NATIONAL AFFAIRS by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Joan Kirner's legacy: VCE, Emily's List and abortion
, June 20, 2015
The death of Joan Kirner, former Socialist Left premier of Victoria and national co-convenor of Emily’s List, was followed by near universal acclaim for her role as the first female premier of Victoria and champion of women’s rights.
Less well publicised was her role in abolishing the Higher School Certificate in Victoria, which was replaced by the Victorian Certificate of Education, and the formation of Emily’s List, to promote pro-abortion feminists in the ALP. Nor did Mrs Kirner’s role in the passage of Victoria’s infamous abortion laws, which permit abortion up to birth and enforce compliance by medical and nursing staff, get much attention.
Born Joan Hood, she attended Melbourne University after which she became a teacher, marrying a fellow teacher, Ron Kirner, with whom she had three children.
Joan Kirner became active in the Victorian Federation of State School Parents’ Clubs, an organisation which became a major lobby group for increased funding for state schools, and opposition to public funding of non-government schools.
She became president of the Victorian Federation in 1971, shortly before Gough Whitlam was elected as Australia’s first Labor prime minister for over 20 years in December 1972.
One of Whitlam’s first actions was to establish the Australian Schools Commission, a federal body whose function was to oversee all schools across Australia. Mrs Kirner was appointed as the “parents’ representative” on the commission.
From 1975 to 1978, she was national president of the Australian Council of State School [Parents’] Organisations, and a prominent member of the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) which took legal action in the High Court to stop federal funding for non-government schools. Joan Kirner was a co-plaintiff in the case.
The case was decisively defeated in the High Court in 1981, with only one judge, Justice Lionel Murphy, siding with the plaintiffs.
In 1978, Mrs Kirner joined the ALP, and became a prominent member of the far-left Socialist Left faction, winning preselection for the seat of Williamstown in inner-city Melbourne.
A radical feminist, she was elected in the Labor landslide in 1982, and began a rapid rise up the parliamentary ranks of the ALP, becoming minister for conservation in 1985, then minister for education in 1988.
As education minister she spearheaded the push to introduce the Victorian Certificate of Education, which was intended to abolish examinations for tertiary entry. Only the unanimous opposition of the universities forced her to back down, after which she retained a modified form of external examinations for tertiary entry.
She was appointed deputy premier in 1989 and became Victoria’s first woman premier in 1990, when John Cain resigned as a result of the financial crisis which gripped the state, a result of government misspending and incompetence.
To meet this crisis, she sold off the State Bank of Victoria to the privatised Commonwealth Bank, and authorised the establishment of Victoria’s first casino, Crown Casino. She also initiated poker machines in Victoria, of which there are now 30,000, most in working-class suburbs.
With Labor on the nose, the Kirner government was defeated in 1992. Mrs Kirner retired from Parliament in May 1994.
After leaving Parliament, Mrs Kirner set out to achieve two of her long-held objectives: to promote radical feminists within the ALP, and to legalise abortion. The radical feminists in the ALP had long pushed for mandatory quotas for women in preselections, and had largely been successful.
In 1996, Joan Kirner and a left-wing Labor backbencher named Julia Gillard co-founded Emily’s List, an organisation committed to promoting pro-abortion feminists into Parliament.
Emily’s List has been one of the most influential organisations within the contemporary ALP, claiming to have secured the election of over 150 of its members to state and federal parliaments around the country. Its influence was shown in Victoria where the Labor government of John Brumby supported the repeal of the provisions of the Crimes Act relating to abortion.
When the legislation was introduced into the Victorian Parliament in August 2008, Mrs Kirner said: “This is a fantastic achievement in the history of the rights of women in Victoria.” (Sydney Morning Herald, August 20, 2008) Saying she had been pro-abortion for as long as she could remember, she added: “This is an excellent bill and I can support it with confidence.”
When this legislation was carried two months later, Joan Kirner celebrated the “victory” with champagne, saying: “This has been 35 years of hard work … and it is very moving to see it finally happening.” (Sydney Morning Herald, October 11, 2008)
In a tribute, Julia Gillard said: “She was one of the dominant influences on my life. For me, the relationship went beyond that of student and mentor. Joan was the truest of friends.”
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.