SULLIVAN, Kathryn Jean Martin (1942– )
Senator for Queensland, 1974–84 (Liberal Party of Australia)

In her youth Kathy Martin aspired to be a lawyer or a police officer. Despite her best efforts the inherent gender discrimination of the 1950s and 1960s proved insurmountable and she would move into the more ‘acceptable’ field of education. Only a few decades later, her entry into Australia’s federal Parliament proved to be the ultimate irony. Instead of practising or enforcing the law, Martin became the one making the laws and, ultimately, one of the longest-serving female parliamentarians in Australian political history.

Kathryn Jean Martin was born in Brisbane on 8 March 1942, the younger of two daughters of Field Andrew Ian (Ian) Martin, a bank officer, and his wife Edna Mavis, née Sproul, a nurse and post office worker. Kathy attended Queensland state primary schools at Mount Morgan, Kingaroy, Humpybong and Camp Hill, before completing her secondary schooling at Somerville House, a private school in Brisbane. She undertook her tertiary education at the University of Queensland, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts with honours in Political Science.

During her first year of university in 1960, Martin joined the Young Liberals, becoming state secretary in 1961 and vice-president in 1963. By the time she graduated from university, at the age of twenty-two, Martin had been granted life membership of the Young Liberals.

Upon leaving university Martin taught mathematics at Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School, where she was also a boarding house mistress. While teaching, Martin continued her studies, achieving Letters in Speech and Drama from the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). Her skills in this area were welcomed when she became a member of the Queensland Debating Team, which led to success in state and national debating competitions. In 1969 she became a member, and then secretary, of the Liberal Speakers’ Group. She married Donald Maher in 1965, but the marriage ended in 1969. Two years later Maher was convicted of murder, a circumstance occasionally used against Martin by her political opponents.

Martin joined the Assistant Mistresses’ Association, serving on the executive for one year from 1965. In 1966 she became an administrative officer at the University of Queensland, and in 1973 a founding member and President of the University of Queensland Employees’ Association. Martin was involved in the formulation of the first industrial award for university clerical staff. Despite her union work, she was still able to dedicate time to many community organisations, to be a tutor in Business Studies at the Queensland Institute of Technology, and to begin studying for a Masters of Business Administration.[1]

Martin initially supported a fellow party member in nominating for preselection for the Senate in 1973 but, when she was convinced by supporters that she would be the better candidate, she decided to stand herself. Endorsed by the preselection council, her chance of election was transformed by the dissolution of both Houses of Parliament in April 1974, and in the subsequent election for all ten Queensland Senate places she was placed fifth on the Liberal Party’s joint Senate ticket with the Country Party. She was the ninth senator elected, in what was her first of ten successful federal election contests.

Her gender and looks proved an irresistible angle for journalists during her election campaign and this commentary continued throughout her career, the media describing her as the ‘kissing senator’ and as a ‘blonde bombshell’. Martin distanced herself from women’s liberation activities, maintaining that she was ‘a Liberal Party candidate not a women’s candidate’ and that she wanted to ‘speak out on many things’. She reinforced this perspective with a campaign that was focused on industrial relations, social welfare and regional and urban planning, underpinned by her belief ‘in the individual and free enterprise’.[2]

When Martin took her seat, she was one of only four women in the Senate. Although she felt that the response of the general public to her efforts as a politician was often ‘distorted by the obsession that you are a woman’, Martin said later that she never felt out of place as a woman in the Senate. The male senators were used to working with women, although Parliament House at this time had few amenities for women and one of her first challenges as a senator, with the support of ALP Senator Ruth Coleman, was to have one of the toilets for senators on the Senate side of the building converted to a facility for female senators.

Known in the Senate as Kathy Martin, she continued under that name during her marriage to Jim Gray from 1975 to 1978. In 1983, Martin married Robert (Bob) Sullivan, a businessman and former US Marine, and from December 1984 she was known as Kathy Sullivan or Kathy Martin Sullivan.

Martin was recognised as an accomplished public speaker, and during her years in Parliament she demonstrated her ability to speak cogently on a great many subjects. In her first speech in the Senate on 25 September 1974, she spoke of her belief in ‘the individual resources of enterprise, drive, initiative and a wish for independence’. Her criticisms of the Labor Party’s attitude to small business, capital gains tax, private health facilities and independent schools were themes that were continued in speeches throughout her career, and she was to label Whitlam and Hawke Government programs as ‘Socialism by stealth’. Martin was articulate on the recurring topics of Aboriginal affairs, social welfare, unemployment, trade unionism, Medicare and Medibank, and migration and foreign affairs. She was credited with facilitating the push for a federal ombudsman, something for which she had advocated since her university days. States’ rights and ‘all manner of intrusion into State responsibilities’ by the federal government were also a significant concern.[3]

Martin had a passionate interest in education, and was a member of the Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts for most of her time in the Senate. She also chaired Estimates Committee C (1976–78), which covered the education portfolio, and was a member of the Liberal Party policy committee on education. In Parliament she spoke not only on higher education, funding, teachers and nongovernment schools, but also about the contribution education could make in changing the social status of women, indigenous people and migrants, and in raising living standards and levels of productivity. Her familiarity with the tertiary education sector meant she was considered an influential figure in the national debate on the structure, accountability and operation of universities.[4]

Although she insisted that her interests and responsibilities were the same as those of her male colleagues, inevitably Martin was central to discussions on issues affecting women, and she joined debates on childcare, abortion, sex discrimination, family law, violence against women, social welfare, and the employment, education and training of women. She felt that one of the most important things that had to be achieved in Australia was ‘a proper recognition of the right of women to choose their role in life’. Martin represented the shadow minister on women’s affairs in the Senate during debate on the Sex Discrimination Bill 1983, later admitting that she found it difficult to move amendments for the Opposition because, in her opinion, the Labor Government’s position was obviously right. She was to find herself in a similar position when the Affirmative Action Bill 1986 was introduced into the House of Representatives. Following the federal election of March 1983, Martin publicly contended that the Coalition loss was attributable to a failure to pay attention to the ‘women’s vote’, and urged her own party to embrace and adapt its policies to the changing dynamics in families and workplaces, and to the changing status of women in society.[5]

Martin was elected Assistant Opposition Whip in the Senate in April 1975, becoming Assistant Government Whip in the Senate following the election of the Fraser Government in December 1975. Interested in parliamentary and meeting procedures generally, she frequently raised issues relating to standing and temporary orders in the Senate. She was chair, in turn, of Estimates Committee D, C, B and A, and had much to say about the functions of the committees and the efficiency of the estimates process. After one particularly fraught estimates period, she famously expressed in the chamber her concerns on the ‘contradictory or unreliable evidence’ that had been given and the ‘highly varying standard’ of witnesses that the estimates committees were required to negotiate. In 1981 she was chair of the Senate House Committee during an inquiry into the organisation, operation, functions and financial administration of the Joint House Department, which brought into focus the responsibilities that each presiding officer owed to his or her respective chamber. When the Speaker declined to release a report of the Joint House Department that had been jointly commissioned by the presiding officers, the Senate, on Martin’s motion, agreed to reiterate a previous request to release the report in a letter to the Speaker, stating that ‘a Presiding officer is the servant of his chamber, not the master’.[6]

When the then Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser implemented a decision to block supply in the Senate, in October 1975, to force the Labor Government to an early election, Martin supported this approach, and as Assistant Opposition Whip in the Senate she became ‘a linchpin in keeping the Opposition senators in line’. Despite her significant role in these events, she claimed later that she was surprised when the Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975 and installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister.

During the ensuing Fraser Government, Martin showed that she would not adhere to party policy on all issues. On 22 February 1977, in company with ten other Liberal Party senators, she crossed the floor to vote against a government motion to speed up the passage of constitutional amendment bills, passing, as she went, her resignation as Assistant Whip to Senator Reg Withers, in recognition of the fact that her role was to muster support for the government, not oppose it. When the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill 1977, which proposed to introduce simultaneous elections for both houses of Parliament, was passed and the proposal became a referendum issue, Martin led the campaign for a ‘no’ vote in Queensland. This left her, she said, in a ‘very cold relationship’ with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and destroyed her prospects for promotion while he remained party leader. She crossed the floor on a number of other occasions, and in several cases her support was critical to the result, as when she supported Senator Chris Puplick’s amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill 1981 and Senator Alan Missen’s motion in November 1981 to establish the Scrutiny of Bills Committee.[7]

Martin antagonised Queensland party colleagues in 1983 when she offered to step down from first place on the Senate ticket in favour of Neville Bonner, who had been demoted from the first to the third, unwinnable position. She had formed a strong bond with Bonner, the first Indigenous member of the Australian Parliament, with whom she had shared the party ticket in previous elections. Her offer was rejected, but some still blamed strife within the party for the poor showing for the party in Queensland at the 1983 Senate election. Frequently in conflict with Fraser in the party room, Martin became one of a group of recognised dissidents within the parliamentary Liberal Party, and a supporter of Andrew Peacock as Liberal Party leader. Fraser resigned as Liberal Leader after the 1983 election and was succeeded by Andrew Peacock, who appointed Martin as shadow minister for home affairs and administrative services.[8]

The expansion of the House of Representatives in 1984 led to the establishment of the federal seat of Moncrieff, on the central Gold Coast. Martin, who had maintained a ‘hankering’ for a seat in the House of Representatives, gained preselection for the seat and resigned from the Senate on 5 November. Although the seat was favoured to go to the Nationals, Martin, now known as Martin Sullivan, was elected on 1 December 1984, becoming the first woman to serve in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the first Liberal Party woman elected to the House of Representatives for fifteen years.

In the House of Representatives Martin Sullivan was involved in committees with a similar focus to those on which she had served in the Senate; namely those related to parliamentary process and procedure, education, migration and foreign affairs. She was Parliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (1993–94), and in October 1994 became Deputy Opposition Whip, making her the first woman to hold Whip positions in both houses. Her hopes of becoming Speaker after the Howard-led Coalition secured government in 1996 were dashed when the Liberal Party endorsed Bob Halverson. Martin Sullivan was a member of the Speaker’s Panel from May 1996 until October 1997.[9]

A ministerial reshuffle at the end of 1997 resulted in a long-awaited ministerial appointment as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Martin Sullivan had a long-standing interest in immigration, refugees and foreign aid, and her duties as parliamentary secretary included overseeing the activities of the Australian Agency for International Development (AUSAID) in administering Australia’s overseas aid program. A visit to Kampuchea in 1979 on a private delegation with Senator Susan Ryan, during which she saw ‘incredible suffering and hardship’ marked the beginning of a well-documented advocacy, at a national and international level, for humanitarian issues, particularly those affecting refugees. This visit also helped inform her contributions as a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, particularly during its 1981 inquiry into the changing power structure in Indo-China from 1975. She was a member of more than twenty overseas delegations during her parliamentary career, and in August/September 1980 was Australian Parliamentary Adviser to the United Nations General Assembly.[10]

On 29 March 1999 Martin Sullivan became the longest-serving female parliamentarian in Australian history. This twenty-five-year milestone was recognised by speeches in Parliament by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and a gala event was held in her honour. Not long after the celebrations she announced to the Parliament that she would be retiring at the next federal election, expressing her desire to spend more time with her husband. She stood down from her ministerial role in early 2000, and concluded her final parliamentary term in October 2001, having served for more than twenty-seven years.

Kathryn Martin Sullivan’s political career spanned an era when the participation of women in Australian public life underwent a massive transformation. Looking back at her years as a parliamentarian, she noted, as a ‘walking, talking fossil’, the enormous changes she had witnessed. The only woman on the Coalition side of the House of Representatives chamber for the six years following her election, at the time of her retirement there were seventeen such women, and fifty-five women in all in Parliament. A new generation of male parliamentarians with changed attitudes to women no longer made her feel, as she had for some years in the House of Representatives, that preconceived ideas prevented them from hearing what she was saying. Political parties had accepted that there was a ‘legitimate, non-radical female point of view on most issues, relevant to an electorate of fifty per cent women voters’. She had found easy acceptance in her electorate, and less preoccupation with her gender in the press. But Martin Sullivan felt that there still needed to be changes before women could be comfortable in Parliament. In a famous incident in 1993 the then Treasurer John Dawkins had called her ‘sweetheart’ during a question time debate, causing an uproar in the chamber and an immediate withdrawal and apology. She abhorred ‘the daily shout and verbal gouge’ of Question Time, and structures such as this would have to change, she said, ‘before women will really have their impact’.

Much admired for her abilities and dedication to public service, Martin Sullivan was also recognised as ‘tough-minded, outspoken and highly principled’. After leaving Parliament she continued to serve the community through her involvement in numerous societies, trusts, associations and clubs. Bob Sullivan died in 2008. In 2003 Kathy Martin Sullivan was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AO). This award for service to the Parliament of Australia and to the community specifically noted her work as an advocate for improved services and conditions affecting women.[11]

Annemieke Jongsma

[1] Transcript of interview with Kathy Sullivan by Lindsay Marshall, Decades of Division Oral History Project, 11 Sept. 2010, NLA [OH Interview]; ‘Profile: Senator Kathy Martin’, House Magazine, 25 Sept. 1984, p. 3; Who’s Who of Australian Women, Methuen Australia, Syd., 1992, pp. 313–4.

[2] OH Interview; Transcript of interview with Kathryn Sullivan by Pru Goward, 11 Jan. 1991; Courier Mail (Brisb.), 24 June 1973, p. 10; Australian (Syd.), 7 Jan. 1974, p. 4; Woman’s Day (Syd.), 15 July 1974. p. 16; The Bulletin (Syd.), 15 March 1975, p. 23.

[3] Kathy Martin Sullivan, ‘Women in Parliament: Yes! But what is it really like?’, Papers on Parliament, No. 22, Feb. 1994, pp. 15–30; Australian (Syd.), 1 Nov. 1974, p. 3; CPD, 25 Sept. 1974, pp. 1409–14, 5 Oct. 1984, pp. 1333–8, 29 Oct. 1974, pp. 2077–81, 18 March 1976, pp. 635–43, 30 March 1977, pp. 669–71, 6 April 1978, pp. 915–22, 21 Sept. 1978, pp. 832–5, 31 May 1983, pp. 1001–2; CPD (R), 26 Feb. 1985, pp. 213–6, 20 Aug. 2001, pp. 29738–40; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Jan. 1976, p. 13.

[4] Fifth Invergowrie Lecture by Senator Kathy Martin, State College of Victoria, 7 Aug. 1978; CPD, 31 March 1976, pp. 933–8, 17 Nov. 1976, pp. 2073–6, 30 March 1977, pp. 645–8, 20 April 1977, pp. 828–33, 14 Sept. 1983, pp. 680–3; CPD (R), 20 April 1988, pp. 1870–2, 22 Nov. 1988, pp. 2987–9, 16 June 1989, pp. 3655–8, 7 Sept. 1989, pp. 1125–8, 26 May 1992, pp. 2808–12, 6 Nov. 1996, pp. 6684–6.

[5] CPD, 19 Nov. 1974, pp. 2499–503, 20 March 1980, pp. 907–10, 11 Nov. 1982, pp. 2240–3, 9 Dec 1983, pp. 78–9, 13 Dec. 1983, pp. 3686–9; CPD (R), 9 Oct. 1986, pp. 1836–7, 26 Feb 1987, pp. 787–90, 20 Oct. 1993, pp. 2231–3, 24 March 1994, pp. 2103–6, 4 May 1994, pp. 197–202, 8 Nov. 1994, pp. 2784–5, 2815–7, 10 April 1986, pp. 2051–6, 8 March 1989, pp. 683–6; Kathryn Sullivan, ‘Reflections on 25 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate’, ASPG (Qld), 11 Nov. 1999; Margaret Fitzherbert, So Many Firsts, Federation Press, Annandale, NSW, 2009, pp. 124–5; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 20 March 1983, p. 6; Australian (Syd.), 29 March 1983, p. 9.

[6] CPD, 11 March 1981, pp. 531–5, 543–7, 12 May 1981, pp. 1837–8, 27 May 1981, pp. 2172–4, 2178–80, 10 June 1981, pp. 2999–3002, 24 Aug. 1983, pp. 62–3; National Times (Syd.), 14 June 1981, p. 23; CPD, 19 May 1982, pp. 2190–4, 26 Aug. 1982, pp. 549–50, 578–80.

[7] Jenny Hocking interview with Kathryn Sullivan, cited in Gough Whitlam: His Time, Vol. 2, MUP, Carlton, Vic., pp. 251, 344; Paul Kelly, November 1975, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1995, pp. 239–40; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘PM’, 23 Feb. 1977; Transcript, ABC TV, ‘This Day Tonight’, 23 Feb. 1977; Australian (Syd.), 24 Feb. 1977, p. 1, 18 April 1977, p. 3; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 24 Feb. 1977, p. 4; The Bulletin (Syd.), 18 July 1989, pp. 132–6; AFR (Syd.), 8 May 1981, pp. 1, 10.

[8] Australian (Syd.), 16 Feb. 1983, p. 12; CT, 12 Feb 1983, p. 1; CPD (R), 27 Sept. 2001, p. 31666; SMH, 18 March 1983, p. 1; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 31 March 1983, p. 3.

[9] Media Release, Kathryn Martin Sullivan, 8 March 1996; AFR (Syd.), 8 Oct. 1997, p. 17; SMH, 16 March 1996, p. 35.

[10] Transcript of speech by Kathryn Sullivan for AUSAID, Gold Coast, 19 June 1998; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 16 Nov. 1979, p. 9; CPD (R), 21 Nov. 1979, pp. 2635–40; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘AM’, 13 Nov. 1979, 11 July 1980; CPD, 11 June 1981, pp. 3063–4, 646–50, 2216–9.

[11] CPD (R), 29 March 1999, pp. 4571–5; Media Release, The Hon Kathy Sullivan, 23 May 1999; CT, 24 May 1999, p. 4; Pru Goward Interview, 11 Jan 1991; Sullivan, ASPG speech, 11 Nov. 1999; Papers on Parliament, Feb. 1994; CPD (R), 27 Sept. 2001, pp. 31666–8, 1 Sept. 1993, p. 634; SMH, 16 March 1996, p. 35; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 7 Oct. 1997, p. 11.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 163-167.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1974–84 (Lib)

MHR, Moncrieff, Qld, 1984–2001(Lib)

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1997–2000

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee D, 1974–76, 1983–84; C, 1976–78; B, 1978, 1981–83; A, 1978–80; G, 1982

House Committee, 1974–75, 1978–84

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1976–78, 1983–84

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1978–81

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1981–84, 1985–89

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1981