In this edition:
- Nahji Chu is changing the way we eat, and the way we think about refugees, one rice paper roll at a time.
- Meet Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler.
- Jane Rocca looks at what's in store for children's fashion this summer.
She put the girl on. Were you really the boss of Victoria? I said, Thats one way of putting it. I thought it was too long an explanation to say anything else. And Im 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 Queens Birthday honours, its a good time to ask Kirner to reflect on her 12 years in State Parliament, 10 in government and two as Victorias 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 Im scared of (Governor-General) Quentin Bryce. Isnt it fantastic as someone who worked hard (with Emilys 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 youre in a cabinet, you share the responsibility, she said of becoming premier. Its very different from having the buck stopping with you.
I didnt 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 Henrys (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 Im a person whos always worked (collaboratively), Id never worked top down.
Kirner came to power as Australia was entering a deep recession. Some of the states 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 werent 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 hadnt 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 wont 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 wasnt 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 its about timing. If thats true, my timing was rotten.
Was she shocked at the Kennett revolution? Well it wasnt a revolution, it was a Kennett attack on public services. Did he need to do what he did? No, you dont have to cut state schools; 360 schools he attacked. Some of those communities didnt recover. And it laid the foundation for Jeffs 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. Its 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 Jeffs 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. Ive had hundreds of people say, You helped me change my daughters life.
She came to know disability advocate and editor of the ABCs Ramp Up website, Stella Young. Stellas doing really well. She went to Stawell High. Her mum and dad were determined shed go to a regular school.
When I first met Stella she was on a committee I was on she said, Ive been dying to meet you. I said, Ive been dying to meet you, I hear youre 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 Kirners son, David.
We text, she says of Gillard. When we need to. I think shes 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 Im disappointed that we dont 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? Whats 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 its nice to be able to share. Its 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 whod had a hard life looked at me and said, Well, Ive 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 Im not carrying a goody bag of resources Im 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.
Its infuriating. To qualify for a part-pension normally the trust fund looks at health, reasons for going and makes a decision accordingly. That didnt happen in my case. Where did that leave her? Relying on my husband, which is not fair. I thought Id get the same consideration as other people who left early. I think its an abuse of workers 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 Ive enjoyed going out to work. But now Im the young age of 74 and I have severe osteoporosis thats getting a bit challenging.
Before I leave, she shows me a scrapbook her mother compiled of Kirners 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.Emilys List Australia is a political network in Australia that supports progressive women candidates to be elected to political office. It was inspired by Emilys List, a political action committee with similar goals in the US. (Source: Wikipedia)