Joan Kirner’s handwriting was strong, like her personality, and her words are indelible.
Always have something positive and clear to say about what you want to achieve and who benefits, she wrote to me in November 1999, a few weeks after I had been sworn in as Victorian minister for education and the arts. Her advice was generous and practical, born of decades of public service and an instinct towards the pastoral care of women who followed her into the parliaments of Australia. Joan was the matriarch of mentoring and, around the country today, we grieve her loss and salute her legacy.
Eighteen years ago she founded EMILY’s List Australia to propel progressive women into parliament. Always the political strategist, she insisted the organisation sit outside the ALP, independent, but capable of goading the party towards affirmative action on female preselections and policies such as changes to equal pay principles in the Fair Work Act and the inclusion of the abortion drug RU486 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
The top female Labor leaders in the land are or have been supported by EMILY’s List – from former prime minister Julia Gillard and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek to every female premier of Australia. And all Labor’s female MPs have had a mentor, thanks to Joan’s foresight. It could be a call at the end of a bad day – “How are you?” – or a note of advice and support.
She never failed, even recently, as oesophageal cancer drained her strength; her voice on the phone was robust, the conversation immediately dissecting the political issues of the day. I last saw her on Mother’s Day. I took her a rose, the last of the season from my garden, a book and soup. We all sat in our regular circle in her lounge, women discussing politics. Joan was quieter than usual. The next day she was taken to hospital.
Joan’s community activism as a parent led her into Parliament. Her belief in the transformative role of education made her a formidable minister in that portfolio. Her passion for the planet made her a practical minister for conservation. She set up Landcare, working with farmers’ representatives such as Heather Mitchell.
In politics, as in life, Joan was a bridge builder. Becoming premier in 1990 – Victoria’s first female premier and Australia’s second – she took over a shaky administration. The state was reeling from the collapse of financial institutions Pyramid and Tricontinental and Labor factions were jostling as premier John Cain resigned. Joan had the numbers to lead, but the men assumed one of their own would be elevated. She told me of a meeting based on this assumption. She told them, “I have the numbers, I can be premier”.
The polls were terrible for Labor and her job was to stem the losses. She governed under ceaseless pressure as the economy worsened and parts of the media lampooned a female leader. They tried to ridicule her as the housewife in the polka-dot dress; the cartoons were sexist and relentless. In her 1999 note to me, she urged against finger waving or that would be the next cartoon.
There was something constant about Joan. She ran a dignified campaign in 1992, clawing back some support. Never enough, though; it was too late for Labor.
With humour and intent, she reclaimed the polka dots as a proud mark of feminism. On ABC late-night television, wearing a black leather jacket, the premier morphed into Joan Jett singing I love Rock’n’Roll. It went viral.
Nearly a decade later there was a reprise. Under the ornate arches downstairs in the Regent Theatre, I joined Julia Gillard, trade union leaders Sharan Burrow and Jennie George, comic Jane Clifton and the former premier herself onstage. We were “Joan Jett and the Fishnets”, the gala attraction at Joan’s 60th birthday bash and a Labor fundraiser. There was only one rehearsal (half an hour before the doors opened), but the audience roared its appreciation and the dollars rolled in. Despite endless encores, led by Joan, and rave reviews, we stopped at one performance and all went back to politics. The red-head in the black leather skirt went on to become prime minister.
Joan lent every major birthday as a fundraiser, every anniversary of her premiership an event to promote women in leadership
She spent 12 years in Parliament, concentrating on the trend lines, not the headlines, determined to respect the policy and the process, but it was her later work that was transformative. She chaired the Employment Services Regulatory Authority In 1994, she was elected president of the Victorian ALP and that year she moved the historic resolution to entrench the ALP’s affirmative action rule. She raised a generation of Labor women, policy smart and campaign ready; she imagined the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll, acknowledging the often forgotten contributions of women in history; and she travelled the state as our first commissioner for communities. She was the voice of women in politics for 25 years.
Her portrait in red, clear eyes arresting the viewer, is bright among the other dark-suited premiers arrayed around her in Parliament’s Queens Hall. She alone was not granted a parliamentary pension, and that is a disgrace.
This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald.