A tribute to Pat Corbett

Change is made by those who show up - a tribute to Pat Corbett

I rise this afternoon to pay tribute to Patricia Lukin Corbett, a branch member of mine and a terrific supporter of progressive politics in Australia. Pat passed away on 3 January this year aged 89. Her life was an extraordinary one of service to others. She reminded us of the adage that change is made by those who show up.

In Marion City Council in Adelaide she showed up in 1974, serving first as a councillor and then as an alderman. She was the only woman on council and it was not always easy. As Pat noted in her memoir:

The Advertiser, before I had got my picture with 2 sons and a PhD on page 3, reported a local Liberal Party secretary had sent a letter advising residents to vote against me as I was ALP. The Advertiser took an interest in party numbers.

I rang my local ALP's federal MP and asked what I should do. 'Lean back and enjoy it' he advised on the grounds that any publicity in local government elections was a bonus. And it probably was. You can never judge the backlash or the frontlash either! The Advertiser probably did me a good turn.

Pat, as I have noted, was the only woman on council at that time. In her memoirs she reflected that she turned down an approach from the Australian Education Union to enter state politics in the Dunstan era.

One cannot help imagining that if Labor's affirmative action reforms had come two decades earlier Pat Corbett might have served in the South Australian parliament or, indeed, the federal parliament. She was there, showing up, at her local Canberra North Sub-branch even on the coldest Canberra night, listening and engaging.

Pat was optimistic. She was one of those people who buoyed you up and made you feel lighter in spirit when you met them. She was not a hater, and she was proud of our first female Prime Minister. The eulogies at the funeral from Pat's children, Jenny, Joan, Phillip and Peter, made it clear that she was not all sweetness and light throughout her 89 years, but when I met Pat she always had a smile on her face.

It was that smile and that optimistic outlook on life that saw her earn the first political science PhD by a woman at the University of Adelaide. Pat was there, as bubbly as ever, wanting to make sure the Labor Party could become an even more perfect version of itself. She was always looking for the optimistic changes that could be made.

Her commitment to progressive change was lifelong. As I have noted, she served in Adelaide on council. In LNP territory in Bright she was out there handing out how-to-votes. When she moved to Parkdale she campaigned against Jeff Kennett, which she said was one of the easiest campaigns to run.

Here in Canberra she helped out the Labor Party and was always on the ball with every contribution she made. She was generous in every encounter I had with her. When I was writing a book on economics a couple of years ago, Pat offered to help out. She ferreted out some fascinating tales of how poor education and a life of crime can sometimes go together—about how notorious criminals like Mick Gatto and Neddy Smith might have had better lives if they had finished school.

I love thinking now about Pat, in her 80s, going back through those biographies of Australia's most notorious criminals and looking for a way of telling that great story about how education can change lives—which so attracted her Australian Education Union friends to her during her days in South Australia.

The Labor family will miss Pat Corbett. We were privileged to be there as part of her funeral service, listening to the tributes from Pat's family and the musical choices from Richard Strauss, Vivaldi, Harry Belafonte and Bach. We are better for having known Pat Corbett and having worked with her. If we can learn from her example—to show up, to look on the bright side and to help others—we can perhaps help keep Pat Corbett's spirit alive, not just in Labor politics but in all we do to help our communities both in Canberra and across the nation.

Rest in peace, Pat Corbett.

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