As I begin this article, we acknowledge the Wadawurrung people as the Traditional Owners of this land, pay tribute to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and give respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
“She made change for the better” are the words Christine Couzens would like inscribed on her headstone.
Member for Geelong, Parliamentary Secretary for First People, Ms Christine Couzens MP is her official title. However, the moment you step into the warmth of her presence, the authenticity of her nature and then her first words are “Welcome, call me Chris”, you realise no matter the political affiliation, people must be enamoured with Chris and her grounded and inclusive ways.
People who know ‘Christine the politician’ and ‘Christine the person’ would attest to her political and personal life values and modus operandi as being the same. Christine is not a career politician and did not grow up in a politically affiliated family.
“I grew up in public housing in Corio, in the northern suburbs of Geelong.
“My family didn’t have a lot of money but I always felt safe and secure.
“Living in public housing showed me the real impact the government could have on people’s lives.
“And it led me to a lifetime of commitment fighting for our most vulnerable people.
“But nothing can compare to the honour of representing our community in the Parliament of Victoria since 2014.”
Chris was born in Baxter House and remembers being a curious and happy child. Her earliest memory is starting Kinder on her 4th birthday. She loved stories then and she still loves stories, with biographies being her favourite genre. “I love stories about other people’s lives and reading about their life experiences. ‘You should never judge a book by its cover’. I have learnt so much about others and I find it so inspiring.”
Chris was not an engaged student and aged 14, she swapped Corio Tech for work in a cake shop. An innate passion for learning, she planned to leave the cake shop and foster a career as a writer. However, this was somewhat stymied, when Chris discovered, aged 15 that she, with boyfriend, Gunditjmara man Allan Couzens, were pregnant. This was not unwelcomed news but it certainly changed some future plans.
Although Chris and Allan were far from overwhelmed with the impending birth of their child, it would appear that others were ‘morally overwhelmed’. One night in 1973 while staying with her sister in Footscray, Chris was labelled a “moral danger” to society and was arrested and handcuffed; her pregnancy was deemed a crime.
Totally confused Chris spent hours being questioned by police, followed by two nights in a girls’ home awaiting a court appearance. Chris remembers being fearful but also aghast at the terrible injustice and indignity being weighted on her, Allan and her family.
“My parents came up for the court case and they were distraught because the judge was saying ‘we can lock her up until she has the baby’. I ended up with 12 months’ probation. As part of the order, the judge said I would have to be married as soon as I turned 16.”
Their daughter Leah was welcomed with love soon after. This love also later welcomed two sons, Andrew and Mark.
Tragedy struck Chris and her family when, in 1980, Allan suffered a massive heart attack while playing for Corio in a preliminary footy final at Bannockburn. Leah was five, Andrew almost four and Mark just 18 months. In her poignant and powerful maiden speech in Parliament Chris recounted the tragedy, “I travelled in a car behind him, with the ambulance sirens and lights going. On the way to Geelong Hospital, about halfway there the siren and lights were turned off, and I knew then he was gone.”
Allan is obviously still an inspirational ‘presence’. “If I have an argument with someone or something bad happens now, I don’t hold grudges or worry about it,” she says. “Life is too short. But I often wonder what he’d think of his kids and grandkids. We have a huge family and I think he’d have loved that.” Family is central to life and Chris proffers “somewhere warm and friendly with family,” when asked her favourite holiday destination.
After Allan’s sudden death Chris was obviously bereft and consumed with worry. “I drove myself crazy thinking about what the future would hold”.
It’s a scientific fact, “the hotter the furnace the purer the gold”. Chris’ grit and determination, saw her turn tragedy to ‘gold’. She moved through the ranks and from humble beginnings as a voluntary community worker, to youth worker, to development officer where she helped to create a neighbourhood house and then on to managing the Regional Housing Council.
Here Chris realised her long held vision and passion…to be a voice for the voiceless as she advocated with and on behalf of some of our most vulnerable.
To add to what many would see as her ‘doctorate of life’, Chris began a degree in social science. Working full time, found her completing assignments after midnight as her children slept….once again the personification of assiduousness.
Chris by then, had settled with long-time partner Paul Griffiths, who she met in 1981.They lovingly welcomed a son PJ, born three months premature.
In the last semester of her arduous six years to degree, Chris cites Paul as her inspiration and motivation. Paul has also been a wonderful ‘Dad’ to all four children.
Although Chris’ own formal education was interrupted, she is ardent about education and life-long learning and its transformative power. “Without a good education, options are so much more limited.”
Chris does not have time for petty grudges or toxicity. By nature, she appears a very forgiving person. However, her exposure to the debasing, hateful racism she witnessed toward Allan and his family, and greatly influenced by her upbringing in Corio and Norlane with her parents and siblings have imbued her with a resolve to create “good social policy that makes change to people’s lives.” The pragmatist in Chris recognises that we still have a long way to go on all fronts!
Like the adage “Where words fail, music speaks”, Chris says that music can change her mood. Like her unrivalled support for community diversity, her music ‘style’ is as diverse as Emma Thompson to Jimmy Barnes, with Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, plus many others thrown in for good measure.
Postcode does not define the individual but it often defines the dreams and the opportunities afforded people. Chris fully embraces this sentiment. “At times I think people have a view that those living in areas in Geelong don’t have a desire to get ahead. But often it goes much deeper than self- motivation. It’s about having opportunities you can take hold of, too.”
In Chris’ company you recognise that she is not a gregarious person by nature. She is in fact a private person despite her status as a public figure, Chris says the fear of judgment hindered any instinct to open up too much, but her passion for “the disenfranchised and her hope for a better planet and a better future”, for future generations and for her precious 14 grandchildren changed that.
“I’ve always kept my life very private, but I now think, ‘Oh well, it’s all a part of who I am’,” she says. “I can’t change it and I wouldn’t want to. I’m happy with who I am, and how I got here.”
Family and funny movies make Chris laugh but it is injustice that makes her cry, and injustice that fires her passion and purpose. This possibly explains why “The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas” is one of her favourite films, with its “extremely confronting but strong message”, states Chris.
Her family describe her as committed and busy and she recognises her ‘super power’ as her determination. This dynamo of a human does have ‘down time’ and finds reading, bush walking and being with her family as her favourite ways of relaxing.
Many life coaches speak to the rhetoric and the reality of life. How on reflection we may find a disparity between our resume goals and eulogy virtues.
Regardless of political affiliation one feels that Chris Couzens’ amazing story to date, has already married together her ‘resume and eulogy’ and the possible headstone epitaph, that we began this story reflects this. “She made (and continues to make) change for the better.”
Written by Jacinta Foster-Raimondo, photo supplied.