Joan Kirner dies: the former premier remembered

Shane Green, The Age

I first encountered the remarkable force that was Joan Kirner in a simple downtown office. It was the best part of 35 years ago, and Kirner was heading up the Victorian Federation of States School Parents' Clubs.

As lobby groups went, it was formidable, taking on ministers and the state education bureaucracy to get a better deal for Victoria's public education system. Kirner, a former teacher, was a driving force in mobilising the potential of parents to deliver change.

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I was young cadet reporter on the education beat, so the two of us were a good fit: Kirner, in search of a public platform, and me in search of a story. The combination worked well, as Kirner produced story after story designed to improve conditions in our schools and the education of our children.

Naive and green, I was barely out of school myself. Yet she would patiently walk me through the issues, providing a master class in community advocacy and demonstrating a keen sense of what would interest my news editors. The Kirner I remember was passionate and impressive.


Joan Kirner in 2012 at Sunbury Neighbourhood House.

Joan Kirner in 2012 at Sunbury Neighbourhood House. CREDIT: SHAWN SMITS


It was a true reading, for those were among the qualities that would propel her into an often contentious public life. In every sense, she was the genuine article.

Journalism sometimes provides a front row seat to history in the making, so in many ways, it was a preview of the Kirner story that would unfold. Over the next decade, she would enter the Victorian Parliament, and taking the portfolio for which she was a perfect fit, education.

Kirner, of course, will be remembered for becoming Victoria's first female premier, taking over in August, 1990, when John Cain resigned. The simple fact that we have not had another since tells a powerful story of what she achieved, and how our political parties have failed since.

I was working overseas when she was elected by her colleagues, and returned in the final act of her premiership and her government. The decade of Labor rule that had begun so brightly in 1982 had by that stage unraveled. A union movement in revolt against its own, and the state's financial position a mess, Kirner had become premier at the worst of times.


Joan Kirner leaves Parliament House, Melbourne after elected Victoria's first female deputy premier.

Joan Kirner leaves Parliament House, Melbourne after elected Victoria's first female deputy premier. CREDIT: JOHN LAMB


What struck me was the vitriol directed at her personally. Dubbed Mother Russia by some sections of the media because of her membership of the Socialist Left faction, she was also ridiculed because of her clothes. Although she did not own a polka-dot dress, this is how cartoonists portrayed her.

The Liberal's Guilty Party advertising campaign in the 1992 election was devastating, vilifying Kirner and her colleagues. Two years after becoming premier, Joan Kirner would lead Labor to defeat at the hands of the Jeff Kennett-led Coalition.

Yet rather than retreat, Kirner maintained her involvement in public life: heading Emily's List, deeply involved in her community.

Four years ago, the phone rang. It was Joan Kirner, suggesting we get together. So we sat down over lunch, not all that far from our interviews more than three decades ago.

Notebook in hand, Kirner had another story for me, this time in her role as Victoria's community ambassador.

A few weeks later, I was in a fibro hall in the backblocks of Rosebud to see a project that used funding to prevent family violence by building connections in the community.

A group of women had come together for life-drawing classes. It was much more than about art: it was about bringing women together and building social links - by its very nature, quintessentially Kirner-esque.