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Robert (Robin) Fitzgerald Cooper

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Legislative Assembly 8 February 2022

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (12:23): Perhaps I can fill in that blank for the Premier: what was on the end of the chain was actually the gold pass for the Mornington electorate, and he carried it with him every day that he served in this place.

Today we pause to recognise the contribution to the Victorian community of the Honourable Robin Cooper, my predecessor of course in the seat of Mornington.
The debate is occurring because Robin was a minister, as has been said, between January 1997 and October 1999. And while his time in cabinet, I think it is fair to say, marked the pinnacle of his political career, it was a relatively brief interlude in a very long period of public life and an even longer period of public service.

In preparing for the debate I managed to unearth a copy of the 1985 Liberal candidate biographies. I am not going to read it out, but when you look through, they mostly run to about half a page; Robin’s well and truly filled the page. It makes for some interesting reading. As I say, I will not go through it in detail, but it does mention that he was educated at Xavier and later at Taylors College, which was not at all unusual in the 1950s, and then followed that with a management supervision course.

As others have said, 20 years followed in the building industry, interrupted—I do not think anyone has mentioned this yet—in 1964 by national service. In those days that was effectively two years out. That period ended as a self-employed consultant, but still in the building industry, from 1980.

But in terms of that profile, when you get to the community section, that is when you start to see the Robin Cooper that I really knew: 20 years service as a volunteer firefighter at the Mount Eliza CFA; election to the Shire of Mornington in 1972—there seems to be some controversy about when he was actually shire president, but my understanding is it was the council year 1979–80; member and chair of the Peninsula Regional Library Service; member and president of the Mount Eliza High School council; member of the Western Port Regional Planning Authority; member of the Mornington Peninsula development committee; and so on and so on—you get the idea.

Not content with all that, he was a player in a Mount Eliza Cricket Club premiership side and a long-suffering but ultimately triumphant Demons supporter.

Robin was elected to the Mornington council in 1972, I think a few months before Henry Bolte, the long-serving Premier, retired. As many would either recall or have learned, one of Bolte’s signature policies was creating the “Ruhr of Victoria” in Western Port and developing Hastings and French Island and turning that area into an industrial hub—it has got to be said—despite the wishes of most of the locals.

When Bolte retired that opened an opportunity to reassess that plan, so Robin’s time in local government, the 1970s and early 80s, were an absolutely critical time for the Mornington Peninsula. If that industrialisation had gone ahead, if we had had that nuclear power plant on French Island, if we had had the suburbs that were expected to go on the Moorooduc plain with tens of thousands of houses for factory workers and port workers and so on, the Mornington Peninsula that we enjoy today would be a very, very different place.

The contributions of the three councils then on the Mornington Peninsula and councillors like Robin Cooper were significant in getting those things changed.
Like many parts of Victoria, the peninsula experienced change as a result of the 1982 election. The seat of Mornington had been established in the 2nd Parliament, but in 1967 it was renamed Dromana. The footprint was pretty much the same, but the name was changed. In 1982 Dromana was captured by the ALP and for the first and only time in local electoral history the Mornington area was represented by a Labor MP in this place.

Now, Robin’s political ambitions I do not think were a secret from anyone. He was active in the party. He contested preselection for state seats, as the Leader of The Nationals said, on two occasions, and he actually contested preselection for the seat of Flinders as well, so his plans were out there. As an energetic Liberal and an experienced local shire councillor he was absolutely determined that the continued presence of the ALP in the seat of Dromana, as it was then, would not be tolerated, so he put his hand up again.

There was a redistribution—the seat of Mornington was recreated—and when he stood he gained a 3 per cent swing and of course returned the seat to the Liberal Party. As others have said, he held it for 21 years: he was re-elected in 1988, 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2002.

But in 1985 it was a very different seat to the seat we see today. On the Port Phillip side it was only the southern half of Mount Eliza and the town of Mornington that were included in the seat. Then it was sort of a long, narrow, horizontal seat that went right across to Western Port and included French Island—not Phillip Island but French Island.

As the population grew the seat changed dramatically, and eventually it contracted westward and moved north and south and took in the whole of Mount Eliza, kept Mornington, took in Mount Martha and was pretty much the seat we have today although a little bit smaller. As we all know, when you have change on that scale it can make things a little bit challenging for continuing in this place, but despite those changes Robin’s reputation as a very strong local representative endured, and so ensured continued success at the polls.

When he was elected to Parliament in 1985, as others have said, he went straight to the front bench as Shadow Minister for Local Government and Shadow Minister for Public Works.

And unlike today where councillors if they are elected need to immediately resign their council seats, for some time Robin was actually Shadow Minister for Local Government and a councillor at the Shire of Mornington as well. I believe his term ran out in August of the year he was elected, but he did six months wearing those two hats, so he had skin in the game when it came to the amalgamation debate.

Of course that debate immediately put him in the spotlight, and I know he relished the opportunity it gave him to get up and belt the government. I remember sitting up in that gallery one night probably in the late 1980s, and he was still waving the local government flag. He did a very vigorous adjournment—with far more vigour than you would see in most adjournments today. He had that spotlight, but when the reform agenda collapsed—and I do not think there is a kinder word you can use than that—he moved on. He became Shadow Minister for Police and Emergency Services, and he became Shadow Minister for Corrections as well, which I know he was not that enthusiastic about. He returned to local government in 1989 but added tourism and then the shadow ministry of public transport in 1990.

When Jeff Kennett returned to the leadership I think the nicest thing you could say is that Robin’s progress temporarily stalled. So he went to the backbench. And when the Kennett government was elected in 1992 he took the chair of the Public Bodies Review Committee, which does not sound particularly exciting, but if you think about it in the context of a reforming government and all the work that was done on amalgamating, eliminating public bodies and reforming the public sector at that time, it was a significant role.

When the government was re-elected in 1996 he became Parliamentary Secretary for Transport, Roads and Ports, and he joined the cabinet in the following year as Minister for Transport and held that post until 1999.

In the years of opposition that followed he, as the Premier said, sat in that chair. He mostly supported the leadership but always had serious input into parliamentary strategy—if you were to ask Robert Doyle, he might have a different view—and of course finished his time in this place as Manager of Opposition Business under leader Ted Baillieu.

The final comment I want to make in terms of Parliament is both in government and out of government he was a very strong supporter of the committee system, and when I was elected he actively encouraged me not only to be involved but to turn up and engage. And that was certainly very, very good advice.

Not only did he chair the Public Bodies Review Committee but, as the Leader of the Opposition said, he served on the House Committee. He had a couple of turns on the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee and 14 years as a member of the Privileges Committee. I am coming up for twelve years on the Privileges Committee, and I certainly endorse the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition.

Community service remained a priority for Robin after his retirement. He remained almost until the end a very active member of the community. He was a particularly active member of the committee of the Mornington Information & Community Support Centre and was for a time their president.

From a personal point of view, when I joined the Mornington business community in 1980 Robin was shire president, and at that time of course he was trying to balance the conflicting demands of public office, a growing family and a fledgling business.

He was one of those people you think you know because you read about them in the paper. You might see them down the street and give them a wave, but you really do not have anything much to do with them. I cannot recall when we first met, but I suspect it was 1982 or 1983 and was probably in the context of discussions between the Mornington Chamber of Commerce, of which I was an office-bearer, and members of the council—something to do with Main Street, I suspect.

But I can certainly clearly recall sitting next to Robin at a chamber of commerce dinner in around 1984. He would have been the Liberal candidate for Mornington. I was amazed that one person could sit on one 7-ounce glass of beer for the entire night and drink the last half inch or so as he left. But I probably now understand better the demands of public life and attending dinners. At the time, though, I was a lapsed member of the Liberal Party, having joined in 1975 and relocated to the Mornington Peninsula from Canterbury. I had a new business, open seven days a week, and that really did not leave very much time for anything else, so as I said I had lapsed.

At that time no-one was going to convince me to go and put time into a political party when I really was not getting enough sleep running the business.

But by 1986 Robin had convinced me to rejoin the Liberal Party, and the following year, partly with his encouragement, I stuck my hand up for a seat on the shire council, contested a seat and won it, and that really I think began a partnership that endured for more than 20 years. For almost five of those 20 years I chaired the electorate for him, and then of course he was generous enough to work very closely with me during the campaign in 2006.

Sometimes when you work closely with people you find they are not who you thought they were, but certainly—as again the opposition leader said—that was not the case with Robin Cooper. What you saw was what you got. You might not have liked what you were getting, but that was it. I think that in part was one of the secrets of his success in public life, because he was absolutely fair dinkum.

Certainly it was his example and that of another great Liberal, Alan Hunt, that fed any political ambitions I might have had, and I certainly thank him for encouraging that and for his support to allow me to be here speaking in this debate this afternoon.

All of us who serve in this place know that we cannot begin to do so without the strongest support of those closest to us. Robin’s marriage to Jennifer—it endured for most of his adult life—was a life partnership in the true sense of the word, and as the children arrived and grew, they joined and strengthened the partnership. Robin would have been the first person to admit that he could not have achieved everything he did without the backing of his family and particularly not without Jennifer’s enduring encouragement and strong support.

Robin served his electorate—the greater Mornington Peninsula—and the state of Victoria with distinction. His family can be justly proud of his service and of his achievements, and my thoughts, and I know Linda’s thoughts, are with Jennifer and with Rebecca, Jeremy and Anna. Vale, Robin Cooper.