Victoria's first and only female premier, Joan Kirner, has died

Joan Kirner. Photo: Screenshot

Joan Kirner, who became Victoria’s first female premier 25 years ago, has died, aged 76.

A Labor premier between 1990 and 1992, before being swept from power in a landslide that made Jeff Kennett the state’s leader. She was just the second woman to become a state leader after Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia, a few months earlier.

Kirner announced she had oesophageal cancer two years ago.

The former Labor leader was handed something of a poisoned chalice when John Cain resigned and the former state schoolteacher turned education minister and deputy premier became Victoria’s 42nd premier.

The state was a financial basket case. The Pyramid Building Society collapsed on Cain’s watch, costing taxpayers around $900 million which they spent the next five years paying off via a fuel levy. State debt ballooned to $25 billion. The government-owned State Bank of Victoria was on the brink of insolvency and was eventually sold to the Commonwealth Bank in 1991.

Labor was at war with itself over how to emerge from the financial mire and Kirner, the first leader from the socialist left, with an already impressive history of reform during her eight years in parliament, was regarded with suspicion. Her attempts to turn around the state’s financial fortunes, including the sale of state assets, set an agenda that was enthusiastically embraced by Kennett, but caused more pain than gain to her leadership.

She left parliament in 1994.

Her earlier years in politics were far more successful. Kirner grew up in Essendon – and remained a lifelong Bombers fan – and gained an arts degree, then become a teacher and public education activist. She mobilised the power of parents as a lobby group to demand better support for public education before entering Victoria’s upper house in 1982, and joining Cain’s cabinet three years later.

As conservation minister, she played a key role in the creation of the Landcare movement, as well as introducing Australia’s first legislation to protect rare species as the nation celebrated its bicentenary.

In 1988, Kirner moved to the lower house as MP for Williamstown and became education minister, pushing through reforms that led to the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), which continues to this day.

Among her detractors, the girl from Moonee Ponds was portrayed as “Mother Russia”, a frumpy housewife wearing a polka dot dress – something she’d never actually done – by cartoonist Jeff Hook. She was lampooned with far less mercy than her male contemporaries.

Kirner went on to found Emily’s List, the Labor-led advocacy group for more women in politics, recounting the time to them:

“The editor and his cartoonist were showing their own prejudices – their view of how a housewife would cope – to get at me politically, and I had let them do it. They didn’t like my style of politics and they got at me not by attacking the style, but by attacking me personally.

“So I stopped taking it personally, I showed myself in the media in positions of control, visiting factories and making speeches, and I developed and showed my sense of humor with events like a fundraising ‘Spot on Joan’ concert. And I got my power back.”

In 1993, her sense of humour was memorably apparent when she appeared on comedy program The Late Show dressed as Joan Jett, performing “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Here she is.

She was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to the Parliament of Victoria and to the community through conservation initiatives, contributions to gender equality, the development of education and training programs and the pursuit of civil rights and social inclusion.”

Kirner is survived by her husband, Ron, three children, Michael, David and Kate, and four grandchildren.

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