Condolences: Hon Joan Elizabeth Kirner AC

Ms HENNESSY (Minister for Health) — A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Joan, and it said, ‘Please give me a call re health’. I thought, ‘Bloody hell — what have I done now? What is she going to push me about now?’. But of course it was the awful news that Joan’s cancer had returned. While we were most hopeful that she would be with us for a much longer period of time, when news of her death hit us there was a very strong collective reaction of grief, both public and private. I was reminded of the poem by W. H. Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone …

I know people would be most familiar with that poem through the film Four Weddings and a Funeral rather than any grand study of literature, but I think what it represents is a sense of confronting the reality of what life without Joan is going to be. She has been not just an indelible part of the history of people in the Labor Party, particularly women in the Labor Party, but also the Princess of the West for all those community organisations that she empowered and those individuals to whom she lent a sense of dignity.

Joan genuinely saw each and every single person she engaged with as her equal, so news of her death was a very confronting, compelling and sad occurrence for us all. It has been truly delightful to hear all the wonderful stories over the past week about both her public life and her private life, how phenomenal she was and what a force of nature she was, whether that was as a student, a mum, a partner or a grandparent — and certainly as an activist.

I am always delighted to remember in particular that, when fighting for the rights of children to a decent education, she stood before a crowded room and said, ‘Look, baking cakes ain’t going to cut it anymore. We need to organise, and we need to stand up for the rights of our children’. Is it any wonder that she arrived in politics?

As you would know, Speaker, every time when there is a new cabinet a photo is taken. In the cabinet photo from 1982, when Joan Kirner was elected as a member of the Legislative Council for Melbourne West, there is but one woman and 17 men. That woman was obviously the late, great Pauline Toner, a former member for Greensborough in the Legislative Assembly and Minister for Community Welfare Services. Three decades later I was delighted to be a member of a rookie cabinet in which there were nine women. It has only taken three decades, but I think in part Joan Kirner ought to be recognised and take responsibility for the growing number of women not just in the Labor Party but right across parliaments. She took that fight very seriously, and she took it on long after her exit from politics.

The end of her parliamentary political life was not an easy one — I know many people adored Joan Kirner, though not all of them voted for her — but she used her post‑parliamentary life to invest in a legacy of fairness, to enable the representation of women and as a great advocate for education. As the affirmative action debate took place in the Labor Party, I used to say to Joan, ‘Look at what you have gone and started’. It was not an easy debate to begin with, but within the party she empowered many women and gave a sense of responsibility to many men to change structures and change cultures to try to improve the representation of women, always annoying the apparatchik du jour, whoever was running the votes for the party room conference of the day. She also continued her advocacy around reproductive rights for women.

One of the really important things Joan did in her post‑parliamentary life was as the ambassador for Victorian communities, when she spent enormous amounts of time working with the communities of Broadmeadows, Laverton, Corio, Mildura, Shepparton and many more. She sat down and worked with those communities and really harassed and harangued the government about how to empower communities to talk about the sorts of investments they needed, particularly to target issues of economic and social disadvantage. Joan never did that with an ounce of being patronising; she was incredibly insistent that community‑led responses to local community problems were absolutely essential.

Joan became more than a mentor to many of us. She was a wonderful, treasured friend who was often in loco parentis. The great lessons she taught me ranged from how to deal with morning sickness to controlled crying and a whole range of parenting advice. She gave advice as to how you survive this very challenging life. It is one thing to try to get women into politics, but it is another to enable them to survive it while combining things like their parenting responsibilities with their public duties.

Joan’s fantastic picture in Queen’s Hall is a wonderful, warm reminder of her. I used to give Joan a lot of curry about that painting. She is a woman with a fantastic sense of humour. I always used to say it must have taken a lot of energy to hold that come‑hither pose. Whenever she would ring in to see how things were going, I would fabricate stories that I saw groups of young men swooning at her photo as she leaned forward, looking very salaciously towards them. She liked the irreverent and the cheeky, but she would always use a couple of choice words in response to all of those things. That glorious painting hangs there and serves as a wonderful reminder of her warmth, of our need to continue on our quest for diversity in leadership in this state and of the fact that she was the most incredibly accessible, down‑to‑earth person. She did not have one ticket on herself, despite the fact that she deserved hundreds of them.

Joan used to hold court in her back room at Ron’s and her place, where we would talk about the political gossip of the day or the problems of the world with some plunger coffee. She was a person who did not subscribe to the contemporary metrics of contemporary politics. She was never influenced by, nor did she ever encourage, a Pavlovian sense of approval of politicians who put narcissism ahead of principles and values. They were always the things that guided every decision she made and every interaction she had. It is through the power of her example that her legacy will continue.

Many of us will continue to grapple with the private grief that we feel, but I have been delighted and buoyed by the community’s respectful embrace of the history of Joan’s life and the history of her contribution. All of that was on fantastic display at the state funeral for her last week. I was particularly delighted with the stories of Paul Briggs and Joan’s request of the Yorta Yorta women that they put a spell on the Carlton Football Club. I only wish they would take that spell off the Western Bulldogs Football Club! That great day and the way in which the community responded showed the great love for and the esteem in which Joan is held. We are left to grapple with how we can continue her legacy without her.

In conclusion I pay my deepest respects to the glorious Ron Kirner, the man who only knew about the Joan Jett appearance on the D‑Generation television show when Joan sat him down the night it was to be aired. It was a great surprise for him — yet another one. His generosity, and the generosity of their children, in sharing Joan was incredible, and we owe the Kirner and the Hood families as great a debt as we owe Joan. I pass on my condolences to them, and I wish them the opportunity to have time for their private grief after having so publicly shared Joan for such a long period of time.

I hope that we can all seek solace and joy as we walk through Queen’s Hall and look at that glorious painting of Joan with her cheeky, come‑hither look.