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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1525


Senator LUNDY (4:46 PM) —Senator Ruth Coleman, who died on 27 March, served in the parliament from 1974 to 1987 as a senator for Western Australia. When elected she was one of only five women in the federal parliament—four in the Senate and one, Joan Child, in the House of Representatives. A feminist and fighter for many women’s causes, she commented in 1975, soon after being elected:

I think we are not mature enough yet to accept that women can be just as successful in the political field as in any other, and once this maturity arrives, we won’t appear so freakish. It’s unfortunate that we only have five female members out of 187. I’d like to see 25 to 30 women in—I don’t think that is too many out of 187, but I’ll not see it in my lifetime.

Well, she did see it in her lifetime, and she also saw encouraging progress during her time of service in the parliament. When she retired from the Senate in 1987 there were 25 women in the parliament, 17 of them in the Senate. And of course it is due to trailblazers like Ruth Coleman that we now have a total of 68 women—28 senators and 40 members—in the parliament. We owe her and those early women in the parliament a huge debt.

The return of the Whitlam government after the double dissolution in 1974 saw three Labor women elected to parliament: Ruth Coleman and Jean Melzer to the Senate and Joan Child to the House of Representatives, which had been without a woman member since October 1969. By 1984 Senator Coleman was the longest serving Labor woman in the federal parliament. Her background as Secretary of the Consumer Action Movement ensured that consumer protection was one of the issues she pursued here, and one that featured in her maiden speech. She served on many committees, including one on Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory and another on the Family Law Act. Not wanting to be restricted to so-called women’s issues, she chose to serve on, and later chair, the Senate Standing Committee on Industry and Trade rather than the health and welfare committee initially offered to her. She was co-convener of the parliamentary disarmament group and belonged to the Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International and to the ALP Parliamentarians Committee for Peace and Justice.

Senator Ruth Coleman’s maiden speech heralded the arrival in this parliament of a passionate feminist. She spoke of the discrimination faced by women in obtaining finance and of the requirement then for a male guarantor for financial loans and other matters. Soon after her arrival in the Senate she began campaigning for more women’s toilets in the parliament—such practical things—and she joined a protest by 30 members of the Women’s Electoral Lobby who were refused service in a ‘men-only’ bar at the old Canberra Rex Hotel. These issues received comprehensive press coverage. More importantly, perhaps, she highlighted the desperate shortages of women’s refuges, especially in Western Australia, and spoke of systematic police violence towards Aborigines in the north-west of Western Australia, sparking calls for a royal commission into these allegations. Another passionate cause for Senator Coleman was her anti-uranium mining and antinuclear weapons campaigns. She featured at protests at which she, with other Labor politicians, was arrested. She was indignant at one time when her court-imposed fine was paid by an anonymous supporter so that she did not go to jail.

Ruth was respected by, and in turn respected and maintained friendships with, a great number of the parliamentarians of her time including, for example, Liberals Fred Chaney and Peter Baume. On her retirement in 1987 Senator Chaney spoke of the trust and appreciation that had built up, and Senator Coleman spoke of the cross-party friendships, built often through committee work. In her valedictory speech she vowed to continue to apply pressure on questions of human rights, Aboriginal health and land rights, and in the debates on uranium and nuclear issues.

Susan Ryan, who was elected to the Senate in December 1975, commented of Ruth that ‘the constant travel from Perth to Canberra was cruel, but she withstood it stoically’. However, at the end of 1984 she suffered three severe aneurysms on the brain and spent 1985 fighting her way back to health. The Senate welcomed her back at the beginning of 1986, with many comments on her courage. Among her many interests were Scrabble and bowls, and in 1983 she was the first woman to win the parliamentary snooker handicap competition.

Of the senators in this current parliament only three served with Ruth Coleman, the only Labor senator being Senator Robert Ray, who of course has left us. I am very sorry that Senator Ray has left us. Senator Ray would remember the great controversy over the parliamentary cricket team of 1975, when Don Chipp sought to field a Parliamentary XI to play the Australian Cricket Society. Senator Coleman asked to be included in the team. Don Chipp, then on the Liberal opposition front bench, replied, inter alia:

My dear Senator, I am proud that I have never been accused of male chauvinism ... God knows, and all Members of Parliament know, that it is International Women’s Year ...[but] I must draw the line somewhere. To me, cricket is a sacred game, and as one of its many purists ... it is with great reluctance—but equal firmness—that I withdraw the invitation to you to play cricket in the Parliamentary Xl ...

Subsequently he was reported as saying:

If she bowled as fast as Thompson, with the guile of Lindwall, the hostility of Lillee, batted with the panache of Ian Chappell and the grace of Greg Chappell, and kept wickets as well as Marsh or Knott, the dear lady still would not play in my cricket team.

Complaining of Mr Chipp’s patronising air, and the fact that he had not bothered to determine whether or not she could play, Ruth set about recruiting a rival parliamentary cricket team to play a mixed team from the press gallery. The two teams played on the same day, with Don Chipp’s team being defeated and Ruth Coleman’s team scoring ‘a disputed win’.