career. As Minister for Family Services in 1995 she addressed a plenary session of the UN General Assembly on the International Year of the Family. In 1997 she was invited to be a keynote speaker for a conference in New Delhi on ‘Women in Parliament’, forming part of the celebrations of fifty years of Indian Independence. She was in New York preparing to address a special session of the United Nations at the time of the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers on 11 September 2001.

Crowley did not nominate as an election candidate in 2001, having reached an age beyond the guidelines for ALP pre-selection. Described in the Canberra Times in 1993 as ‘irrepressible, energetic, and tough’, Rose Crowley could be pugnacious in debate, but in valedictory speeches on 27 June 2002 senators from all sides of politics acknowledged her sense of fun. Many also paid tribute to her work ethic and to her unshakeable mission for a more equitable and just society. Senator Faulkner acknowledged her ‘remarkable contribution in the areas of community affairs, health and the status of women’; Senator Stott Despoja described her as ‘an extraordinary role model, particularly for women who enter this place’.

After leaving the Senate, Crowley chaired a number of consultative bodies for the South Australian Rann Government, including the Children’s Interests Bureau from 2003, Young Media Australia (2004–05), the South Australian Council for the Care of Children (2006–07), the Power Line Environment Committee from 2005 and the South Australian Ministerial Advisory Board on Ageing from 2007. She continued to be in demand as a speaker on issues of women and Parliament. Rosemary Crowley was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2015 Australia Day honours, for ‘distinguished service to Parliament, and for promoting the status of women’.[8]

Elizabeth Milburn

[1] Author interviews with Rosemary Crowley, 25 July and 15 August 2011, 19 March 2012; Alison McDougall, Interview with Rosemary Crowley for the Mortlock Library of South Australiana and the NLA, 11 and 18 Oct. 2006; Weekend Advertiser (Adel.), 11 Feb. 1995, pp. 3–4; ‘Profile: Senator Rosemary Crowley’, House Magazine, 19 March 1986, p. 3.

[2] Weekend Advertiser (Adel.), 11 Feb. 1995, pp. 3–4; CPD, 4 May 1983, pp. 203–6.

[3] Margaret Reynolds and Jean Willoughby (eds), Her Story: Australian Labor Women in Federal, State and Territory Parliaments 1925–1994, Townsville, Qld, 1994, pp. 47–9; McDougall Interview; Rosemary Crowley et al., ‘Women in federal parliament: past, present and future’, Papers on Parliament No. 60, March 2014, pp. 57–84; CPD, 8 Nov. 1983, p. 2294, 5 Oct. 1983, p. 1158, 8 May 1991, pp. 2964–7, 22 May 1985, pp. 2359–60; SMH, 23 May 1985, p. 3.

[4] CT, 18 Nov. 1987, p. 8; CPD, 22 Feb. 1988, pp. 408–13, 6 Sept. 1989, pp. 1116 –18, 24 March 1992, pp. 958–61, 27 March 1985, p. 866, 19 Aug. 1992, pp. 263–6.

[5] Age (Melb.), 12 Oct 1991, p. 3; SMH, 2 Nov. 1991, p. 3; McDougall Interview.

[6] P. J. Keating, Peter Baldwin and Rosemary Crowley, Agenda For Families, AGPS, Canberra, 1995; CPD, 26 Oct. 1993, pp. 2513–16, 8 Dec. 1993, pp. 4104–44; McDougall Interview.

[7] Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee, Childhood Matters (1996), Not a Level Playground (1997), Beyond Cinderella (1997), A Class Act (1998); Senate Community Affairs References Committee, The Lucky Country Goes Begging (1999), Rocking the Cradle (1999), Fish Don’t Lay Tomatoes (2000), Healing Our Hospitals (2000), Lost Innocents (2001), The Patient Profession (2002).

[8] CPD, 30 Sept. 1993, pp. 1572–5, 12 March 2002, pp. 587–90, 19 June 2002, p. 2220; Crowley, Papers on Parliament, 2014; CT, 4 May 1993, p. 1; CPD, 27 June 2002, pp. 2868–922; Advertiser (Adel.), 26 Jan. 2015, p. 9.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 280-284.

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1983–2002 (ALP)

Minister for Family Services, 1993–96

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, 1993

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee B, 1983–87; F, 1987; C, 1987–93

House Committee, 1983–85

Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1983–93

Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, 1983–87

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1983–84

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1983–87

Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1984–87

Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge, 1984

Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, 1985–86

Standing Committee on Community Affairs, 1987–90

Select Committee on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals in Australia, 1988–90

Select Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance, 1989–90

Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1990–93

Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, 1990–93

Joint Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Operation and Interpretation of the Family Law Act, 1991–93

Select Committee on the Functions, Powers and Operation of the Australian Loan Council, 1992–93

Employment, Education and Training Legislation Committee, 1996–97

Employment, Education and Training References Committee, 1996–98

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1996–97

Library Committee, 1997–2002

Community Affairs References Committee, 1998–2002

Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, 1998

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS