by Lisa Field
Chatting with Colleen Hartland, recently retired Greens MP, in her home in West Footscray is akin to visiting an old friend, with tours of the garden, sharing of produce and warm cups of tea on the back porch.
Colleen has called West Footscray home for a little more time than she served in Parliament, which was 11 years. Her home is compact, uncluttered, with a productive garden packed with fruit trees, vines, herbs and vegetables, and some empty garden beds waiting for winter plantings. Colleen claims her garden has been a place of refuge from the relentless work as a Greens MP that would often entail working 110 hours per week.
Colleen has been a community activist for many years and a familiar face at rallies. She comes from a politically active family, connected to the Labour Party and the union movement. Colleen was also a founding member of HAZMAG (Hazardous Materials Action Group), a grassroots group that was particularly active in the 1990’s following the Coode Island chemical facility explosion.
Colleen has worked on many campaigns over the years. Being persistent was a necessary attribute to achieving any form of success. The dying with dignity campaign finally resulted in the passing of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill in 2017, but this was something she raised in her first year of office.
Colleen admits that when campaigning for any change you have to think in long terms. There is also the need to acknowledge the small wins along the way and work with what can be changed, HAZMAG being an example.
HAZMAG was not successful in achieving the relocation of the chemical storage facility away from Coode Island, but it did lead to improved inspections, the community were better informed, chemical safety signage were introduced on all truck loads and the group forged a strong partnership with the emergency services.
Colleen acknowledges that social media has become a very useful tool when used correctly. She sites an example of when there was the horrific stabbing of a woman outside a Sunshine shopping centre in broad daylight in April 2014. The woman had just been to the courts for an intervention order to protect her and her children from an abusive partner when she has fatally stabbed by him. The community were in shock. With a quick and active social media campaign, a candle light vigil was arranged and hundreds of people came out to rally in support of this woman and her family on a cold and wet evening in Sunshine.
The timing and presenting issues using the voice of personal experience can also be effective sites Colleen, with Rosie Batty being an example. Rosie Batty was not your stereotypical victim of family violence. Rosie was articulate and went on to become a family violence campaigner. Her personal story was powerful and her timing around the state elections was crucial to achieving significant reform to family violence prevention.
Colleen too shared her personal experience during the campaign to decriminalise abortion. She did not consciously set out to tell her story of having a termination, but it became necessary to add her personal account to the debate in Parliament in 2008. Timing and sharing can make a difference. It can also help to share.
At the same time I am meeting with Colleen, there has been a major delay on the West Gate Freeway due to a truck turning over, luckily no one was injured. Also announced in the media on the same day, the West Gate Tunnel Project was halted by the Greens Party and the Coalition through a block to a parliamentary planning approval. Maribyrnong Transport Action Group (MTAG) who are in favour of this road development, were deeply disappointed by the Greens lack of support. Colleen sites MTAG as an example of where you have to work on the things that you do agree, even when you don’t agree with everything.
Colleen and her office have been very involved in MTAG over the years. MTAG has been very proactive in raising awareness of diesel and noise pollution, the lack of residential amenity and unsafe streets in Maribyrnong due to the large volume of trucks on their streets. They have achieved several wins, like evening curfews on trucks, averting trucks during school pick up and drop off times, and have worked well with police to stage blockades. They admit that the West Gate Tunnel is not a perfect solution, but there intention is clear, to get trucks off their roads.
Colleen is very relaxed now she has left Parliament, and this is partly because she knows her position is being taken by the preselected Huong Truong, who will become the first Vietnamese Australian woman to sit in an Australian Parliament. Huong is the daughter of a Vietnamese boat people and has strong grassroots connections in the West, much like Colleen.
Whilst Colleen has left Parliament, she has not left politics all together. The work will continue, but just at a different pace, where planting her winter veggies and soaking up the sun on her back porch can be more fully enjoyed.