Federation Chamber : CONDOLENCES : Kirner, Ms Joan Elizabeth, AC (2024)

Ms KING (Ballarat) (12:38): I too rise with great sadness to speak here today to honour the life of a Labor giant, Joan Kirner. I want to commend the member for Bendigo and the member for Scullin, who I know knew Joan very well. This is an emotional time for many Victorians to whom Joan was more than just a political figure; she was actually our friend.

This has been an all-too-familiar ritual in recent months as we in the Labor movement have seen what is largely the end of an era. There are so many people we are losing who we respect and honour in our movement. For the Labor women, and especially those of us from Victoria, Joan's death has not just taken from the history pages an admired figure, but has also deprived us of a confidant, a supporter and a friend—because for so many Labor women, and for many of the progressive men within our party, Joan was the one who led the way. She supported us when we ran for preselection and then stood by us as we made our way here to the House of the people.

In 2001, when I was first elected, Joan sent me a lovely card and a portrait of another great woman who had lit that torch—Eleanor Roosevelt. I am proud to say that that portrait still sits above my desk in my electorate office to this day. Her message to me at that time was 'Have the courage of your convictions.' I am also very proud that Victoria's first female Premier has a close connection with the area I represent, Ballarat. Before turning to life in politics and all its opportunities to make change in society, Joan was on another path, where she also saw the power to transform lives—that is, in education. After graduating from Melbourne University, Joan became a teacher at the Ballarat Technical College—an area that was the stomping ground of her then successor in parliament, Steve Bracks, and they formed a friendship there.

However, under the rules of the time, just two years later, when she married Ron, she, like so many intelligent, brilliant women, automatically forfeited the right to a career. Married women could not work in government employment. It seems extraordinary today that this was the case, but it was. Knowing Joan, it was no wonder she saw this as an act of great injustice. It no doubt inspired her to move from a career improving individual lives through the power of education to a vocation where one could make great changes to society through the power of politics.

As we look around this parliament now, and indeed all parliaments across this nation, a woman in the House is no longer a rare object to be remarked upon in tones of wonder. But not so many years ago this was not the case, and one of the reasons for this is, of course, Joan Kirner. In her book that she authored with Moira Rayner—The Women's Power Handbook—and I strongly recommend that every young woman read it—Joan relates a fabulous anecdote of how, whenever she and a small band of her women colleagues in the Victorian parliament would meet for a chat in a corridor, as we do, men would constantly walk past and, in patronising tones, say: 'Hello, hello, hello. What are you all talking about?' Finally, Joan developed a response, and her response was: 'We're plotting your downfall.' And it stopped. That, of course, was not quite what she was up to—although she may well have been! It was a signal from Joan that the women were coming and they were demanding a bigger role in the running of Victoria, and indeed in every other parliament.

Joan was not the first woman to lead an Australian government—Rosemary Follett here in the ACT deserves that honour, and Carmen Lawrence of course became our first female Premier. But Joan's elevation so soon after that of Carmen's was, I think, important for signalling to the country that this was not a one-off, and that women were now moving from the backbench to take an equal role in the running of the government. Joan, like Carmen, was only given the chance to lead when her party was at its lowest ebb. Both had little real prospect of any long term in power. But, as the first woman Premier in Victoria, she was a mentor and an inspiration for so many women, including me and our first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. As Julia said when news broke of Joan's passing, Joan was 'the truest of friends'.

Through her leadership of EMILY's List, Joan helped change our party's rules and was always the fiercest warrior in the corner of any woman standing for Labor pre-selection and then for election. Not satisfied with 60-40, Joan led the campaign for equal representation and took a transsexual marching bands with her to the ALP's special conference debating these rule changes.

Some who did not know her well may have been surprised at the generosity of the tribute paid to her by the man who ousted her as Premier—Jeff Kennett. But those who were around at the time remember the great affection and respect the two political opponents had for each other. Jeff has even gone so far as to suggest a statue of Joan be erected in Melbourne.

But, like all great women, politics was not the entire story of her life. As all those who have seen her belting out I Love Rock N' Roll know, Joan was a woman with a great sense of humour and a raucous laugh that more than once got her into trouble. She was also devoted to the Essendon Football Club, and she was particularly devoted to getting more women involved in the AFL. But most of all she was also devoted to her lifelong partner, Ron, her children Michael, David and Kate and her gorgeous grandchildren Ned, Sam, Xanthe and Joachim.

As I stated at the outset, we in the Labor movement have had to make too many of these speeches in recent times to mark the passing of the great of our movement: Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran, Wayne Goss and Tom Uren, to name just a few. But Joan Kirner rightly deserves a place right alongside every one of them. I stand here today as a proud Labor woman to say thank you, Joan. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your leadership and most of all for your support, for your friendship, for showing the way for so many of us. We love you dearly, and we are so sad that you are no longer with us, but your legacy lives on in every single one of us.

Federation Chamber : CONDOLENCES : Kirner, Ms Joan Elizabeth, AC (2024)


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