JOAN KIRNER (1938-2015)


Joan Kirner was the Premier of Victoria from 1990 until 1992.

A former teacher, it was only when she married and had her three children that Kirner’s career in politics began. A community activist and leader of the grassroots campaign for educational reform in Victoria in the 1970s, Kirner became president of the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Club and then the Australian Council of State School Organisations. In 1980, she was named a Member of the Order of Australia for her community service.

In 1982, just four years after joining the ALP, Kirner entered parliament and was soon promoted to the front bench as Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands. Here she proposed the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, bringing Victoria’s first effective controls on land clearing, and was integral in the formation of the first Landcare groups.

But it was education that remained her passion. In 1988 Kirner held the education portfolio and was able to pursue an agenda of reform. She was committed to equality of education and delivered a reduction in class sizes, improved retention rates and the introduction of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

Joan Kirner became Deputy Premier in 1989, and 18 months later became Premier following the resignation of John Cain. She inherited a government beset by financial woes, and the party lost the 1992 election.

Despite this, Joan Kirner’s legacy as the state’s first female Premier is one of determination and defiance. She faced sexist commentary and political attacks head on and won the respect of many with her strength and dignity.

After retiring from state politics in 1994 Kirner maintained an interest in social justice and environmental issues. She was president of the Victorian ALP, and a champion of progressive women in politics.

In 2012 she was made Companion of the Order of Australia for her service to the parliament and the community.

Joan Kirner died in 2015 of oesophageal cancer.

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Illustrated by Janelle Barone