COLEMAN, Ruth Nancy (1931–2008)
Senator for Western Australia, 1974–87 (Australian Labor Party)

Ruth Nancy Huckstep (later Coleman), was born on 27 September 1931 at Collie, a small coal mining town in the south-west of Western Australia. She was the second surviving child of Vincent Huckstep, railway ganger, and his wife Alice Beatrice, née Boulden. A child of the Great Depression, whose father moved from place to place in the course of his job, Ruth was educated at East Victoria Park State School, Perth, and then sent as a boarder to the convent school at Toodyay during the bleak years of World War II. Although bright in the classroom, she resented the confinement, clashed with the nuns and occasionally ran away. She left school at thirteen to work in a shop. Later in Perth, Ruth was variously employed as a bus conductress, usherette, waitress, housemaid and cashier. Seizing an opportunity to train as a telephonist, she taught herself to type and was soon engaged as a secretary. As her natural flair for words and writing then developed, she moved into publishing, advertising and copywriting, and eventually public relations. She later said: ‘I kept on educating myself, and each time I changed it was to a better job. Always I felt there was something more’.

After her first marriage in the 1950s, Ruth lived in Melbourne, where she worked in radio and television. Following her divorce in 1964, Ruth and her daughter returned to Perth and for two and a half years she worked at Channel Nine as a publicity and promotions officer. On 10 November 1967 she married James William (Jim) Coleman, secretary of the WA Trades and Labour Council. She retained such a strong commitment to the workplace that, years later, she recalled a sense of self-indulgence at having taken a few months off in 1970 when her son was born.[1]

A block of butter labelled one pound weighing only fifteen and a half ounces, and a suit falsely labelled as ‘linen’, sparked Coleman’s interest in consumer affairs and further stimulated her interest in politics. Her appointment in 1971 to the voluntary, but demanding, position of foundation secretary of the emergent Consumers’ Action Movement led to her appointments to both the Consumer Affairs Council (WA) and the Retail Trades and Control Advisory Committee. Coleman also served as treasurer of the Mt Lawley branch of the ALP (1969–71) and as secretary of the party’s Perth divisional council (1970–73). Her tenacity was rewarded when she gained Labor preselection for the Senate and was elected to the tenth (last) Senate position for WA at the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974. In addition to consumerism, Coleman’s electoral platform focussed on peace, disarmament and opposition to discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or religion. Before long she would become a strong lobbyist for the non-proliferation of nuclear power.

Arriving in Canberra, Coleman was disheartened but not deflated to learn that she was now one of only five women in a Parliament of 187 members. After graciously acknowledging her female colleagues, senators Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle, Jean Melzer and Kathy Martin, in the course of her first speech on 11 July, she observed that ‘there is discrimination in the Parliament’, noting that while there was no mention of husbands in the parliamentary handbook, there was ‘constant reference to wives’. She suggested the use of the word ‘spouse’ instead. In the following year Coleman again noted that sexual discrimination ‘comes into this Parliament … We do not see female clerks of the Senate’. She viewed these instances as a reflection of community attitudes where women regularly encountered difficulties, ‘even impossible barriers’, in seeking to obtain finance for housing, hire purchase or other essential goods and services without a male guarantor, giving the example of a woman in Western Australia being unable to act as guarantor for a bond enabling her children to attend tertiary institutions. With regard to consumerism, Coleman urged support for the forthcoming amendments to the Prices Justification Act 1973 and for the reintroduced Trade Practices Bill. She assured the Senate that she had a very broad concept of the meaning of consumer protection, legislation for which should include living standards, creation of skills, welfare and safety in the workplace, in addition to good quality and truthfulness in advertising and reporting.[2]

Despite the fall of the Whitlam Government in November 1975 and Labor’s subsequent defeat in the December double dissolution election, Coleman was re-elected, this time in ninth position. She returned to the trials of travelling across the continent and often long distances within Western Australia. She objected to media claims that federal politicians were ‘pampered’, pointing out that she and her secretary were allocated two small, cramped rooms in the old Parliament House, often being obliged to remove papers from chairs to seat visitors. Privately, Coleman enjoyed pleasant accommodation in a house shared with her friends Senator George Georges and his wife.

Described by the Launceston Examiner as a ‘chain-smoking, Lauren Bacall look-alike’, Coleman’s mettle was tested soon after her election, when she was denied a place in Don Chipp’s Parliamentary XI against the Australian Cricket Society, despite his previous invitation to all parliamentarians. Chipp did not see his rebuttal as chauvinistic; after all he had supported her campaign for more female lavatories in the Senate side of the House. But, cricket being ‘a sacred game’, he simply could not envisage the ‘prospect of crouching in the slips beside a woman’. Next year Coleman retaliated by forming her own team of politicians and ‘ring-ins’ to play against a mixed team from the Press Gallery at the Forestry Oval on 20 March 1976, the same day that Chipp’s team was to play at the same venue. Reluctantly Chipp relocated his match to the Reid Oval. Coleman’s team secured a disputed victory, while at the other venue, Chipp’s XI lost by fifty runs. Taking on all contenders, in 1983 she was the first woman to win the parliamentary snooker handicap competition.[3]

While women’s issues remained central to Coleman’s purpose, she was anxious to point out that she was concerned with discrimination of all kinds, and was just as interested in discrimination against men as against women: ‘I don’t see issues as women’s issues. I see them as general issues from a woman’s viewpoint’. In December 1975 she was ‘appalled’ by Prime Minister Fraser’s lack of attention to women’s issues, and cited the resistance of the Coalition to ‘equal pay for work of equal value, maternity and paternity leave, contraceptives on pharmaceutical benefits, Medibank, legal aid and [the] National Employment and Training Scheme’. She welcomed Bob Hawke’s 1983 electoral promises of sex discrimination legislation and a revised employment program that would have far-reaching implications for women.

After a series of tedious hearings before the Taxation Office, the Taxation Board of Review and the WA Supreme Court, Coleman and her husband’s claim for a tax deduction for a housekeeper was upheld in 1978. Not popular with the Taxation Department, this decision became an important precedent for other working mothers, and strengthened Coleman’s resolve to press the Senate to recognise certain other expenses working women incurred such as child care expenses. The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) pursued these matters, while Coleman maintained pressure to upgrade support for families and pushed for the registration of babysitters. Adequate provision of women’s refuges was high on her agenda. She caught the public eye by leading a group of WEL members to challenge drinking rights at the all-male Hitching Rail bar at the Canberra Rex Hotel. Although sympathetic to the lack of provision for lone fathers and the work of the Supporting Fathers’ Association, she alleged in 1977 that a group called FORCE (Fathers’ Organisation for Revolutionising Custody Entitlements) was aiding divorced fathers in smuggling their children out of the country. The existence of the group was never substantiated.

In December 1976 Coleman damned the Fraser Government’s Aboriginal rights legislation as ‘a rip-off’ and contrary to recommendations made in the Woodward Report. Likewise, she was highly critical of the Court Government in Western Australia, particularly over its role in 1980 in excising land in Aboriginal reserves to provide exploration rights to the minerals company AMAX, a decision which led to serious confrontation at Noonkanbah. In October 1979 she drew the Senate’s attention to alleged police brutality at Marra Worra Worra Community near Fitzroy Crossing, WA; in June 1981 Coleman expressed concern about the high incidence of trachoma in Aboriginal communities; and in September 1981 she decried the Western Australian Government for condoning separate Aboriginal bars in hotels.[4]

Ruth Coleman was most remembered for her passionate opposition to the threat of nuclear warfare and to uranium mining, and for her defence of civil liberties. Between 1978 and her retirement in 1987, she was busy making her position clear in the Senate, at street rallies and through the regular Nuclear News Roundup issued from her office. Her differences of opinion with Chipp ended on the cricket pitch; they were in agreement on the nuclear issue. At an anti-nuclear rally in Perth in December 1978, co-organised by Chipp, Coleman spoke on behalf of the Kimberley Land Council and local trade unions. Early the following year, she helped establish the Women Against Uranium Mining group; she also joined the People for Nuclear Disarmament’s protest walk to Wilbinga, near Gingin, WA, the Coalition Government’s proposed site for Australia’s first nuclear power station. Together with ninety other people, including several parliamentarians, Coleman was arrested during a civil liberties campaign march in Brisbane on 26 July 1979. She was subsequently fined seventy dollars. Unrepentant, she told the court that ‘Repressive legislation introduced by ultra-conservative Governments, administered by magistrates, has taken away the right of free assembly’. Back in Perth in July 1980 Coleman was again arrested under the ‘badly-phrased and badly-worded’ section 54B of the Police Act 1892 (WA) which, she said, hit at freedom of speech, ‘one of the cornerstones of democracy’. Coleman reiterated her fear that civil liberties were being gradually eroded. After the hearing in December she admitted that she had been in a ‘frightening situation’ but would do the same thing again to defend her civic rights. While she was considering, as a matter of principle, whether or not to pay the twenty dollar fine, appeal, or spend five days in jail, the fine was paid anonymously on Christmas Eve. Staunch in her belief in human rights, Coleman demanded an investigation into ASIO’s treatment of David Combe during the Ivanov affair in July 1983, which she described as ‘Australia’s worst denigration of a person’.[5]

As the 1980s progressed the nuclear debate accelerated and Coleman was prominent in the public arena. She was quick to warn that Western Australia would be a prime target in a future war if, as was mooted, Cockburn Sound was to be used by the US Navy as a base for anti-intercontinental ballistic missile carriers and nuclear powered vessels. She strongly opposed the use of low-frequency communications at the US base on North West Cape, arguing that orders for a nuclear strike might bypass the Australian Government. In the Senate Coleman also questioned proposals for uranium enrichment within Australia, and she was among a huge crowd of women protesting against the Pine Gap communications facility in November 1983. She attended the Parliament House demonstration in 1983 at which a thousand protestors chanted ‘leave it in the ground, Bob’ and a mock nuclear submarine was floated in a pond on the parliamentary lawns, and when a US naval flotilla, including three nuclear powered vessels led by the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson visited Fremantle in July 1983, Coleman joined a demonstration of ten thousand peace activists. She was well aware that the visit was in breach of stated Labor policy, and that the local council had declared Fremantle an anti-nuclear zone. After the senior Royal Australian Navy (RAN) recruiting officer for WA briefed nine thousand visiting American sailors not to take any notice of the protesting ‘idiots and clowns’ and made a reference to local women and ‘indoor sports’, complaints by Coleman and fellow senator Pat Giles resulted in the protest organisers receiving a letter of apology from the RAN.

The Roxby Downs uranium mining project in South Australia emerged as a critical problem for Coleman. Prime Minister Bob Hawke argued that it would be immoral not to proceed because of the jobs involved, and in October 1983 Caucus voted, by fifty-five votes to forty-six, to support the project. Coleman stated publicly that ALP policy unequivocally prohibited new developments and that Roxby Downs contravened this. She also claimed that the Caucus vote was not a true majority decision, having been achieved only because Cabinet members were bound to support it. On 10 November Coleman indicated that she might support a bill introduced into the Senate by the Democrats, which sought an immediate ban on the import and export of uranium and nuclear materials. Later that day she was carpeted by the Prime Minister and three of his senior ministers. Hawke and his colleagues reminded Coleman that party rules required Labor members to support in Parliament the decisions of Caucus, and warned her that she faced expulsion if she defied the party. She was also reminded that her defection would make no difference to the bill’s defeat, as it was likely to muster only a handful of votes. Coleman voted with the government against the bill, having accepted arguments that party policy had changed in 1982, at the request of the South Australian branch, to allow Roxby Downs, and that the bill was not in accord with ALP policy, as it called for an immediate end to uranium mining, rather than a phasing-out (a view which had also been put to her by leading left-wingers, Tom Uren and Arthur Gietzelt). In April of the following year Coleman made a submission to an inquiry by the Australian Science and Technology Council into Australia’s role in the nuclear fuel cycle, in which she was strongly critical of the Hawke Government’s attitude to uranium mining, declaring that no confidence could be placed in the promises and commitments of political leaders. In August 1984 she enjoyed some vindication when information relating to inadequate ventilation and the danger of radon gas in underground mines, gained from the Nuclear Issues Handbook prepared in Senator Coleman’s office, triggered a six-week blockade at the Roxby Downs mine.[6]

After a particularly gruelling pre-election parliamentary session, as her own term was not up Coleman campaigned vigorously for Kim Chance, the ALP candidate for O’Connor. But she was severely fatigued and the struggle to reconcile her conscience with party policy on uranium mining must have added to the strain. Coleman suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in her Midland office on 28 November 1984. Though critically ill for two weeks, she responded positively to brain surgery and rehabilitation on her return home. Her hair may have turned grey, a status she claimed to have earned, and she was obliged to wear clamps on her head, but her spirit remained intact. Despite some apprehension, and knowing she had only fifteen months to complete her Senate term, Coleman returned to work in March 1986 and was strong enough to periodically take her place in the chair of the Senate to relieve the President, a duty she had performed as a temporary chairman of committees for most of her Senate career. During one of these sessions, in November 1986, she brought proceedings to a halt by stating, in response to a query about how she should be addressed, that: ‘I have no sex in this position’. In 1987 Coleman said that she ‘would have liked to have been the first woman President of the Senate’, and at one time had come close to nominating for the post. She had been a member of the Standing Committee on Industry and Trade since soon after her entry to the Senate. From April 1983 until the time of her illness she chaired the committee, overseeing major inquiries into economic relations between Australia and New Zealand, and Australia-China trade.

Serving during the terms of three prime ministers, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke, Coleman was thoroughly committed to grass-root ALP policy and never afraid to challenge when she perceived unacceptable departures from basic principles. The newsletter, Nuclear News Roundup, which she sponsored from 1982 to 1988, provided a valuable encapsulation of the breadth of national and international nuclear debate. Various other publications supporting Labor’s platform to phase out uranium mining and export emanated from her electoral office in Midland.

Coleman did not seek re-election in 1987. In her valedictory address to the Senate on 5 June 1987, she admitted to ‘some disappointments’ with the ALP, explaining that the party’s change of stance on uranium mining ‘upset me greatly’. She also expressed disappointment with lack of progress in Aboriginal affairs and in human rights. She assured senators that ‘in leaving this place I will not stop applying pressure’. There is little doubt that Ruth Coleman deployed her sincerity and energy to her very best during her time in the Senate.

Jim Coleman, who had been appointed a commissioner of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1975, retired in 1987 and the couple moved to Yunderup, near the Peel Inlet, WA. After Jim’s death in 1989, Ruth returned to Perth, settled at Bassendean and was soon a well-respected identity and president of the local bowling club (1999–2002). Diagnosed with cancer, Coleman died at home on 27 March 2008, survived by her daughter and son. A memorial service was held at the Sandy Beach Reserve, Bassendean and she was cremated at Karrakatta Cemetery.[7]

Wendy Birman

[1] ‘Profile: Senator Ruth Coleman’, House Magazine, 23 Oct. 1984, p. 3; WA (Perth), 14 April 2008 p. 42, 15 June 1974, p. 29.

[2] The Bulletin (Syd.), 15 March 1975, pp. 20–1; CPD, 11 July 1974, pp. 86–8, 15 May 1975, p. 1520; Examiner (Launc.), 28 Oct. 1977, p. 8; WA (Perth), 14 June 1974, p. 19; Sun (Syd.), 24 May 1974, p. 26; Margaret Reynolds, The Last Bastion, Business & Professional Publishing Pty Ltd, Chatswood, NSW, 1995, pp. 77–8.

[3] The Sun (Syd.), 15 Oct. 1975, p. 70; CPD, 5 June 1987, p. 3695; Age (Melb.), 29 Aug. 1975, p. 2; CT, 27 March 1976, p. 3; Examiner (Launc.), 28 Oct. 1977, p. 8; House Magazine, 23 Oct. 1984, p. 3.

[4] WA (Perth), 15 June 1974, p. 29; Advertiser (Adel.), 8 July 1976, p. 10; Press Release, Senator Ruth Coleman, 4 Dec. 1975; CT, 5 Dec. 1975, p. 8; FCTV v Coleman (1978) 8 ATR: 809; WA (Perth), 4 Jan. 1978, p. 22; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 24 Aug. 1980, p. 25; Transcript, ABC ‘AM’, 7 Jan. 1976; CPD, 30 March 1976, p. 887; SMH, 4 Dec. 1974, p. 15, 8 Sept. 1976, pp. 538–41; Examiner (Launc.), 24 Aug. 1977, p. 5; CPD, 8 Dec. 1976, p. 2794, 21 Aug. 1980, pp. 297–303, 26 Aug. 1980, pp. 397–9, 17 Oct. 1979, pp. 1449–56, 4 June 1981, pp. 2608–9, 8 Sept. 1981, p. 502.

[5] Australian (Syd.), 4 Dec. 1978, p. 2; Nuclear News Round-up, Sept. 1982–April 1988; WA (Perth), 14 April 2008, p. 42, 27 July 1979, p. 1; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 9 Oct. 1979, p. 7; WA (Perth), 16 Dec. 1980, p. 4, 25 Dec. 1980, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 21 July, 1980, p. 3, 18 Dec. 1980, p. 1; Advertiser (Adel.), 21 July 1983, p. 1.

[6] Australian (Syd.), 21 Feb. 1980, p. 8; Nuclear Issues Handbook, prepared in the Office of Senator Ruth Coleman, 2nd ed., Oct. 1980, 3rd ed., 1984; CPD, 18 May 1982, pp. 2035–6; Age (Melb.), 12 Oct. 1983, p. 6; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Nationwide’, 4 July 1983; CT, 5 July 1983, p. 7; WA (Perth), 9 July 1983, p. 2, 13 July 1983, p. 2; CPD, 10 Oct. 1983, pp. 2503–5; Age (Melb.), 11 Nov. 1983, pp. 1, 5; AFR (Syd.), 11 Nov. 1983, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 2 April 1984, p. 2.

[7] WA (Perth), 29 Nov. 1984, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 13 Dec. 1984, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 26 March 1986, p. 22; Ann Millar, Trust the Women, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1994, pp. 109–10; CPD, 5 June 1987, pp. 3694–5; Guardian Weekly (London), 10–16 April 2009, p. 1; WA (Perth), 14 April 2008, pp. 42–3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 491-496.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1974–87 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee C, 1974–75, 1978–81; F, 1975; E, 1978; G, 1981–82; A, 1983–85

Joint Committee on Prices, 1974–75

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1974–75, 1983–87

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1974–75, 1983–87

Standing Committee on National Development and Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1975

House Committee, 1976–85

Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, 1976–77

Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce, 1976–77, 1980–83

Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act, 1978–80

Standing Committee on Trade and Resources, 1978–80

Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, 1983–85