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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1521


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (4:24 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 27 March 2008, of Ruth Nancy Coleman, former senator for Western Australia and places on record its appreciation of her long and meritorious public service and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

I had the pleasure of knowing Ruth Coleman, and growing up in the Western Australian Labor Party while she was a leading, and firebrand, light. She was a woman of great passion, great commitment, and great tenacity, and she took the view that no challenge was too much for her. She was a real inspiration for the participation of many women in the Labor Party, and in politics, and that continued throughout her career in the Senate.

She was born in the coalfield town of Collie in Western Australia on 27 September 1931 and, like so many working-class children of her generation, she left school at 14 and went to work in a variety of jobs before ending up in advertising and public relations. Before entering federal parliament Ruth’s political activism was focused on consumer affairs. She became very well known in the Western Australian community as a very strong advocate for the rights of consumers at a time when such activity was not commonplace.

Ruth became heavily involved as secretary of the Consumer Action Movement, and she was appointed by the Western Australian government as a foundation member of the Consumer Affairs Council of WA. She was also a member of the Retail Trades Advisory and Control Committee. Together with former senator Pat Giles, she brought a whole new aspect to the membership and participation of women in the Western Australian Labor Party.

Ruth was elected as a senator for Western Australia in 1973. She was then only the third woman ever to be elected to the Commonwealth parliament from Western Australia, and one of only four women in the Senate at that time. During those years, the male dominance of the parliament manifested itself in many ways, and Ruth was quick to come up against the male political establishment. She became known for challenging those establishment rules. When she was first elected, there were no bathrooms for women senators, and she started by waging a campaign for more female bathrooms on the Senate side of Parliament House. She insisted on using the male senators’ bathrooms until her demands were met.

Later that same year, Ruth joined in a protest by 30 members of the Women’s Electoral Lobby against the men-only bar of the Canberra Rex Hotel. They had originally been refused service, but a week later—after Ruth led another well-fought publicity campaign—the hotel relented and opened up the bar to women as well.

Ruth was also famous for the controversy she generated in 1975 when she tried to play for the parliamentary cricket XI. Ruth had volunteered to play on the parliamentary team in the annual politicians versus press gallery cricket match. To the great shame of the Democrats, the then team captain, the late Don Chipp—he might have still been in the Liberals then; that may explain it—refused to have her on his side, telling her that he could not accept the mind-bending prospect of crouching in the slips beside a woman.

Undeterred, the following year Ruth led her own mixed side against the press gallery, which had decided to place a ban on Chipp for male chauvinism. It is worth noting that, despite this incident, the two of them went on to become great friends. Ruth was that sort of character.

Ruth also took on the Taxation Office in 1978, when it refused to grant her deductions for childcare costs. Eventually the Supreme Court of Western Australia ruled in her favour, in what was hailed at the time as a victory for working mothers across Australia. Unfortunately, we are still having the same debates.

Beyond these stories, Ruth was a very active and effective senator during her 13 years in parliament. She fought against discrimination in all areas. She was passionate and outspoken on a range of issues, including consumer affairs, women’s rights, human rights, Indigenous affairs, world peace and disarmament, and she was particularly well known for her anti-uranium views. I know she was unhappy with my role in the ALP changing its policy in that regard last year.

During her time here, Ruth was the co-convenor of the Parliamentary Disarmament Group and was heavily involved in the Australian Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International. Ruth also served on a number of standing, select and joint parliamentary committees. These included the Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee on National Development and Ownership and Control of Australian Resources Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control, and the Senate Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes. She chaired the Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee on Industry and Trade and the Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce. In her valedictory speech, Ruth told the story of her first Senate caucus meeting. Those present were discussing the various committees, and one of her colleagues suggested that she would be best suited to the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare because she was a woman. In response, Ruth made a point of registering her interest in the standing committee on industry and trade. It was typical of her tenacity and talent that she became not only a member of the committee but eventually the committee chair. You didn’t mess with Ruth! In addition she also served as Temporary Chair of Committees from March 1976 to June 1987.

Like all Western Australian politicians, Ruth worked hard at trying to balance her work and family life, given the demands of travel, and no doubt her exhausting workload contributed to the cerebral haemorrhage she suffered in 1984. It was a terrible thing, but she displayed her trademark courage and determination to overcome that event. She returned to the Senate in 1986 but stepped down just before the 1987 federal election. In fact, I was due to replace her at that time but we had a double dissolution and I got done by the Nuclear Disarmament Party—which was a good thing for me! I had some dealings with her when I was seeking to succeed her and she really put up an enormous fight to contribute to politics and community activism despite the very severe health issue she suffered from, which was very debilitating. As I said, she showed great bravery in dealing with that and great purpose of mind.

Ruth Coleman was a pioneering woman in the Senate and did much to change public perceptions of the role of women in politics. It is a testament to the battles she fought and won that at the time of her retirement in 1987 the number of women in parliament had increased to 25, with 17 of them in the Senate. Of course that number has continued to grow since then. Ruth was known as a crusader for many worthy causes, and throughout her life she showed courage and determination in everything that she applied herself to. Ruth passed away on 27 March. On behalf of the government I offer my condolences to Ruth’s two children, Terry and Brad, and to her grandchildren, Kelly, Shane and Glen. Ruth will be missed.