Joan Kirner

Hon. Joan Elizabeth Kirner, AC

09 June 2015


June 9, 2015

MS RYAN (Euroa) — I rise to pay tribute to the life of Victoria's first and to date only female Premier, the Honourable Joan Elizabeth Kirner. I do so particularly on behalf of the people of the Euroa electorate and women in The Nationals. I never met Joan Kirner, but I wish I had. When I asked those who knew her how they would describe her, the words they used included 'generous', 'compassionate', 'a trailblazer', 'courageous' and 'resilient'.

As we have heard, Joan was born on 20 June 1938 in Essendon. Her father was a fitter and turner and her mother a music teacher. She was educated at Penleigh Presbyterian Ladies College and graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1958 with a bachelor of arts and a diploma of education. She worked as a teacher for a number of years and later became a parent activist, with the aim of improving state education, particularly for disadvantaged schools.

There is a wonderful story, which has already been told today, about the day she went to enrol her first child in kinder in Croydon. After discovering that 54 students were to be in a class with one teacher, she told the principal, 'Not my child'. But instead of enrolling her child in another kindergarten, she decided to change the system. In 1998, six years after entering the Victorian Parliament, she got her chance when she became the Minister for Education. She introduced the Victorian certificate of education and reduced class sizes, which led to improvements in school retention rates.

Another significant achievement, particularly for rural communities, which is widely acknowledged today, was her creation of Landcare as the Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands. In 1985 Joan brought together five separate departments with apparently overlapping roles but with very different institutional cultures. It was her nous and political skill that got this new department to collaborate. Since its establishment, Landcare has been formed throughout Australia and can now be found in more than 20 countries around the world. This week the Granite News, a community newsletter published in the Strathbogie tablelands, carried this reflection:

Many of us can clearly remember the day Joan as Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands came to Whiteheads Creek to launch the Landcare group at the home of Alan and Maxine Coulson. We were the second formed in the country if not the world. Joan had only just met us all, but she noted that Landcare brought together the traditional farmers and new residents and 'greenies' in common cause to restore the land. She was well respected by all of us, and is still remembered fondly to this day.

Today Landcare remains as vital as it ever was, not just to the integrated management of farmland and environmental assets but also as a vehicle to bring rural communities together, particularly in times of hardship, and that was a role I noticed Landcare played through the drought.

When Joan Kirner became Premier I was just four years old. For my generation the memories of that time are informed by what our parents have told us or by what we have read, and it has been lovely today to hear the many reflections on such a warm, funny and community-minded person. Certainly many in rural Victoria did not support some of the decisions that she made as Premier, but it is worth noting that the circumstances in which she took over as leader of this state and the Labor Party were anything but easy. Unemployment was rising, and state debt had skyrocketed to $25 billion. You cannot help but admire how tough she was to take that job on and to do it in the face of great sexism and prejudice.

Joan Kirner's role in opening the doors of politics to women is perhaps one of her greatest legacies. As the Age put it last week:

While Joan Kirner may not have solved Victoria's economic crisis, nor saved the ALP from defeat in 1992, her legacy to the ALP and Victorians has been significant. She demanded that both the party and the Parliament become more accepting of and open to women; she was defiant in the face of sexist media and political commentary, and outed many a politician for inappropriate and gendered language.

There are many examples in both business and politics of women who climbed the ladder to success only to turn around and pull that ladder up. Joan Kirner was not that person. She knew Victoria would be a better and stronger place if other women were encouraged to take on leadership roles. That work continued long after she left politics, and undoubtedly her example and her mentoring have shaped the Victorian Parliament as we see it today. In acknowledging an extraordinary life, one that remains as a first for Victoria, we should surely reflect on the need to do more to achieve equal representation in this state.

When Joan was made a Companion of the Order of Australia three years ago she said of her elevation to Premier:

… it was a great honour, and the best thing is when women come up to me — three generations of them now — and say they know it was tough but at least I showed their daughters they, too, could be Premier.

Twenty-three long years have passed since Joan Kirner left the office of Premier, yet she stands alone as our only female Premier. She has smoothed the way for the women who will one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, follow her. It falls to us to do away with what barriers and prejudices remain.

I offer my very sincere condolences and those of my electorate to Joan's husband, Ron, her three children, her grandchildren and her many friends. Rest in peace.

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