Not everyone knows about Joan Kirner’s pioneering role in the political history of this state. One of her four grandchildren rang her recently. “She said ‘Nanna, I’ve got some girlfriends here overnight. Could you speak to them, because they don’t believe that you were the boss of Victoria. Tell them you were the boss of Victoria’.
“She put the girl on. ‘Were you really the boss of Victoria?’ I said, ‘That’s one way of putting it’. I thought it was too long an explanation to say anything else. And I’m not sure I felt like the boss often anyway.”
At the age of 74, and with her having recently become a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday honours, it’s a good time to ask Kirner to reflect on her 12 years in State Parliament, 10 in government and two as Victoria’s first female premier.
I am with Kirner in the Williamstown home she has lived in with her husband, Ron, for more than 30 years. One of her daughters, Kate, accompanied by her golden retriever, drops in for a visit.
Kirner has lost the vision in one eye and has severe osteoporosis, but her sense of energy, her dry-as-dust wit and her passion for social justice is all there.
“I had to keep it quiet, which nearly killed me,” she says of her award. “And I did keep it quiet, like a good girl, because I’m scared of (Governor-General) Quentin Bryce. Isn’t it fantastic – as someone who worked hard (with Emily’s List) to get more women into Parliament – to … have a woman as a governor-general, a woman as the Prime Minister, fantastic women federal ministers.”
I had the honour recently of sitting next to Kirner at a dinner and, wine flowing, I asked her about the landslide 1992 election loss to Jeff Kennett. She said she knew she was going to lose. I wanted to hear more, so I made a note to call her for an interview.
“It was a big change, from minister of education, which I knew a fair bit about, and minister of conservation and lands and forests, which I learnt a lot about, but you’re in a cabinet, you share the responsibility,” she said of becoming premier. “It’s very different from having the buck stopping with you.
“I didn’t expect to be premier. I had no designs on the job at all. I was more than happy to be minister of education. That had been my aim in life since I used to play being teacher when I was six or seven.
“John (Cain) stepped down and there was a choice to make. I thought, ‘Well, there has never been a woman premier and a lot of people have invested a lot time trying to achieve the educational opportunity and social justice and gender equity that I believe in’. And there was a lot to do. You have to make your own mind up, although I checked with Ron. I think he had the view that I would only be there for two years anyway.
“I remember sitting at Henry’s (Bolte) desk, as we used to call it, and looking out over the Treasury Gardens and thinking, ‘I really am premier’. And someone brought me in a cup of coffee and the staff called you premier – at that stage they did anyway – and you kind of shake your head and think, ‘OK, how am I going to handle this?’ It took me six months to actually realise I was premier, but I had to look and act like one.
“It was challenging because I’m a person who’s always worked (collaboratively), I’d never worked top down.”
Kirner came to power as Australia was entering a deep recession. Some of the state’s financial institutions were on the verge of insolvency. The Pyramid Building Society collapsed. She made a decision – the most difficult of her time – to sell the State Bank.
“It was horrific. It was the only time I was glad my mum and dad weren’t alive because they were State Bank bookholders. I think I would have been in real strife with them, as I was with a lot of Victorians.
“It was a tough time to be leader. One of the bonuses was Paul Keating became prime minister. Paul and I got on very well. I remember these agonised phone calls we used to have about whether he should take (Hawke) on or not.
“At that time I did something I hadn’t done before – I wrote down my values. What was the basis on which I was making (all) these decisions. The first one I wrote down was ‘People matter’. The second one, you won’t be surprised to know, was ‘Women matter as much as men do’. The third one was ‘People affected by decisions should be part of making those decisions’.” The fourth was the importance of equal opportunity.
Coming into the 1992 election, Kirner knew she was going to lose. Her challenge, she says, was to try to win enough seats to enable the party to return to power within two terms.
“I knew the economy would come back. We were in recession. It wasn’t as though Joan Kirner created the recession. Australia and the world were in recession. And I often half-smile to myself when we have this discussion now about the GFC – goodness me, if that was a great financial crisis, what was the recession of 1990 and 1991?”
Was she relieved when she lost? “I was exhausted. One of the things they say about politics is it’s about timing. If that’s true, my timing was rotten.”
Was she shocked at the Kennett revolution? “Well it wasn’t a revolution, it was a Kennett attack on public services.” Did he need to do what he did? “No, you don’t have to cut state schools; 360 schools he attacked. Some of those communities didn’t recover. And it laid the foundation for Jeff’s defeat …”
Does she believe Kennett did some good work? “Oh, fantastic. More now. But yes, of course.” She mentions the infrastructure building. “Once money came back into state coffers, people started buying houses again. It’s not magic, this stuff. They started spending again, they got jobs again. So once the boom (happened) the money was flowing to build things like Jeff’s Shed, for example. Jeff did a good job on infrastructure, just as in better times John Cain and wonderful Evan Walker (did).”
Kirner lists her achievements in politics. “Land care, the flora and fauna guarantee, rape-law reform, the introduction of prevention of violence against women, building up the TAFE and adult education system, introducing the opportunity for parents of children with disabilities to choose whether they went to a regular school or a special school. And there are now thousands of children who get a good education in a regular school. I’ve had hundreds of people say, ‘You helped me change my daughter’s life’.”
She came to know disability advocate and editor of the ABC’s Ramp Up website, Stella Young. “Stella’s doing really well. She went to Stawell High. Her mum and dad were determined she’d go to a regular school.
“When I first met Stella – she was on a committee I was on – she said, ‘I’ve been dying to meet you’. I said, ‘I’ve been dying to meet you, I hear you’re pretty cool and do some great stuff with youth with disabilities and on the media’. She said, ‘Mum used to talk about you. She used to tell me that I got a good education at a regular high school in my local areas because of you, so I want to say thanks’.”
At the recent dinner I watched Kennett approach Kirner to say hello and give her a kiss. I found it a touching moment, and in stark contrast to the climate of toxic political relations we often see today.
She is friends with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was at Melbourne University with Kirner’s son, David.
“It took me six months to actually realise I was premier, but I had to look and act like one.”
“We text,” she says of Gillard. “When we need to. I think she’s fantastic. She has the most amazing strength. I am appalled at the toxic language that is used about her, including in the parliament. The misogyny. And I’m disappointed that we don’t seem to be able to have in Australia any more a civil debate about the big issues.”
For years Kirner has had a role as the Victorian communities ambassador working for disadvantaged people, reporting to the Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan. “Peter said, ‘You have a different way of operating from people in the bureaucracy and people in parliament’. I said, ‘Do I? What’s that?’ He said, ‘You listen’.”
Kirner mentors people in economically disadvantaged areas such as Broadmeadows, Hampton Park, Rosebud East and Rosebud West, Delacombe in Ballarat, Benalla, Maryborough, Bendigo, Flemington and Chelsea.
“I go to their meetings and act as a mentor.
“Having had 40 years of experience in community development it’s nice to be able to share. It’s about helping to enable people in communities to shape their own lives and the lives in their communities. Women – mums – say to me, ‘Thank you for being premier, I know it was tough, but at least my daughter now knows she can be boss of Victoria’.
“I was at a meeting in Corio and I was doing the usual, ‘What have you learnt and changed and achieved?’ And one woman who’d had a hard life … looked at me and said, ‘Well, I’ve learnt how to deal with suits like you.’ People in power.
“I said, ‘That is fantastic. How do you deal with a suit like me?’ And the answer was, ‘I tell you how it really is.’ And I think that because I am no longer in a position of power – I might have influence but not power – and because I’m not carrying a goody bag of resources I’m seen more as part of the team.”
A source of frustration for Kirner is that she left parliament after 12 years, three years away from qualifying for the full pension.
“It’s infuriating. To qualify for a part-pension normally the trust fund looks at health, reasons for going and makes a decision accordingly. That didn’t happen in my case.” Where did that leave her? “Relying on my husband, which is not fair. I thought I’d get the same consideration as other people who left early. I think it’s an abuse of worker’s rights.”
She has found work rewarding in later life. “I have done – and enjoyed doing – what a lot of other people do whose pensions are not high enough – I’ve enjoyed going out to work. But now I’m the young age of 74 and I have severe osteoporosis that’s getting a bit challenging.”
Before I leave, she shows me a scrapbook her mother compiled of Kirner’s political career. We smile at a caption of the passionate feminist that reads, “Mrs Ron Kirner”.
An icy wind is blowing off the bay just at the end of her street but, as Kirner stands at her gate to farewell me, there is an undeniable warmth about this political pioneer who never gave up the fight for what she believed in.
Emily’s List Australia is a political network in Australia that supports progressive women candidates to be elected to political office. It was inspired by Emily’s List, a political action committee with similar goals in the US. (Source: Wikipedia)