Kirner spent life pursuing social justice

Joan Kirner fought against unfairness even as a child.


When her dog faced being put down after being caught by the council dog catcher, Ms Kirner and her cousin Max Cole crept up to the dog cart while the catcher was chasing another dog and opened the door.

“We, with five other dogs, ran for the lick of our lives,” Dr Cole recalled.

“Joan hated unfairness and always acted against it.”

The girl with the mischievous sense of humour and no-nonsense attitude grew into a passionate community activist and eventually Victoria’s first and only female premier, never losing her commitment to justice and a fair go.

Former Labor state secretary Jenny Beacham said her friend of more than 40 years stayed absolutely true to the values she started out with.

When a Melbourne primary school principal told new parents their children would be in a class of 54, it was Ms Kirner who stood up and said “no he won’t” and led other young mums in a successful protest to get new classrooms and then teachers.

“Joan didn’t change,” Ms Beacham told Ms Kirner’s state funeral.

“She was still just as ready to stand up for something she didn’t think was fair at the end of her life as she was 50 years ago.

“Those years as premier were tough, but she never stopped grappling with the issues, trying to find a just and reasonable solution.”

She was a tireless crusader for women and education before, during and after her 1990-1992 tenure as premier.

“She was challenging, she was funny, she was generous and loving, sensible and completely glorious all at once,” said Emily Lee-Ack, who worked with Ms Kirner in the Emily’s List Australia organisation she founded to increase women’s participation in Labor politics.

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, regarded Ms Kirner as an inspiration and a mentor, as did former Emily’s List national co-convenor Hutch Hussein.

“For many she’s not just given us wings, she’s taught us how to fly and along the way challenged and supported us to stretch those wings,” Ms Hussein said.

Osteoporosis made her shorter in stature in her later years but everyone still looked up to a woman who spent her life pursuing social justice, Ms Hussein said.

Friday’s state funeral, attended by senior state and federal Labor figures and former Victorian premiers from both sides of politics, heard Ms Kirner was interested in every aspect of life and had an abiding respect and love of people.

In the days before her death on Monday after a near two-year battle with oesophageal cancer, the 76-year-old apologised to Ms Hussein that she would not be around any longer as a mentor and surrogate mother.

“‘I’m sorry to do this to you,’ she said, as if she had not given me enough over the last 20 years.”

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