Vale Janet Powell

18 / 10 / 2013

Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust (publisher of Sheilas), pays tribute to the inspirational Australian Janet Powell, who passed away last month. Janet became leader of the Australian Democrats in 1990, making her the second woman in Australian history to lead a political party. As an outstanding Australian who made an enormous contribution in political and community spheres, we were incredibly disheartened when a request to offer her a state funeral was refused. Mary Crooks explains why.

By Mary Crooks

A line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail flashes to mind – ‘come and see the violence inherent in the system’. I deliberately adjust it by replacing ‘violence’ with ‘patriarchy’.

There are uneasy reminders of late that hint at what it means to be a woman in Australia. First there have been the savage and sexist attacks on the legitimacy and performance of the first woman to be an Australian prime minister.

More recently, we were told by new Prime Minister Abbott that while he could only find one woman to serve in his meritorious nineteen-person Cabinet, there were many capable women ‘knocking on the door’. I have an image of that superior security door. Addicted to The Game of Thrones, I see this door as a huge thick oak number, with iron claddings that even a battering ram would find hard to dislodge.

Just last week, a branch member sent me the snappy publication from one of the ALP leadership aspirants which lists what he sees as the six great policy challenges facing the nation. Coming in at number six, is the ‘march of women’. This faintly curious depiction suggests there’s work to be done within various quarters of the ALP in terms of unpacking the considerable economic, political and social inequities that impact on Australian women.

Mind you, it feels like a long march. Too often, the quest for gender equality has the look and feel of a march that ends at the odd, thick and impenetrable oak door.

Janet Powell

Janet Powell- source Wikimedia Commons*

Janet Powell died on 30 September 2013.

Born in Nhill in 1942, a daughter of farmers from the Wimmera district, Janet trained and worked as a secondary school teacher in country high schools. She immersed herself in raising her children, living in different regional and rural communities including Echuca.

Janet entered politics in 1986, elected to the Senate as a member of the Australian Democrats. She then became the second woman to lead an Australian political party. In 1989, she was the first woman to attain passage of a Private Member’s Bill through both houses of Federal Parliament – the Smoking and Tobacco Products Advertisements (Prohibition) Act 1989 which banned the print advertising of tobacco products.

Janet served with the Democrats until 1992, and later concluded her Senate term in 1993 as an Independent. She stood as a Greens candidate for the Victorian election in 2006, continuing to advocate for the environment, women and rural communities.

Janet achieved much more than her political biography suggests. She worked tirelessly in bettering Australian communities. After her time in parliament, Janet was appointed by the Prime Minister as Deputy Chair of the National Multicultural Advisory Council in 1994. During this time, she became President of Friends of the ABC (Vic) from 1992 until 1995 and remained a Committee member until 1999.

She served as a Board Director of YWCA Victoria, and President from 1994 to 2000, demonstrating great community leadership and commitment to women and girls, by her vision and implementation of an ambitious transformation program preparing the organisation for the challenges of the 21st century.

Janet was a member of the Patron’s Council of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria since its commencement in 1999, working for 14 years alongside Chair Dame Beryl Beaurepaire. She worked with Women’s Health Victoria, the Post-Polio Foundation and the Anti-Gun lobby.

In 2001 she was recognized by the Victorian Government by inclusion on the Honour Roll of Women. In 2012 she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to the Parliament of Australia and the Australian community.

In the last few weeks of her life, a number of women assisted Janet’s family to make a formal request to the Victorian Premier for a State Funeral for Janet.

It was refused. We were told it was a Federal matter. And so we went back to the Prime Minister’s department. Time was of the essence. Finally came the ever-so-polite email.  Apparently it has not been customary for successive Australian governments to accord a former leader of a recognised minority party with a State Funeral. The email went on to say that occasionally a distinguished Australian is recognised, who has made an outstanding contribution to Australian society. Not surprisingly, the names given were all men.

In our social history thus far, few women have been accorded the fitting honour of a State Funeral. Such tributes customarily have been made for major party leaders, Ministers, Chief Justices, footballers, racing car drivers and yes, wait for it, many other – men.

Did we over-reach in even thinking about requesting a State Funeral for Janet? No, her contribution to Victorian and Australian life is readily on a par, and indeed, exceeds that of many men who had been accorded such public validation. We have the family’s permission to raise this matter. They know she thoroughly deserved one. They were shocked and saddened by the peremptory refusal.

Did we assume that merit, reasonableness and impartiality would underpin the use of discretionary power by the Premier and Prime Minister? Yes.

Are we confident that this discretionary power was exercised in such a way? No.

Unconscious bias is one of the great inhibitors to the realisation of gender equality. If there is a pattern of bias and discrimination, it should be named and shamed. There are many women in the community, including Janet Powell, who are not properly recognised for their contributions.

Oaken doors should no longer be permitted to protect cultural traditions that privilege masculine achievement and deny public homage to outstanding women.

Vale Janet Powell – an inspirational person, an inspirational life and an inspirational community contribution.

*Image by Bjenks (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: Sheilas aims to publish a variety of views on important social issues. Please note, the views published on Sheilas are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Victorian Women’s Trust.