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Kirner, Joan Elizabeth (1938–2015)

by Jennifer Curtin

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Joan Kirner, by Rennie Ellis, 1990

Joan Kirner, by Rennie Ellis, 1990

State Library of Victoria, 49301230

Joan Kirner, who has died in Melbourne aged 76 after a battle with cancer and other illness, occupies a special place in Victorian political history for being the state's first and still only woman premier. Yet she sometimes suffered the fate of commentators and scholars hyphenating her premiership with that of her Labor predecessor, John Cain jnr, as if she were not a premier in her own right. Indeed, had Kirner not been Victoria's first woman premier, we might be forgiven for wondering if her two years in office (1990-92) would be invisible — a neglected interregnum between the social democratic adventurism of the Cain era and Jeff Kennett's neo-liberal revolution  

This would be doing Joan Kirner's legacy a great disservice.  She represented a number of firsts.  Not only was she the first Victorian woman premier, she was also the first Labor premier who came from the Socialist Left faction and prior to this, from an explicitly community politics background, with relatively little schooling or apprenticeship in party or trade union politics. In a sense Kirner forced a male-dominated ALP to recognise that participation in community politics as mothers was a legitimate form of political activism and equivalent to other forms of political apprenticeship.

Joan Kirner was often been depicted as the working-class girl made good: attention given to the fact that she came from Moonee Ponds, an only child from a working-class background but privileged in that her parents provided her with a good education. Born Joan Elizabeth Hood in 1938, her father John was a fitter and turner with a munitions factory, her mother Beryl, a homemaker and a teacher of music and kindergarten. It was from her father that Kirner learnt the importance of each person's dignity and the distribution of resources based on need. John Hood had lost his job during the depression and had to hawk tea to save the family home from being lost. When he regained his job at the department of defence he continued working there for 40 years. She also gained from her father a love of sport, particularly football.  From her mother she acquired a love of music, a sense of determination, a rigid commitment to the protestant work ethic, a strong sense of equality for women and an unswerving belief in educational opportunities. 

Kirner began her secondary schooling at Penleigh Ladies College, subsequently moving to the select-entry University High. After gaining an Arts degree from Melbourne University in 1957, she began teaching and three years later married a fellow teacher, Ron Kirner, with whom she had three children. How Kirner came to be involved in education issues is a well-cited story. She took her first son to kindergarten in the Croydon area only to find there was only one teacher for over 50 students. Appalled, she organised a petition and staged an ongoing protest outside the education department until the school was granted extra teachers and classrooms. She became an active member of the school's mothers club, and later began attending Victorian Federation of State School Parents Club conferences.  In 1971, Kirner became president of the federation and remained so until 1976. She was also president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (1975-1981) and in 1973 was nominated as a parent representative to the newly created Australian Schools Commission, a centerpiece of the Whitlam Labor federal government's education reform program. Her time on the commission ensured her a profile as education advocate extraordinaire. And, in 1980 she was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) for her contribution to community services.

In 1982 Kirner entered the Legislative Council as the member for Melbourne West and her parliamentary ascent was swift. In 1985, she was promoted to the Cain government's front bench as minister for conservation, forests and lands. She later listed her achievements in the portfolio as the passage of critical National Parks legislation and the negotiation of a difficult timber strategy. Her intervention on behalf of women was evident in her establishment of the Rural Women's Network, and her consultative style was appreciated by many in the farming community. However, it is Landcare that proved Kirner's most lasting legacy in this portfolio. Its success as a policy innovation can be demonstrated by its implementation not only in Victoria but its emulation throughout Australia.

Joan Kirner was at Yarraleen Primary School in Bullen with Bush singer David Isam to launch 1990 schools touring Arts program.

In 1988, Kirner was elected to the safe lower house seat of Williamstown.  The same year she realised her driving ambition in taking over the education portfolio. While she later held the portfolios ethnic and women's affairs, it was eduction that was her political raison d'etre.  As minister she proved a knowledgable, enthusiastic and at times formidable leader.  She oversaw the phased introduction of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), a reduction in class sizes and a surge in school retention rates surged.

Kirner's rise continued with her election as deputy premier in February 1989 and 18 months later, Joan Kirner became premier on 9 August 1990, following the resignation of John Cain. On the day after her election, The Age's Shaun Carney wrote: 'let's just deal with the shock of it … Joan Kirner. A woman. A member of the Socialist Left. Premier. In Victoria! It is real. It has happened.' 

However, the premiership was widely recognised as a poisoned chalice – unemployment at 6.4 percent.  The state debt had risen to $25 billion, and federal Labor's economic and industry policies were having a significant impact on Victoria's economy. Pyramid collapse had also claimed a considerable number of victims and surrounding her throughout this time were rancorous and increasingly destabilizing factional relations.

Nevertheless, after 100 days in office, the reactions to the Kirner government's direction were not all bad. Kirner had further steadied the ship after one year as premier and opinion polls showed her personal rating was a solid 44 per cent.  Moreover, by the time Kirner left parliament in May 1994, the Reserve Bank of Australia had conceded that Victoria had begun moving out of recession in 1991 while she was still premier. At the time of the October 1992 poll, however, there was little economic sunshine in the state and the ALP's primary vote crashed to 38.7 per cent state-wide. For Kirner there was some consolation in media assessments that, without her as premier, Labor's losses would have been far worse. 

Joan Kirner's public profile evolved during her time in politics: she began as the mother from the suburbs who went from mothers' club president to parliamentary candidate; as the polka dot-caricatured woman writ-large in cartoons; but perhaps ultimately as the first woman premier who inherited a political and economic mess and stoically struggled on to lose in a landslide, but with dignity intact. 

After retiring from state politics, Kirner became the chairwoman of the Employment Services Regulation authority, in 1994 and she was elected president of the Victorian ALP in the same year. In taking up the presidency, Kirner moved the historic resolution to entrench the ALP's affirmative action rule which required women to be elected to 35 per cent of parliamentary and party positions by 2002. She was one of the instigators of EMILY's List, an organisation independent of the ALP that supports the election of progressive women, and she co-authored the Women's Power Handbook, a 'how to manual' for getting pre-selected and elected to parliament. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has described Kirner as a mentor and inspiration.

Kirner had been battling oesophageal cancer since her diagnosis in 2013 and had undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment. At the time, leaders from both sides of politics were keen to offer her support. Premier Denis Napthne said Kirner had "been a real leader for Victorian politics, the Victorian community and particularly Victorian women".

While Joan Kirner may not have solved Victoria's economic crisis, nor saved the ALP from defeat in 1992, her legacy to the ALP and Victorians has been significant. She demanded that both the party and the parliament become more accepting of and open to women; she was defiant in the face of sexist media and political commentary, and outed many a politician for inappropriate and gendered language.  Moreover, Kirner remained resolute and determined during difficult times; she was shrewd, tough and ambitious, and demonstrated that such characteristics were fitting for a female premier.

Joan Kirner is survived by Ron, her husband of 55 years, their three children, Michael, David, and Kate, Michael's partner Madeleine, and grandchildren Ned and Sam Kirner, and Xanthe and Joachim.

Original Publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jennifer Curtin, 'Kirner, Joan Elizabeth (1938–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/kirner-joan-elizabeth-20604/text31458, accessed 20 September 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012