04 June 2015

It is with much sadness and immense gratitude that I rise to speak on the passing of a giant of the labour movement—Joan Kirner. I believe for a lot of us that Joan Kirner actually became more important to her party and to parliamentary representation of women generally after she left parliament. She did not just become a commentator; she stayed involved—you would see her at conferences and at party meetings. She was always in touch with people who were in the labour movement, in parliament or seeking to be in public office. She had an immense impact on the structures of the Labor Party and a passion for diversity in our parliaments. I and many other people I know often disagreed with her road map but it was impossible to ignore the fact that she was so authentic and genuine about what she wanted to achieve. She wanted to make all of our parliaments mirror our society.

I took the opportunity to chat with Amanda Fazio, the former President of the New South Wales Legislative Council. She was around during some of the really heady times in 1994 when significant changes were made within the Labor Party structures. They were sponsored very heavily by Paul Keating, which was so important, but Joan was integral to that. It is hard to believe that was 21 years ago and I had been in the party for only four years. Joan championed what then Prime Minister Paul Keating was seeking to do. I found this neatly summarised in a speech that Amanda made on 29 May last year.

She made this speech on the occasion of 20 years since the introduction of affirmative action for women in the national rules of the Australian Labor Party, and it was driven by national Labor women's conferences, where Joan was such a figure not only of authority but of nurturing. Amanda said:

Then Prime Minister Paul Keating stated on 9 September 1994:

Last year, I called on the Labor Party to begin a process of reinvigoration. We needed to make the changes necessary to increase the number of women in State and federal caucuses.

… …  …

At the national conference in Hobart, rule 12c was adopted requiring that women be preselected for 35 per cent of winnable seats at all elections by 2002. I was a delegate to the 1994 conference and was involved in the negotiations leading up to this decision. I must say that I was not wholly supportive of the model adopted because I felt that the 30 per cent of seats left for either gender would be taken up by men who would continue to promote men just like themselves. I wanted 50 per cent of seats for women. However, I was either too idealistic or hard line, and the more moderate viewpoint prevailed.

Amanda went on to note Paul Keating referring to the affirmative action decision after the 1994 conference:

One, in particular, which I think will be around when all of us are gone was the decision, a very historic one, to increase the representation for women in the parliaments. That is the keynote change of this conference. That will be the one that will change the character of Australian politics; it's the one which will lift the opportunities for women to participate in the parliaments.

Amanda ends this speech by saying:

I thank all the Labor women from across Australia involved in the development and passing of the affirmative action rules in 1994, including Joan Kirner and also then Prime Minister Paul Keating, who strongly supported this historic decision.

It needed individuals at this conference to take risks to make that change reality. It was never inevitable that this change would happen and that we would see the diversity that we have now in the Labor Party at all levels, I believe, of parliaments. However, we can never rest on our laurels; we always need to keep doing better. But this was never inevitable. Joan Kirner took a risk—she was a risk taker. It was highly contentious. I remember we even had to deal with the notion that women who were going to be elected to the parliament or were going to put themselves forward would simply be token women. We had men raising arguments that this would be discrimination against men. So this was a challenge to vested interests, to individuals, to factions and to power bases. I am sure Joan Kirner lost friends in this process. And one should never think it was unanimous. But she had the courage to make it a reality, and I thank her for that and I know Amanda Fazio does as well. As I said, we would often be on opposite sides of internal debates on how we were going to achieve this, but Joan was always authentic, she was always genuine and she really was a model of someone who did what they believed in, irrespective of who she had to offend or who she had to bring with her in the tent—she got it done.

I want to take this opportunity to read what I think is a very touching and very accurate message from someone else who I think needs to be on the public record, and that is in message from Carmel Guerra, the CEO of the Centre for Multicultural Youth in Melbourne. She writes that Joan Kirner:

… inspired and, knowingly or unknowingly, mentored many individual women by passing on her wisdom, knowledge and experience in making a difference.

Joan was a fierce supporter of the work of CMY and a strong advocate for the voices of young people to be heard. In our 20th anniversary publication "many voices one story" Joan spoke of the role the Ethnic Youth Issues Network (early incarnation of CMY) played in giving a voice to those young people whose voices are not often heard, "...the workers did have a background of experience, not just a set of opinions, and at most times you were able to assemble a group of young people who weren't just there as prize exhibits but who had been mentored or assisted to feel confident in what they were saying".

Joan gave graciously of her time to attend CMY events and spoke with young people about their experiences and journey to Australia. She would sit and talk with the young people, many who did not know she had been the Premier of Victoria, and encouraged them to speak their mind, participate in the democratic process and keep CMY honest. Until recently Joan, though frail, was a regular at our events and would make an effort to sit and listen intently to every person who sat next to her and ask inquisitive and insightful questions.

I end by saying that I found an email—I think the only email exchange that Joan Kirner and I had—from May 2013.

I was having a bit of an issue with being a new mother and being judged by some people on how I did my job in this place. But she wrote to me, in part, 'Hi Michelle. I hope you and Octavia are recovering. Congratulations for taking the fight up to them. I have just heard,' and I will not mention the name here, 'hopeless attempts to justify his patriarchal conservative response. I hope your electorate continues to elect you as their forthright and effective representative. In admiration, Joan Kirner.'

I replied to Joan, thanking her for her response and sent her a photo of my little girl. This was almost exactly 2 years ago to the day—3 June 2013. Joan Kirner replied, 'She is gorgeous. Thank you and good luck, JK.' Joan Kirner: wherever you are, thank you. You have inspired many but, more importantly, you made a difference. The legacy that you leave will continue to make a positive difference in years to come.