A visionary politician with a passion for climate change policyJuly 4, 2023
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Thomas (Tom) William Roper: March 6, 1945 − June 21, 2023
Tom Roper was a member of the Victorian state parliament from 1973-1994 whose ministerial career spanned eight portfolios from 1982-1992 in the Cain and Kirner Labor governments.
Tom Roper in 1991 when he was Victoria’s treasurer.Credit: Geoff Ampt
Roper was minister for health, transport, planning and environment, consumer affairs, employment, post-secondary education and gaming over the decade. He served as treasurer from 1990-1992. Roper twice served as minister for Aboriginal affairs from 1987-90 and from 1991-92. He was also the leader of the legislative assembly from 1988 to 1992.
In every ministerial portfolio, Roper’s service had profound and long-term benefits for Victoria and for Australia as a whole. He genuinely wanted to make Victoria a better place for all. Tom Roper was never motivated by self-interest or self-gain.
Roper often had spirited debates with his staff, public servants and his political foes. These were conducted respectfully. He was always prepared to carefully listen and weigh up an opposing view. Many appreciated Roper had a sharp mind and the capacity to grasp the detail. Ultimately, his approach and debate produced better policy.
Roper with Margaret Whitlam in 1973.Credit: The Age
Roper’s approachable manner won him many fans across his different ministerial responsibilities. He was genuinely interested in people and the impact of government decisions on them. He also had a fine sense of humour, even when the joke was at his own expense.
Roper was born in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood on March 6, 1945, and grew up with his family in Hunters Hill. He completed his school education at North Sydney Boys High School and went to Sydney University, where he graduated with honours in arts, majoring in history.
It was at Sydney University that he first became involved in politics and indigenous issues. He supported the 1965 Freedom Ride to expose and change racial segregation in rural NSW, working with the late Charles Perkins, former NSW chief justice James Spigelman and others.
As a student leader at Sydney University and with the National Union of Australian University Students, Roper continued his efforts in social justice reform. He published the book The Myth of Equality in 1971. He was the education adviser for the then federal minister for Aboriginal affairs, Gordon Bryant, in 1973.
Later in 1973, Roper was elected to the state parliament of Victoria. Over the next 21 years he held the seats of Brunswick West, Brunswick and Coburg – reflecting the changes in electorate boundaries.
Roper was a reformist minister, especially while leading the health, transport, planning and environment portfolios. He recognised the need to develop and implement these changes while acknowledging the financial situation and the need to generate efficiencies. This meant making some hard decisions. This approach did not always make him friends in his own party, the union movement or among other powerful vested interests.
Roper had many achievements as a minister, and he considered the most important had been the creation of the Monash Medical Centre. The centre opened on July 1, 1987, and brought together the former Queen Victoria Medical Centre, Prince Henry’s Hospital and Moorabbin Hospital to provide integrated, state-of-the-art health services.
Health minister Tom Roper, with Victorian premier John Cain in 1982, announcing details of the proposed Monash Medical Centre. Credit: The Age
As Aboriginal affairs minister, Roper was among the first state ministers to introduce cultural heritage arrangements to codify the protection of Aboriginal historical and sacred sites. He was deeply concerned after the release of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987 and chaired the first ministerial conference to address issues in the report.
During Roper’s time as treasurer the government was under increasing pressure, with the global downturn and also the failures of financial institutions, including the collapse of the Tricontinental Group and the Pyramid Building Society.
He never lost sight of the personal toll these issues had on individual savers and investors. Roper introduced legislation to ensure that building societies were professionally run so that there could not be a repeat of the Pyramid collapse.
As minister for planning and the environment, Roper understood much earlier than many the risks of climate change. He also advanced policies at the state and national level to address protection for the ozone layer.
He continued his advocacy on environmental matters after leaving politics.
In 2001, Roper was appointed to the board of Greenfleet, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to protecting the climate by restoring native forests.
He was also president of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council from 2009 to 2015. The council bought together the property and construction sectors across government, industry and academia to improve the sustainability of the built environment. The council awarded him an honorary life fellowship in 2016.
In 1991 Roper married Anita Schulz, his wife of 32 years.
Tom and Anita enjoyed living life abroad for a decade in Ottawa, London and New York, where they continued their strong interest in environmental and sustainability matters.
In Washington, Tom joined the board of the Climate Institute. There he built a strong network of relationships with key leaders on climate change matters. He was an essential conduit linking Australian policymakers with US leaders on environmental and other matters.
Tom Roper, then minister for transport, with planning minister Jim Kennan with the 1985 proposal for parkland to be built over the Jolimont rail yards.Credit: The Age
Roper was proud of the Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative. He directed this initiative, which importantly provided assistance to small island states seeking to introduce renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions.
In London, he continued his interest in environmental matters, becoming a sustainability adviser to government, business and non-government organisations.
Roper had many keen interests outside his work, including history, cooking and, most notably, sport. In the early days his chosen sport was rugby league. When living in London, he would take young visitors to the hallowed ground of Lord’s to watch a very English game of cricket, followed by lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Roper was also a passionate supporter of AFL, particularly his two favourite teams Carlton and Fitzroy.
In 2017, a stroke left Roper wheelchair bound. Nevertheless, he was as sharp as ever and his absolute determination and willpower came to the fore as he continued to battle a number of complex health issues in subsequent years. Anita stood by him always, caring and comforting him, for better or worse.
Roper maintained a keen interest in his former portfolio activities. In recent years, he was a strong advocate for the completion of the reforms he commenced in 1987 to improve access to public transport for the disabled.
Roper was an outstanding Australian, whose views were often far-sighted and visionary. His work on climate change and advancing a response in Australia and internationally cannot be underestimated. His commitment and support of First Nations peoples and their issues was steadfast throughout his life.
Roper represented the best of a bygone generation of politicians in Australia who are today respected and remembered as “best in class”.
He was very proud of his three children: Annabelle and Bronwen from his first marriage to Marilyn Joyce, and his son, Peter, who as a young man found his father and was happily welcomed into the Roper family. Roper was grandfather to Lily, Mackenzie, Primrose, Tuppence, Harry, Gabriel and Molly.
Roper always had a twinkle in his eye to the end. No matter his professional and political achievements, he will be remembered as and was a man of great kindness to all. He wanted to do his best.
Prepared by Tom Yates, PSM GAICD – a friend of Tom and Anita Roper for 30 years – with assistance of many of Tom Roper’s colleagues.
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