Condolence speech for Joan Kirner AC in Parliament

This is a difficult speech to give, but it is an honour to be able to give it. In making this contribution by way of tribute to an extraordinary Victorian, an extraordinary Australian, in Joan Kirner, I do not presume to tell the Joan Kirner story but rather to make some personal reflections in respect of the extraordinary life, the extraordinary contribution, of someone who I am very proud to have called a friend.Just over a week ago I was supposed to visit Joan. I was very much looking forward to it and I know that she was looking forward to it, because she was looking forward to meeting my colleague the member for Griffith. Joan took an extraordinary interest in politics—federal as well as state—notwithstanding having retired from formal politics quite some time ago. I was struck by her keen interest in everything political but particularly in the new generation of Labor women.

She would always be cross-examining me relentlessly on the member for Hotham, the member for Newcastle, the member for Lalor and all of my colleagues—people for whom she, in a very real sense, had blazed the trail. She would always be offering encouragement. I think the member for Grayndler talked about making suggestions. In my experience Joan did not make suggestions; she gave directions, and woe betide anyone who did not follow those directions.

I joined the Australian Labor Party in 1992, when Joan Kirner was Premier. I was very proud to support her premiership and I was very proud, and I remain proud, that the first vote I cast was in support of the government that she led under difficult circumstances. Earlier today I spoke with Caroline Hogg, who was a minister alongside Joan and a long-time friend. What Caroline impressed upon me, and what I would like to impress upon anyone who considers these remarks, was Joan's extraordinary courage. In recent years she demonstrated her courage in her continuing activism and energy despite very difficult health issues, but she also showed extraordinary courage during the time that she was Premier of Victoria. As the member for Grayndler touched on, her premiership was a difficult one in many senses, but it was conducted under the most extraordinary—I would say appalling—coverage. Joan Kirner, when she was Premier of Victoria, was subject to the most extraordinary treatment in the media, particularly the tabloid media, in reflecting on her dress and many other gendered aspects of her role. She was never deterred by that, and she demonstrated no rancour as she went about her business on behalf of the people of Victoria.

Indeed, through this appalling treatment she continued to concentrate as Premier on raising standards of trust in politics. She led by example, and she lived her life that way. I think of the injunction she issued in respect of politics. She said:

There is no such thing as being non-political. Just by making a decision to stay out of politics, you are making a decision to allow others to shape politics and exert power over you. And if you are alienated from the current political system, then just by staying out of it you do nothing to change it, you simply entrench it.

This is a powerful injunction, and I note that the entirety of Joan's adult life was lived that way: her activism as a parent; her activism in the community; and her role before, during and after her involvement in parliamentary life. She set a very high standard and she encouraged all those around her, particularly the women she encountered in the community and in the Labor movement, to live by that injunction. In doing so she made an extraordinary difference. She also did so by way of example. Firsts are always important; they set the standard for those that follow. And what a standard Joan Kirner set as Victoria's first female Premier. In the way she went about her role as our state leader, she made possible a different sense of politics—a different sense of politics that we are yet to fully realise, unfortunately.

Earlier today I also spoke with Peter Batchelor, another former colleague of Joan's and at one stage, as she would jokingly put it, her boss. Peter has been engaged in the preparations for what will be an extraordinary show of support and love for Joan on Friday at her state funeral. He reminded me of Joan's wicked sense of humour but also of his sense of her as the essence of community or, perhaps, community being the essence of her.

This was a theme across her entire adult life, continuing with her role under the Bracks and Brumby governments as Victoria's community ambassador—a role that continued when the government changed. In this role, she added a keen interest in advancing social inclusion to her lifelong passion for social justice.

Also after she left formal politics she continued to engage in reshaping how we do politics, most famously through her commitment to achieving the organisational change in affirmative action that has transformed Labor's parliamentary ranks. She created the organisational space, building on the example of her personal leadership, to see Labor's parliamentary ranks much more closely resemble the communities we represent. So many women have entered parliament, particularly in Victoria—and I am very pleased to have my colleague and friend the member for Bendigo here, who no doubt will have some personal reflections on these issues—because of this organisational change. She did not rest with achieving organisational change, because she was always offering her personal support, encouragement and, as I may have touched on earlier, often direction to women to fulfil their potential, never sit on the sidelines and always take their place in the centre of the Labor movement and the centre of our public life.

She was not only a mentor to women; she was a great mentor to me. I will always remember her extraordinary kindness to me. I have thought in recent days of the extraordinary faith she had in me. To date, that has proved somewhat unwarranted but she presents me—and, I think, all of us—with a great challenge to do something to repay that faith and follow the example she set.

What an example that was. As a Victorian, when I think of the Bracks and Brumby governments and now the Andrews government, I see governments mirrored in the image of her example. For so many people, particularly the nine women who presently serve in the Andrews cabinet, a path was blazed by Joan Kirner. I think of her great friend Julia Gillard, Australia's first woman Prime Minister. I think of my parliamentary colleagues here, people such as the member for Jagajaga and the member for Ballarat, who have achieved enormous things in no small measure due to Joan's influence and support.

I think, of course, of Joan and her family. I hope and I am sure that Joan will rest in peace, although I am sure she will watch over all of us in this place and those in Spring Street as well. My thoughts today are with Ron and the rest of Joan's immediate family and also with some of those who could speak far better to Joan than I can but do not have the opportunity today. I think in particular of our mutual friend Hutch Hussein, whose baby born yesterday will bear a lifelong tribute to Joan and Joan's influence. I think of Kay Setches, Gavin Jennings and Jill Hennessy. I am sure they will be tremendously sad but will continue to be inspired.

I hope that as Ron and the family, in their sadness and through their reflections, think of Joan, they will take some consolation from the fact that the Labor family will always treasure Joan's memory. We will pay tribute to that memory by continuing her work.

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