Joan Kirner: 1st Woman Premier of Victoria, forever a Feminist Inspiration June 20 1938-June 1 2015 Print E-mail
 Melbourne ~ Monday June 1 2015

Joan Kirner obituary: the woman premier who represented many firsts

By Jennifer Curtin
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n 1991, Joan Kirner tries on one of two hats made for her by clothing studies students at Broadmeadows College of TAFE to wear to the Cup today and to Oaks Day  (Tina Haynes )

Joan Kirner, who has died in Melbourne aged 76 after a battle with cancer and other illness, occupies a special place in Victorian political history for being the state's first and still only woman premier. Yet she sometimes suffered the fate of commentators and scholars hyphenating her premiership with that of her Labor predecessor, John Cain jnr, as if she were not a premier in her own right. Indeed, had Kirner not been Victoria's first woman premier, we might be forgiven for wondering if her two years in office (1990-92) would be invisible ­ a neglected interregnum between the social democratic adventurism of the Cain era and Jeff Kennett's neo-liberal revolution

This would be doing Joan Kirner's legacy a great disservice. She represented a number of firsts. Not only was she the first Victorian woman premier, she was also the first Labor premier who came from the Socialist Left faction and prior to this, from an explicitly community politics background, with relatively little schooling or apprenticeship in party or trade union politics. In a sense Kirner forced a male-dominated ALP to recognise that participation in community politics as mothers was a legitimate form of political activism and equivalent to other forms of political apprenticeship.


Joan Kirner was often been depicted as the working-class girl made good: attention given to the fact that she came from Moonee Ponds, an only child from a working-class background but privileged in that her parents provided her with a good education. Born Joan Elizabeth Hood in 1938, her father John was a fitter and turner with a munitions factory, her mother Beryl, a homemaker and a teacher of music and kindergarten. It was from her father that Kirner learnt the importance of each person's dignity and the distribution of resources based on need. John Hood had lost his job during the depression and had to hawk tea to save the family home from being lost. When he regained his job at the department of defence he continued working there for 40 years. She also gained from her father a love of sport, particularly football. From her mother she acquired a love of music, a sense of determination, a rigid commitment to the protestant work ethic, a strong sense of equality for women and an unswerving belief in educational opportunities.

Kirner began her secondary schooling at Penleigh Ladies College, subsequently moving to the select-entry University High. After gaining an Arts degree from Melbourne University in 1957, she began teaching and three years later married a fellow teacher, Ron Kirner, with whom she had three children. How Kirner came to be involved in education issues is a well-cited story. She took her first son to kindergarten in the Croydon area only to find there was only one teacher for over 50 students. Appalled, she organised a petition and staged an ongoing protest outside the education department until the school was granted extra teachers and classrooms. She became an active member of the school's mothers club, and later began attending Victorian Federation of State School Parents Club conferences. In 1971, Kirner became president of the federation and remained so until 1976. She was also president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (1975-1981) and in 1973 was nominated as a parent representative to the newly created Australian Schools Commission, a centerpiece of the Whitlam Labor federal government's education reform program. Her time on the commission ensured her a profile as education advocate extraordinaire. And, in 1980 she was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) for her contribution to community services.

In 1982 Kirner entered the Legislative Council as the member for Melbourne West and her parliamentary ascent was swift. In 1985, she was promoted to the Cain government's front bench as minister for conservation, forests and lands. She later listed her achievements in the portfolio as the passage of critical National Parks legislation and the negotiation of a difficult timber strategy. Her intervention on behalf of women was evident in her establishment of the Rural Women's Network, and her consultative style was appreciated by many in the farming community. However, it is Landcare that proved Kirner's most lasting legacy in this portfolio. Its success as a policy innovation can be demonstrated by its implementation not only in Victoria but its emulation throughout Australia.

Joan Kirner was at Yarraleen Primary School in Bullen with Bush singer David Isam to launch 1990 schools touring Arts program.

In 1988, Kirner was elected to the safe lower house seat of Williamstown. The same year she realised her driving ambition in taking over the education portfolio. While she later held the portfolios ethnic and women's affairs, it was eduction that was her political raison d'etre. As minister she proved a knowledgable, enthusiastic and at times formidable leader. She oversaw the phased introduction of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), a reduction in class sizes and a surge in school retention rates surged.

Kirner's rise continued with her election as deputy premier in February 1989 and 18 months later, Joan Kirner became premier on 9 August 1990, following the resignation of John Cain. On the day after her election, The Age's Shaun Carney wrote: 'let's just deal with the shock of it … Joan Kirner. A woman. A member of the Socialist Left. Premier. In Victoria! It is real. It has happened.'

However, the premiership was widely recognised as a poisoned chalice - unemployment at 6.4 percent. The state debt had risen to $25 billion, and federal Labor's economic and industry policies were having a significant impact on Victoria's economy. Pyramid collapse had also claimed a considerable number of victims and surrounding her throughout this time were rancorous and increasingly destabilizing factional relations.

Nevertheless, after 100 days in office, the reactions to the Kirner government's direction were not all bad. Kirner had further steadied the ship after one year as premier and opinion polls showed her personal rating was a solid 44 per cent. Moreover, by the time Kirner left parliament in May 1994, the Reserve Bank of Australia had conceded that Victoria had begun moving out of recession in 1991 while she was still premier. At the time of the October 1992 poll, however, there was little economic sunshine in the state and the ALP's primary vote crashed to 38.7 per cent state-wide. For Kirner there was some consolation in media assessments that, without her as premier, Labor's losses would have been far worse.

Joan Kirner's public profile evolved during her time in politics: she began as the mother from the suburbs who went from mothers' club president to parliamentary candidate; as the polka dot-caricatured woman writ-large in cartoons; but perhaps ultimately as the first woman premier who inherited a political and economic mess and stoically struggled on to lose in a landslide, but with dignity intact.

After retiring from state politics, Kirner became the chairwoman of the Employment Services Regulation authority, in 1994 and she was elected president of the Victorian ALP in the same year. In taking up the presidency, Kirner moved the historic resolution to entrench the ALP's affirmative action rule which required women to be elected to 35 per cent of parliamentary and party positions by 2002. She was one of the instigators of EMILY's List, an organisation independent of the ALP that supports the election of progressive women, and she co-authored the Women's Power Handbook, a 'how to manual' for getting pre-selected and elected to parliament. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has described Kirner as a mentor and inspiration.

Kirner had been battling oesophageal cancer since her diagnosis 2013 and had undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment. At the time, leaders from both sides of politics were keen to offer her support. Premier Denis Napthne said Kirner had "been a real leader for Victorian politics, the Victorian community and particularly Victorian women".

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. Moreover, Kirner remained resolute and determined during difficult times; she was shrewd, tough and ambitious, and demonstrated that such characteristics were fitting for a female premier.

Joan Kirner is survived by Ron, her husband of 55 years, their three children, Michael, David, and Kate, Michael's partner Madeleine, and grandchildren Ned and Sam Kirner, and Xanthe and Joachim.
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 Melbourne ~ Monday June 1 2015

Promoted to an impossible job as Premier, Joan Kirner made tough decisions

By Josh Gordon

Victoria's first and only female premier, Joan Kirner, has died after a two-year battle with cancer. When Joan Kirner became premier in August 1990, she was bequeathed a political and economic mess.

The Labor government was in crisis. Unemployment had leapt from 4.7 per cent to 6.6 per cent in the space of a year (it would reach 10.4 per cent a year after that).

Joan Kirner concedes defeat at the tally room in October 1992. (Mario Borg}

State debt, at $25 billion, was in danger of spiralling out of control.

The government had presided over a series of devastating financial scandals. The Victorian Economic Development Corporation, a sort of venture-capital fund that attempted to pick winners, had chalked up losses of about $110 million.

The State Bank of Victoria had collapsed under the burden of bad loans handed out in the 1980s, mostly by its merchant arm Tricontinental.
Mrs Kirner, in her role as Conservation, Forests and Lands Minister announces a program to ensure proper planning for Warrandyte Parks in 1987. (Mike Martin)

Pyramid Building Society, along with its associated entities, collapsed with debts of more than $2 billion, costing Victorian taxpayers more than $900 million.

Labor had become balkanized, dogged by factional infighting and industrial unrest (the latest being a union threat to shut down the entire public transport system in protest over a new ticketing system).

Initially, Kirner's elevation was greeted with shock. Dubbed "mother Russia" by some commentators in the media and often depicted by cartoonists wearing a polka dot dress, Kirner was a member of Labor's Socialist Left faction.

She faced questions, including from her own side, as to whether she was up to the job of tackling the profound problems facing the state.

By this point Labor's fate was more or less sealed, but Kirner set to work trying to repair some of the damage. As a first step, she entered into negotiations with Paul Keating to sell the State Bank of Victoria.

According to Jennifer Curtin, who authored a chapter on Kirner in the book The Victorian Premiers, it was a momentous decision for a Socialist Left premier, leading to claims she had been "duchessed" by Keating.

Joan Kirner leaves Parliament after becoming deputy Labor leader. (John Lamb)

According to Curtin, for all the controversy, the sale had the benefit of kick-starting a debt reduction strategy, partially alleviated costs incurred by the Tricontinenal collapse, and hinted at the resolve Kirner could muster in making tough decisions when needed.

In response to the collapse of Pyramid, Kirner also put in place a politically unpopular 3c-per-litre fuel levy that would last for five years to help recover lost funds. She also furthered the privatisation agenda by offering for sale the State Insurance Office and several other agencies, put a casino for Melbourne on the political agenda and implemented cuts to the public service.

Kirner may not have put Labor in a winning position (polls showed Labor trailing by 20 percentage points one year in to her premiership) but she did perform surprisingly well, with a reasonably positive reception by the business community and the broader public.

"By the time Kirner left Parliament in May 1994, the Reserve Bank of Australia had conceded that Victoria had begun moving out of recession in 1991 while she was still premier," Curtin writes. "At the time of the 1992 poll, however, there was still little economic sunshine in the state."

According to Swinburne University political science professor Brian Costar, one of Kirner's lasting legacies was that Labor's 1992 wipeout could have been far more serious had she not proved a relatively popular and resolute leader, given the difficult circumstances she inherited.

Indeed, at the 1992 election Labor's primary vote collapsed to 38.7 per cent. The broad assessment in the media was that it could have been far worse.

But perhaps a more lasting legacy related to her work advocating for women in parliament.

After leaving politics in 1994, Kirner was elected president of the Victorian ALP, moving a resolution mandating that 35 per cent of parliamentary and party positions would be held by women by 2002. She was also instrumental in forming EMILY's List.

As Costar points out, in addition to ameliorating Labor's landslide defeat, her trailblazing efforts promoting women in parliament will have a profound and lasting influence not just on the Labor Party, but on the nation.

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 Melbourne ~ Tuesday June 2, 2015

The night Joan Kirner and Julia Gillard rocked on for Emily

By Daniella Miletic/Social Affairs Editor, The Age

'Joan Jetts and the Fishnets' perform at the Regent Theatre in 1998 (Jane Clifton)

Mary Delahunty smiles when she talks about the night in June, 1998, she, Joan Kirner and Julia Gillard pulled on fishnet stockings, bright red lipstick and leather jackets to take the stage for a performance she will never forget.

The women performed with Sharan Burrows and Jennie George – who would both later become ACTU presidents – and singer Jane Clifton in a fund-raiser for Emily's List, a political network supporting women candidates seeking election to office.

Jane Clifton sings with Joan Jetts and the Fishnets in 1998 at the Regent Theatre as part of Joan Kirner's 60th birthday celebrations (Jane Clifton)

"Feminists know how to have fun, and it was on rich display that night, with senior women knowing how to be self-deprecating and enjoy themselves, Ms Delahunty recalls. "And the dancing was pretty good, although I am not sure about our voices."


The group called themselves Joan Jett and the Fishnets and the floor of the Plaza Ballroom under the Regent Theatre shook as the crowd stomped their feet for an encore.

The song was Joan Jett's rock anthem I Love Rock'n'Roll, a repeat of a Late Show performance Joan Kirner had given five years earlier. She was also celebrating her 60th birthday.

Joan Kirner rocks out with a familiar face in the background: future PM Julia Gillard. (Fay Pirotta)

"We wore bright red lipstick and fishnet stockings and we only had one rehearsal about 20 minutes before the show," Ms Delahunty laughed. "But despite the lack of preparation the performance was adored by the appreciative audience and there were stampedes for encores ...

"It emanated from Joan Kirner's wonderful sense of humour and ability to laugh at herself, but we were all laughing together, not at anyone that night."

Ms Delahunty said a photo taken that night was one of her most cherished possessions.

In another photo, taken the same night by retired teacher's aid Fay Pirotta, a young Julia Gillard is providing back-up vocals to her mentor. She posted it on Facebook the night Ms Gillard resigned.

In a heartfelt tribute, Ms Gillard today wrote that Mrs Kirner was "the truest of friends".

"For me, the relationship went beyond one of student and mentor," she said. "She was one of the dominant influences on my life. I basked in her warmth and treasured her support."