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A Bonza Joan Kirner AC
14 / 02 / 2014
In 1990, Joan Kirner became Victoria’s first female premier, a feat that hasn’t been repeated since she left office in 1992.
In Government, she was responsible for the introduction of Landcare and passionate about education reform.
As Premier, she granted the wish of the Victorian Women’s Trust (publisher of Sheilas) to become independent and with no ties to government. Joan understood the fundamental need of a women’s organisation to be able to advocate for women without fear or favour.
She has remained actively engaged in the community post her parliamentary career, including her involvement in the creation and leadership of Emily’s List Australia, an organisation committed to electing progressive Australian Labor Party women to parliament.
In 2012, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to the Parliament of Victoria and to the community through conservation initiatives, contributions to gender equality, the development of education and training programs and the pursuit of civil rights and social inclusion.”
We’re delighted to kick off the year’s ‘Bonza Sheila’ series by starting with Joan. Over the coming months, along with an array of women from various backgrounds and disciplines, we intend to feature some other past female politicians – across the political spectrum.
Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper sat down recently with Joan (both pictured below, at Emily’s List’s celebration for Joan’s 75th birthday last year) at her Williamstown home to discuss just some of her achievements over her lifetime for this Bonza Sheila interview. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
SARAH CAPPER [SC]: Your upbringing was in Essendon. I read your Dad had Labor values, while your Mum was passionate about education – about your education – as a girl in the ‘50s –
JOAN KIRNER [JK]: What she didn’t get –
SC: I’m just wondering if you can describe how your own core values – around education rights, gender equity, and indeed traditional Australian Labor Party values – how they were influenced by both your Mum and Dad?
JK: My Dad loathed [PM Robert] Menzies with an absolute passion, growing out of the fact that Dad worked at the Defence Department and the munitions factory in Maribyrnong. They were making the armaments, and Dad resented that pig iron was being melted down in other countries and being sent back as armaments. So there was that background [Ed: Menzies earned the nickname ‘Pig Iron Bob’].
And my Mum was an action person, particularly action for me. She was from a working class family. Although she supported Labor, she wasn’t that interested in politics – but she was interested in her daughter – her only child – having a good education.
The story that sticks in my mind was during high school. I had attended a state primary school. But for secondary, Mum thought I would get a better education at a girls school – a “ladies college”, as they were called – than I would at the local high school.
I thought it was a ghastly idea because I wanted to go onto the high school with all my friends, but my Mother said no, she wanted me to go to a school with a Matric [short for matriculation, the system prior to VCE] and where I could take a scholarship.
I’d won a scholarship and gone to Penleigh Ladies College in Moonee Ponds – where I undertook the first four years of secondary school, and I enjoyed it.
I’d already started year eleven, but Mum discovered a problem with using the last two years of the scholarship at Penleigh, so she said, “Right, if you can’t do the scholarship at Penleigh, you’re going to Uni High.”
I nearly passed out and thought, ‘No, I’m not – I love this school now’. She said we would ask Penleigh if I could finish the scholarship there, and said that if they said no, we were going straight to Uni High.
And that’s what we did – we hopped on the tram straight away and went to Uni High, and we walked in, and Mum said to the receptionist, “We have an appointment with the Principal,” – except, of course, we didn’t.
The Principal came out, and we went into his office and he said to me, “Well Miss Hood, are you as good as your Mother thinks you are?”
That was a very early lesson in having the confidence to answer that question. I don’t remember what I said, but I did get into Uni High, and it changed my life.
SC: You must have said yes.
JK: I really don’t remember – I was lost in shock. But I must have said enough to convince him I was going to work hard at being good – which for me was so I could go to uni and become a teacher – which is all I ever wanted to be.
But that was my very first lesson at having confidence in myself, and that’s why I say to young women, like yourself, or any of the many young women I have mentored over the years, that you’ve got to believe in yourself, as well as society, and the interaction between yourself and society.
The other branch of my influence, other than family and school, was attending St John’s Presbyterian Church in that I was active in what they called the ‘Presbyterian Fellowship’ – which was an excellent reason for going away on camps, aged 16, 17 and 18 years-old.
While my commitment to the Church didn’t last, what I did learn from that experience was the importance of being part of a group; that if you want to change things, it’s a really good idea to do it with other people.
In my view, the type of change that’s most effective, is when you do it with other people.
SC: When did you realise you were a feminist?
JK: My Mum always had the view that women could do anything – and particularly this young woman – so I was pretty lucky to grow up in that environment. I had a role model in my Mum who really wanted me to be successful, and she’d move any kind of barriers to make that happen. And she expected me to, too. My Mum would never have called herself a feminist, but she had the view that girls can do anything, if they set their mind to it (and behind that was, you better bloody set your mind to it).
But I didn’t really realise the inequity in gender relationships, until I was at uni and I thought more deeply about the whole issue – of equity, of empowerment, and social justice. I had lecturers who helped me realise how social change happened.
When I went out teaching, I went to Ballarat Girls Tech, where I met [husband] Ron who was at Ballarat Boys Tech. They were seen as tough schools, and I saw the disadvantage faced by these girls who were at the lowest of the low of the education rung – and yet there were some fantastic girls there who needed equal opportunity.
So I think it was teaching that cemented in my mind that people don’t get an even go – and in particular girls. It didn’t take me too long to realise blokes were largely empowered. And it was teaching that cemented how equity and empowerment for women could be achieved through education.
SC: You graduated from Melbourne University in 1958, and as mentioned, began work as a teacher in Ballarat. You married Ron in 1960 and received one of those government letters asking you to resign –
JK: Yes, I think it burnt a hole in my pocket when I brought it home! We were both teachers, and I said to Ron, “Well, you got married – where’s your letter?!”
That really clarified that the world wasn’t quite even, even in this profession that I’d always wanted and loved. I didn’t get superannuation – I think I got something like 100 pounds as pay in lieu of permanent service. And that wasn’t just me – that was a whole generation. Fancy that – that’s what it said – “pay in lieu of permanent service”.
So that made me livid. If I hadn’t been a feminist before then, I certainly was by then. I realised the distribution of power was different for women and men.
SC: You had three children in six years. Now I believe it was concern over your son’s class size – I’ve read 34 and I’ve read 54 –
JK: No, 54!
SC: 54, that’s outrageous. I believe it was this concern over your son’s class size this catapulted you into the lobbying arena – in advocating for more parental decision-making in state schools?
JK: This was Michael, yes, the eldest. I used to pick the kids up from school – we walked everywhere – and on the first day, at Croydon North Primary School, the Principal told us our darling children were going to be in a class of 54.
Legend has it – and at my age you can have legends – that I said: “Not my child”.
But the Principal didn’t seem that phased – it just seemed to be something we had to accept. So the next day, us mums assembled at the school gate, and I asked that very dangerous question: “What are we going to do about it?” – And that’s where the education action started.
We found a couple of supportive teachers – a couple of young women, as a matter of fact – and we asked them, “What do we need to change this?”
One of the teachers said we couldn’t change it unless we had more classrooms. So that’s how we started off – we lobbied for more classrooms.
We asked the local member, a Liberal, for a meeting with [then Education Minister] Lindsay Thompson and I think he tried, but it didn’t eventuate. So me and a few of the other mums decided we’d go and sit outside the Minister’s office. And we all took our kids with us – I had two who weren’t at school – I think we had three or four mums and I think seven to eight kids – all in the early childhood age.
So he did come out to see us! And eventually we got two new classrooms. And of course we then needed teachers. You can imagine – it was ‘great’ media coverage to have these classrooms with no teachers or students. About half a dozen of us decided we needed a public campaign to get the teachers in the classrooms.
That’s where I learnt about media skills – getting your facts right, who to encourage, and not just being about attacking – you had to show some understanding. The most important lesson was you had to do it with other people. You couldn’t get anywhere unless parents were on board. And a partnership with progressive teachers was a good thing – because they were suffering as much as the kids were. The thing that worried me most, it was fairly obvious because Ron was a teacher and I had a teaching background, that our kids might possibly learn, but there were a whole lot of people whose kids possibly wouldn’t learn. That’s really been the theme of my life, I suppose.
SC: Was there a point – and I’ve got a list of all the bodies you were elected to – the Australian Schools Commission, the Australian Council of State School Organisations, the Victorian Federation of State School Parents, where you were reportedly undertaking 60-80 hours unpaid work a week –
JK: Yep, that would be about right.
SC: Was there a point or catalyst during this period where you got a ‘taste’ for the political arena and could see yourself or your future in it?
JK: I had the taste for working for change. For what people now call social justice. I didn’t join the [Australian Labor] Party until ‘78. The thing that drove me into a fury was when Whitlam was sacked, in ‘75. I happened to be in Canberra that day, working on education, in the parliament, lobbying.
SC: With the Australian Schools Commission, which Whitlam had set up –
JK: Yes. I wouldn’t have been there except Race Matthews had lobbied Whitlam to put me there. You only win government if you win the eastern and southern suburbs in Melbourne. And Whitlam was keen for people like me – particularly people committed to education reform for everyone, not just a few.
I was with a friend, Lyndsay Connors, who was also on the Schools Commission. I was having lunch at her place in Canberra when her husband Tom rang – he was a journo who worked for a Tasmanian Senator – and he said to get over to Parliament House immediately. And she said ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Turn on the radio’. And of course we did, and Whitlam had been sacked.
And it seemed the whole of Canberra had descended like a rash to the forecourt of Parliament House. The fury of that meeting and the astonishment that this could happen – the way that it did, which we thought was unconstitutional – really cemented my interest in parliamentary change. That you need people in parliament who know what the grassroots are like, who can take them with you, and change things. When you look back at your life, you look for events that shaped your life, and I’m quite sure that was one of them.
To be in power you have to understand power. Parliament or the legislators are only part of the framework for what power is. There are other players – business, unions, labour, organised labour. You have to take people with you. You have to work out this balance between your personal integrity and the use of power.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked by young women like yourself, “Can you be a politician and remain true to yourself?”
And my answer to that is ‘Absolutely, yes’. Often, when people ask you that question, they really mean, “Did you achieve all the things you wanted to achieve?”
And the answer to that is “No”, because we’re still fighting for gender equity, we’re still fighting for distribution of resources according to need.
It’s very interesting that over the last 12 months, the Gonski Report raised that whole issue again. Now we wrote that stuff – aid according to need – in 1972, and there it was, back again, written brilliantly, I must say.
The people I worked with around that time had this real understanding of what constituted a good education, and what was equitable resource distribution. And they could cut through this ridiculous argument that some people – some conservatives put up – that when you’re talking about equity, you’re talking about sameness.
SC: It’s like the argument for women in cabinet. Like the argument blaming voters of Indi for not electing Sophie Mirabella – that Abbott couldn’t possibly pick Kelly O’Dwyer or Marise Payne or Sharman Stone or any other number of capable Liberal women.
JK: Yes. That’s why, when we talk about equality, I prefer ‘equity’, because ‘equity’ is about resources. So when we have a good woman, we don’t have equity. We have recognition of a good woman.
I hope people don’t think that having one female Governor-General [Quentin Bryce], who was also a Governor in Queensland, equals equity, because it doesn’t. It’s a symbol and an experience of how good it can be, but it sure ain’t equality of outcome.
We have to wake up to that. The media is very quick to log on to the ‘oh a woman has made it’, but have women as a gender made it? In terms of power or influence? And I always argue that power beats the hell out of influence, any day –
SC: [VWT Executive Director] Mary Crooks was interviewed last year, I think on ABC regional radio, and a caller said to her “You’ve got a female governor-general, a female prime minister, what more do you want?”, and Mary just said “Half”.
JK: Yes, that’s right. What really did make me angry was the Australia Day honours list. If you constantly see women who do change the world through their community work, not only change the world but support a heap of people, and they’re not recognised, then what we’re really saying is the role of women, in part, is not as valuable. It’s just a sense that society is quick to reward the male gender, but not nearly so quick to reward the female gender. And then you get this description that it’s “women’s work”. No, it’s community work.
SC: You were elected to Melbourne West in the Victorian parliament in 1982. You became Minister for Conservation and Forests – responsible for starting up Landcare. And you were then Education Minister – where you could really use your expertise in pursuing a reform agenda. I’m curious about the contrast between the two portfolios – and the approach you took to both – one that you had great experience in, and indeed networks, and one that I quote you “nearly died” when you were promoted to it.
JK: The only thing I knew about it was we used to go camping! This is an interesting case of learning on the job. I got the Ministry and we had our first meeting, and I asked all the assembled top bureaucrats to attend.
So I did the school mum bit. I went in, said it was nice to meet them and told them I really didn’t know that much about the Portfolio I’d been given. Of course they were all perfectly aware of that, and they’d never had a woman minister. I’m sure many wondered ‘what’s this socialist left greenie going to do?’ So I asked them to go around the table and tell me what they thought we were doing well as a department, what we were not doing so well at, and out of that, what were the real challenges.
And it was interesting, there was one person who could not answer the question ‘what are we not doing well at’ – of course they thought we were doing everything well – and I thought, ‘well you and I aren’t going to get on too well!’.
You’ve got to have – between bureaucracy and between minister, or between your assembled parliamentary colleagues – you’ve got to have honesty. What I’ve done all my working life, and even in my uni days, was acknowledge that you can take people with you, if you show them respect for their trade, for their profession. And it’s the same view for community activism – there’s no solution without the community coming with you.
One of the big issues was soil conservation. The land was owned by a lot of farmers. We had to develop a modus operandi that respected farmers’ commitment to the land.
I sat down with my advisors and some top bureaucrats in the department and said “I know how to work with community, so how can I bring that skill to this Department?”
The Department had been full of authorities, telling people what to do, or telling people not what to do. So I travelled around Victoria, and often stayed overnight with people I knew. When I saw the disaster of some areas with soil erosion, some people in the Department and my advisors worked out Landcare.
Landcare was built on sustainability. It’s now national and international. And it’s based on community ownership of community change principle. I’m very proud of Landcare.
The other thing I’m really proud of, is the integration of kids with special needs into regular schools.
I’d always had an interest in this area. We used to go camping for our holiday down at Port Fairy, and one of the campers down there had a child who had Down Syndrome. She was just a gorgeous kid and her parents were quite determined that she would grow up like her brothers and sisters, subject to the same discipline and expectations. And then of course, they tried to put her into secondary school, and the only school that would accept her was a special school.
I was already active in the parent movement and I was just appalled. So their experience – along with my belief that everyone is entitled to a good education – is what started me on that issue. It clearly needed legislative reform, because there had to be the requirement that parents had the right to choose a regular school for a child with special needs. So if you needed it, the principal, the parents and the teachers could meet and work out a program of education. They could also apply for an integration aid so the child with special needs, and the teacher, had special support. I don’t know how many integration aids there are now but there’s a fair number.
I received this book the other day – a second book of poetry – by Adam Cope – his Mum and Dad really appreciated, and fought for, integration in regular schools. To get sent these two books he’s now written, he can express himself in print, they’re just terrific to receive.
SC: It’s a great little story from the other side –
JK: It’s great to see it work, because you don’t know if it’s going to work.
SC: Something that has also worked – Emily’s List Australia – can you talk about how that came about?
JK: When we were defeated (in 1992), I noticed that we no longer had what you could half describe as a critical mass, and we better do something about it. How could we be the beneficiaries of parliamentary service, and then turnaround and there weren’t very many coming up behind us?
So that’s when people like Kay [Setches], Candy [Broad] and Leonie [Morgan] – and across the nation, in each state and territory – got together and said “Well, what are we going to do about it?”
I think it was Leonie who had seen Emily’s List operating in America. So we had a look at all that and decided it could be done here, and we would only do it for parliamentary service. We had to have an aim, which at that stage was 35% representation, and we had to have clear values. And of course, one of the values that Meredith Burgman from –
SC: From NSW, of the ‘Ernie Awards’ fame.
JK: Yes, Meredith insisted on putting in ‘choice’ [candidates being pro-choice].
And of course one of the joys of Kay and mine and Candy’s lifetimes was getting through the Abortion Law Reform bill [Victoria, 2008]. And I can’t believe that [current Victorian Independent] Geoff Shaw thinks it’s up for grabs because I’ve got news for him. And so does [Premier] Denis Napthine, I think.
SC: As soon as you were made Premier, I read a report that suggested you’d inherited a “poisoned chalice”. This is often something that is suggested when women become leaders of political parties – that is, they’re rarely promoted on the “upward swing”. Do you agree that women with leadership ambitions aren’t afforded say, as much choice in “timing” as their male counterparts?
JK: I think that for women’s opportunity to be as broad as men, to be of your own choosing, then you have to have the critical mass – in parliament or anywhere else. I was interested in watching Borgen last night, so many of the issues she faces, are the common issues women face.
In my case, I was part of a group of women who got in parliament in ‘82. Queen’s Hall was the place for a chat and one day this guy walked past and said, “Hello, hello, hello! What are you Sheilas doing here?” and I must have seen red and said what was on my mind, which was: “Plotting your downfall”.
And the thing is, he actually believed it! And he did lose his seat’s preselection. Although he was of the age of retirement.
You had to develop a reputation of no nonsense. We were there as full parliamentarians like anyone else. And we were there because Labor under John Cain, had the sense that they had to represent the community more broadly.
Rules are very important in the Labor Party, so we inserted women’s caucus committees into the decision making of the parliament. That was a really important thing to do. We were making women part of the accepted framework. So, recommendations which came from the women’s caucus committee led to the caucus.
It changed the mindset of how things should be looked at – not women as an afterthought, but women as part of policy development.
SC: After the decision to sell the State Bank, the Herald Sun depicted you in polka dots –
JK: They did that before –
SC: And I’m sure you were subject to much harsher gendered insults.
JK: I remember visiting NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, and we had a chuckle as there are drawings going back to the suffragettes, portraying women “too big for their boots”, outside the normal power structures, and they are depicted wearing polka dot dresses. Real battleaxe looking women – because of course, in order to be a powerful woman, you have to be a battleaxe, you can’t be anything else.
SC: Thinking about the 25 years between you being the first female premier in Victoria, and the election of Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister –
JK: Carmen Lawrence was the first female Premier in WA.
SC: And you were the second, in Victoria – something that hasn’t been repeated.
JK: And it’s about bloody time it was.
SC: But has that much changed – within 25 years – in terms of treatment of female leaders?
JK: I had plenty of lampooning cartoons, and a couple of very nasty ones, one purporting me to be lying down being raped by all the things that were attacking our government.
But with Julia it was demeaning of all women. And how she got through it, really set me thinking, her treatment was much, much worse than anything Carmen or myself were subjected to. Carmen was known as ‘Lawrence of Suburbia’. It’s interesting about women who have power, having to be demeaned, having to be seen as getting there as the last chance or “poisoned chalice” – and not getting there on their merits. Or, when you get there, having merit. None of it makes any sense.
SC: And there are still clearly sections of the media and the public and indeed the political arena that seem awfully threatened by a woman in power.
JK: And this idea you have to get there by some special circumstance, or so it seems. But in a society we live in, you would expect all things being equal, that we’re using the best people possible.
I think teenage girls who are interested in these issues, I think they watched what was happening to Julia and they didn’t like it.
That’s why the [VWT Credit Where Credit is Due] Townhall event with Julia was so important. To pay tribute to the women who are really part of changing the mood of power.
SC: So rather than politics turning off young women, you think there could be a different response to Gillard’s treatment?
JK: Maybe I’m biased, but truly I have never seen it worse. In conversations I have with women aged 18-30, I think they appreciate that if a prime minister can be treated that way, they can do it to anyone. But they also appreciate it wasn’t fair, and that nobody who is our PM deserves to be treated that way. I think in observing that, you can go two ways. I’m not in agreement with those who say it will turn girls off forever. Increasing numbers of young women are not tolerant of being treated in that way. I’m hopeful.
SC: You stayed on as Opposition leader, after you lost to Jeff Kennett – you stayed on, which is pretty unusual. Why?
JK: Because Paul Keating asked me to. He was PM by that stage, ‘92. He used to come down and we’d show him around the place. Travelling around in a bus because he wanted to see the Dynan Road interchange – yep, just my style – anyway, I got on really well with Paul.
He rang maybe the next day or that night of the election, and he said, “I want you to stay on” and I said, “what for?”, and he said he wanted me to stay on until after the federal election. I asked “Why?” – I knew it wasn’t my charming personality – and he said “Because the party in Victoria will fall to bits and they’re used to you and your calming influence as leader.” I had managed to keep the factions together and as a team we got on pretty well.
So I was asked to keep the team together until after the federal election and I reckon some of those days were the hardest. People knew we’d been defeated and knew it would take awhile to get back and of course they hadn’t decided on my replacement [Steve Bracks would eventually take on Joan’s seat].
We’d lost some fantastic members of parliament – women and men, and we’d lost some regional seats.
It was hard work. Hard to get up in the morning and go to work every day. Jeff Kennett saying under his breath across the parliament, “You stupid woman, you stupid woman”. One day I had it, and called him on it. He used to say it quietly, but the way to address it in parliament is to repeat it, to object to the Speaker about the language being used. And of course then he had to repeat it. But it took me awhile to get my normal pluck back to call him on it. Because public defeat is quite a thing to cope with.
SC: I think Paul Keating owes you a bit of a favour.
JK: [Laughs] I think he did us a favour, when he was leader.
SC: If you could talk to your 18 year old self, what’s one piece of advice you’d give?
JK: Be yourself. Or be an improved version of it!
SC: And one of my favourite final questions, if you could invite any women from history to a dinner party, who would they be?
Kerrilie Rice and Sarah Capper.
SC: A top dinner party list! Thank you, Joan Kirner, for being an incredibly Bonza Sheila.