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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1524

Senator BARTLETT (4:37 PM) —I wish to associate the Australian Democrats with this condolence motion and debate. I did not have the privilege of knowing former Senator Coleman personally, but clearly she served in this chamber during the time of many Democrat senators. A couple of her experiences with key founding Democrat member Don Chipp have already been mentioned. I do not know if the particular incident that was mentioned was before or after he shifted to the Democrats but, given their similar views on the issues of uranium and nuclear disarmament, I am not surprised that any earlier disagreements with regard to other matters were overcome.

It is also particularly important for us as Democrats to pay tribute to pioneering women, something the Democrats as a party have always given a lot of significance and importance to. I think it is important to make two points. Firstly, for all the progress that has been made, we do need to emphasise that we are certainly well short of equality, even basic equality in numbers in this chamber and in parliament more broadly. Just 30 or so years ago, in 1974, Ruth Coleman first came into the Senate. It is not that long ago, and to think of a Senate that had less than a handful, only two or three, female senators is quite extraordinary. We have made progress since then and, whilst there is still undoubtedly progress to be made, I think it is fair to say that it is a hell of a lot harder being one woman amongst three or four than being one amongst 20 or 30. We particularly have to pay tribute to those who performed that pioneering role, whilst continuing to emphasise the need to make further progress.

In some ways it sounds minor to be singling out Ruth Coleman’s role in the simple matter of having female toilets available for senators, which is mentioned in some of the media commentary about her life. The bizarre situation in Old Parliament House of two toilets being available, one marked ‘senators’ and one marked ‘officials’, outside the Senate chamber sounds laughable now, but I am sure it was not funny at all at the time. Those sorts of basic mechanisms for exclusion might sound minor but are very telling.

Ruth Coleman played a role not just in the anti-uranium debates but in nuclear disarmament and in issues which, in the 1980s in particular, were very fierce. In some ways I wish, particularly in terms of disarmament issues, that the debates were as passionate today as they were back then. She was a key player in those battles. It was interesting to read her final speech to this Senate in June 1987, in which she mentioned her disappointment with their changing policies on uranium issues, which is obviously no secret to the Labor Party. She also made statements which, sadly, are not out of place with ones many of us would make—in fact, I may well be making a similar one in a month’s time. They were statements about being disappointed with the lack of progress in Indigenous affairs, an area that she was also a strong campaigner on in Western Australia, and in human rights issues. I was interested to read about her role. Indeed, she was sentenced to jail—but ended up not going because her fine was paid—for breaching a Western Australian law of the time, a section of the Police Act which sought to restrict meetings to no more than three people without police permission, which is reminiscent of some of the laws that used to be in place in Queensland in the 1980s.

Senator Boswell interjecting—

Senator BARTLETT —It may well not be severe. We will not have a debate on that now, Senator Boswell. The simple fact is that, at least in how it is described, it was clearly a very severe law with regard to basic civil liberties. It was probably no surprise, given the picture of Ruth Coleman that has been painted. She was at the forefront of challenging that law directly by speaking at a meeting in 1980 and, after making a speech claiming her right to address constituents, being amongst 42 people arrested in Forrest Place. As I said, she faced jail because of her refusal to pay the fine, until it was paid by someone unknown. She was clearly a woman not at all afraid to speak her mind. She spoke out on behalf of other women and of other people. That role of a senator, speaking on behalf of people whose voices would otherwise not be heard, is a very important one.

The tenacity she demonstrated by overcoming the very severe and serious brain haemorrhage that she suffered without warning just before the 1984 election should be noted, as it has been by others. To recuperate from that and come back after a year or so of convalescing shows determination and also, as I think she also said in her speech upon returning, her love of the role of the Senate and the work that she could do there.

It is a bit unfortunate, but totally understandable, that we sometimes have few people speak to condolence motions for people who last served in this place many years ago. In some ways, I guess we all hope that we will live long enough that, when we do die, there will be no-one left serving here who remembers us. That would mean we have managed to survive for a fair while, so it is probably not a bad thing in lots of ways. But it does tend to mean that former senators’ contributions may not be as fully recognised as they might otherwise have been.

Clearly, Ruth Coleman was a pioneering woman in many ways. She has left a legacy not just for the Senate but for public engagement and political debate more broadly. As I think Senator Evans mentioned in his contribution, Ruth Coleman left school at the age of 13 or 14. She is one of a number of people who showed that a lack of formal education was no barrier to contributing incredibly effectively to the wider community, and indeed to political debate. That of course is not an exhortation that people should forget about school and go do something else; it is a reminder that, when people have that tenacity, that determination and that talent, they can overcome a lot of hurdles. Ruth Coleman did that in lots of ways. I am sure that the Senate, her state of Western Australia and the nation are better for her contribution. I associate the Democrats both with this motion and with condolences for her family.