9 December 2015, Wheeler Centre, Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
Part of a Wheeler Centre event called 'The Show of the Year', where 12 public figures are allocated a month of the year each. Penny Wong dedicated 'June' to the loss of her friend and mentor, Joan Kirner.
Joan Kirner died on Monday, the first of June 2015, aged 76.
Tonight I remember her passing.
I also celebrate her life, and her legacy.
Joan is best remembered as the first and only woman to serve as Premier of Victoria.
But I want to start with the personal.
For me, Joan was the most personal of political figures.
No one who came into contact with her could fail to be touched by her warmth.
No one from politics, no one from business, and certainly no one from the community sector.
Joan listened, encouraged and counselled.
When the occasion demanded it, she provided comfort with a hug.
I loved spending time with Joan – a feeling I know I shared with many others.
As the founder of EMILY’s List Australia Joan was a friend and mentor to me and many other Labor women seeking to enter Parliament.
Joan was a strong supporter of affirmative action rules that helped change the culture of the Labor Party – and bring a wave of progressive women into national and state politics.
Like Joan, I maintain that our parliaments should reflect the society they represent.
And all Australians have Joan to thank for her efforts to make that aspiration a reality.
Joan dedicated her life to the service of others – as a teacher, parents club president, parliamentarian, minister, premier and social justice advocate.
In each phase of her life she demonstrated principle, courage and determination.
Those of us who knew Joan know what strong views she held.
Yet she never allowed disagreement to overcome friendship, or detract from the pursuit of a common cause.
Joan first came to public attention as head of the Victorian Federation of State Schools Parent Clubs in the early 1970s.
She remained an advocate for education throughout her life.
In 1982 Joan was elected to the Victorian Parliament – an election that saw Labor return to office after 27 years on the Opposition benches.
In 1985, just three years later, Joan was appointed Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands.
In that portfolio Joan established created the Landcare program and created new national parks.
In 1988 Joan was appointed Minister for Education.
Here Joan’s reputation as a reformer was made with the introduction of the new Victorian Certificate of Education.
Joan became Deputy Premier in 1989.
On 9 August 1990 Joan became Victoria’s first and only woman Premier following the unexpected resignation of John Cain.
There were no easy days in the Kirner Premiership.
The state economy was in strife and internal dissension within the caucus and the labour movement undermined Joan’s attempts to get the government back on track.
Under Joan’s leadership the state government took some hard decisions, including the sale of the State Bank of Victoria.
As Premier, Joan was the subject of unprecedented personal vitriol.
Derogatory labels and snide comments about her dress became the norm in a heated political environment encouraged by the Opposition, a hostile press, and internal division.
An environment that might sound familiar to those of us who served with the first woman Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard.
Joan didn’t buckle, but she did lead Labor to a devastating electoral loss in 1992.
After serving in the shadow ministry for a short period Joan resigned her seat in May 1994 – succeeded by a future Labor Premier, Steve Bracks.
Joan kept working when she left Parliament.
Some of that work was in the public gaze, but much of it was in the community, doing the sort of work that doesn’t generate headlines but makes our world a better place.
Joan remained a passionate advocate for Melbourne’s west – particularly Williamstown – a community she loved, and one that loved her in return.
Joan supported a myriad of women’s and arts organisations, and many progressive causes including the campaign for reproductive rights.
She loved the Essendon Football Club.
I was honoured to be present at Joan’s State Funeral, also in June, surrounded by people who adored and appreciated Joan as much as I did.
I miss her dearly.
Joan’s legacy will endure.
Not just for the state she led, the causes she championed, or the women she supported into Parliament.
But for our daughters, yours and mine, who will benefit from the example, and the work, of a woman who maintained women could do anything, and led the way.