Hon. Joan Elizabeth Kirner, AC
Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Local Government) — I rise to join this condolence motion for Joan Elizabeth Kirner, AC, a well-respected and loved Labor leader and our first and only female Premier.
Joan was a teacher. She started her teaching career in 1963 as a technical school teacher. She would spend almost 20 years as a teacher before entering politics. For many us in generations X and Y, doing 20 years of anything is almost unheard of, let alone spending alone 20 years as a teacher before entering this place.
Joan served on boards and was president of various school groups, including the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Clubs. Although Joan left teaching to pursue politics, she never actually stopped being a teacher. She spent her whole life mentoring, passing on what she had learnt and equipping the next generation to continue to fight for the causes she devoted her life to. That is where I met Joan — as a mentor and as a teacher of politics, along the way of my political life.
To pay respect to Joan is to acknowledge not only all of her achievements but also the sort of person she was. Many of my colleagues here today have talked about the generosity of Joan’s spirit, how she would always ask her colleagues how they were travelling, how their families were and how politics was for them on every single occasion she came across you. It was extremely special. Joan was always extremely supportive.
In 1982 Joan was elected to the other place as a member for Melbourne West Province, and in 1988 she was elected to this place as the member for Williamstown. As a member of the newly elected Labor government she busily set about her tasks very seriously, including the various committees she sat on and extending her undeniable talent to go on to become the Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands in 1985. Joan would go on to hold several other ministries, including her beloved education portfolio and, when she was Premier, the Minister for Women. They were the two portfolios that defined her time both in and post politics — the empowerment of all Victorians through education and gender equity.
Back in 1987, at the tender age of 15, I had the privilege of having a great politics teacher at school, which inspired my love of politics. Unfortunately, though, I had a very uncooperative maths teacher, who was not very supportive. After arguing with me one day about talking in class, he made the comment in front of the whole class — my maiden name was Sykes — ‘Ms Sykes, if you don’t shut up, you’re never going to amount to anything in life other than the president of the mothers club’. To which I retaliated, ‘If I become the president of the mothers club, I should be so lucky, because I will not stop there’.
It was only a few years later that Joan Kirner became Premier. I was sitting in the back of the car with my parents and I remember listening to her story as they went through her career before she arrived at the esteemed position of Premier. I heard that as part of her journey Joan had been the president of the parents club at Croydon North Primary School. This gave me inspiration — not to mention the fact that my mum was also the president of the mothers club at my primary school — about how personal activism could lead to political careers and career choices for women.
In 1990 Joan became Premier. Many have spoken about her tenacity and bravery in taking on that role when the economy was in such a difficult position and the government was struggling to deal with it. Beyond the politics of Joan’s time as Premier, the simple act of having the courage to take on the role and be an example for every woman in Victoria left such a powerful and lasting legacy. We can only wonder just how many women are now in power or in leadership roles in Victoria as a result of Joan’s example.
In Joan’s final speech in this place she said:
To have been the first woman Premier of Victoria was not only a great opportunity but also a great chance to say to the young women of Victoria, Liberal or Labor, ‘You can do it, too’.
After Joan’s career politics came the birth of EMILY’s List in 1996, thanks to her great support and encouragement. That organisation is dedicated to empowering, networking and supporting women to run for elected positions in local government, state parliament, across our party and in federal Parliament. Building upon the great debates in 1993 — which I was proud to be a part of — around the affirmative action campaigns, we saw EMILY’s List boost and support the number of women in our elected positions. In 1980 there were 60 Labor women in parliaments around Australia. There are now 152. I put that down to the great lot of work done by EMILY’s List.
Joan was also a very astute political observer. She could often sum up people in the flash of an eye. In 2005 I had the opportunity to attend the federal launch of Labor’s child care policy in the lead-up to the federal election. I had a four-month-old baby on my hip. I walked into that launch with the then Labor leader, Mark Latham. All of the mothers with babies on their hips got chaperoned to the front and asked to stand in front of the cameras while the new Labor leader made his announcements.
Babies being babies, they do not always behave just because the cameras are on. My four-month-old decided to exercise his lungs numerous times at a pretty high pitch in the middle of the leader’s speech, during which Mr Latham kept stopping and glaring at me. There was not much I could do. After a few minutes of this happening and with announcements constantly stopping because of the baby’s noise, Joan could see I was getting a little distressed at the situation and walked across the room in front of the cameras and took my son from me, put him on her hip and continued to stand there. When the press conference was over she turned to me and said, ‘If that man cannot survive through a squealing baby, I don’t know how long he is going to last in politics’. She was a great observer and she was always very encouraging of women when they had to bring their children to events, as we have heard from previous speakers.
I would also like to touch on another great story of Joan’s, one which I am not sure that many people in the house would know about, and that is her meeting Lady Gaga. In 2009 Joan was on a plane going to a conference and there was a woman sitting next to her who was dressed quite exotically — she was in long boots, had long hair and had on lots of make-up. People say that fate often has a good sense of humour. On that day fate certainly had a good sense of humour because Joan sat next to Lady Gaga on that flight from Melbourne to Adelaide.
Neither of them really knew who the other was. At first glance the pair were not drawn to each other, but on the flight they started talking about America, Obama, the presidency and everything. Eventually Lady Gaga asked Joan what she did. Joan told her that she used to be the Premier of Victoria, to which there was a blank stare. After explaining that the premier is essentially the same as a governor, Lady Gaga was quite impressed and asked Joan what it was like to be a female governor. Joan replied, ‘Why don’t you tell me what it’s like to be a female singer?’. Lady Gaga said, ‘It’s really tough actually’. Joan retorted that being a female governor was just the same. They went on to agree that they had both come to the realisation in life that what people thought of you did not matter as long as they knew what you stood for. I think fate shined down on both Joan and Lady Gaga on that flight that day.
A good friend of mine, Mel McGrath, who could not be with us at Joan’s funeral on Friday because she is overseas, had this to say in reflecting on Joan and her life:
Before I met Joan I had never met an older woman made of such steel, with such a mind and who had to break down so many barriers to carry her power. Long after she was Victoria’s first and only woman Premier she looked out for young women, passed on her wisdom, gave us a hand and the occasional kindly kick up the bum. I am braver because I knew her. I trust myself more because she trusted me. I learnt what a woman with power looks like close up and I learnt that I can make a difference if I want to.
I think those words are very fitting, and I could not agree with them more.
Four years ago I had the privilege of being elected to the national executive of the Australian Labor Party. It has been a long four years in that role. During that time I was also appointed as a member of the subcommittee of the national affirmative action working group, which is something I have taken very seriously over the last two years. It has not been an easy road discussing issues and negotiating with all the groups across all the states. That group has now finalised its work and will be reporting to the national conference in Melbourne in July. It is a 20-page report that contains many recommendations; it has both Joan’s fingerprints and foresight all over it. It continues to support affirmative action quotas for preselection and it looks to enforce rule changes so that those quotas are upheld at preselection time. It also goes further in outlining an engaged plan to build the membership of women and improve women’s representation in appointed and elected positions across the party. I look forward to having those debates at the conference and know that Joan will be watching over us.
I thank you, Joan, for your advocacy, for leading the way for women in our party, for leading the way for women in this state and for putting the ladder up and helping others to climb it, because all too often there are women who make their own way up and do not do that. You certainly did. Thank you for your support in the affirmative action debate for many years now, thank you for helping to establish EMILY’s List and, most importantly, thank you for supporting me on my journey. On Friday at Joan’s funeral Helen Reddy’s voice belted out of the speakers singing I Am Woman. The most fitting tribute to Joan was that so many women at the funeral joined in and sang along. That was a fantastic tribute.
I pay my condolences and respects to her husband, Ron, to Michael, Kate and David, to her grandchildren, to her cousins, to her broader family, to all those who would have called her a friend, to all those at EMILY’s List and to all those she mentored. She is leaving a big hole for us to fill in the Australian Labor Party. To quote a phrase from EMILY’s List, which I know was coined by Joan:
When women support women, women win.