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Toner, Pauline Therese (1935–1989)

by Kim Torney

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Pauline Therese Toner (1935-1989), educator and politician, was born on 16 March 1935 at Horsham, Victoria, third child of Tasmanian-born William Stephen Hoare, insurance superintendent, and his Victorian-born wife Elsie Magdalene (Madge), née McDonald. Educated at the Brigidine Convent, Horsham, Toner trained as a primary teacher at the Melbourne Teachers’ College (TPTC, 1953), subsequently teaching at Reservoir East and Merlynston state schools. On 2 January 1962 she married Brian John Toner, an architect. While raising five children she undertook further study at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1973) and La Trobe University (B.Ed., 1974). She then lectured (1974-77) in education at the Melbourne and Hawthorn campuses of the State College of Victoria.

Toner, whose father was a member of the Australian Labor Party, described herself as interested in politics from childhood. She joined the ALP in 1969, becoming an executive member of the Greensborough branch. Her extensive involvement in local community organisations, ranging from pre-school committees to book clubs and local learning centres, culminated in her election as a councillor (1973-79) of the Shire of Diamond Valley, then as the first female shire president (1977-78). At the Victorian election of 1976 Toner stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Templestowe in the Legislative Council; at a by-election the following year she was elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of Greensborough, turning a marginal Liberal seat into a safe seat for Labor.

Pursuing her interests in community wellbeing, Toner was appointed shadow minister for community welfare services and women’s affairs in 1979. When the ALP formed government, she became minister for community welfare services (1982-85) and the first woman to hold a cabinet position in Victoria. In that year she described her political philosophy: ‘I have a commitment to the democratic socialist principles of the Australian Labor Party. I believe that every person should take part in the historical process as a free individual, not the passive object of bureaucracies and big business.’  A member of the right-wing Labor Unity faction, she was dumped from cabinet during a factional tussle after the 1985 election. She served as a backbencher and senior vice-president of the State ALP until illness forced her resignation in 1989.

Toner’s ministry oversaw a shift from institutionalised welfare services to community-based programs, with an increased emphasis on the rights of children. One of her most significant achievements was negotiating the passing of the Adoption Act (1984), which for the first time in Australia gave adult adoptees the right of access to information concerning their origins. She also guided the establishment of foster-care programs and supported funding for women’s refuges. Prison reform was another of her key contributions, although she was criticised for being too soft after a series of prison breaks in 1983. She established the Victorian Prison Industries Commission in 1984 and led a shift to community corrections programs for young offenders.

From the backbench Toner lent her support to cultural development in her community, specifically through the Diamond Valley Art Award. In her last speech to the Legislative Assembly she campaigned against a subdivision that threatened the rare Eltham Copper butterfly. The wide scope of her interests was demonstrated by membership of Amnesty International and the National Trust of Australia, and her role as a director of the Victorian State Opera. Her recreations included canoeing, bushwalking and chess.

Survived by her husband and their four daughters and one son, Toner died of cancer on 3 March 1989 at Greensborough and was buried in Eltham cemetery after a state funeral at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Greensborough. Her parliamentary colleague Joan Kirner described her as a trailblazer, who had shown women members how to cope in the ‘bearpit’ that was State parliament. The Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help (VANISH) named its Carlton headquarters Pauline Toner House, while La Trobe University established a student award in her honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Who’s Who of Australian Women (1982)
  • G. Browne, Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament (1985)
  • M. Reynolds & J. Willoughby (eds), Herstory: Australian Labor Women (1994)
  • C. Jenkins, No Ordinary Lives (2008)
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 May 1982, p 15
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Mar 1985, p 3, 4 Mar 1989, pp 3, 19, 11 Mar 1989, p 3
  • VPRS 13718, item 44179 (Public Record Office, Victoria).

Citation details

Kim Torney, 'Toner, Pauline Therese (1935–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/toner-pauline-therese-15814/text27013, accessed 25 September 2017.

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