Condolences, Hon. Joan Elizabeth Kirner, AC

9 June 2015

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I also join the condolence motion for Joan Kirner. A lot has been said about her career, and a lot more will be said before this condolence motion has concluded, but the thing I find intriguing in Joan’s biography is that her occupation is listed as ‘parent activist’. I think it says a lot about the person that it was not necessarily the highest office she held in the land that she included in her biography but rather what she felt she really was. At Joan’s state funeral I listened in particular to Jenny Beacham’s contribution. When we stand up to speak on condolence motions, we quite often look at people’s lives and read out their history based on our current view of history and the paradigm we live in now, but when you go back to when Joan started her career and moved up through politics in Victoria, it was a very different place, and she faced a lot of challenges.

My take from the contributions of many at the state funeral was that Joan Kirner achieved a lot of things by empowering others. It was not just about her, it was about how she empowered others through a team effort, whether it was that first round of meetings at the kindergarten, her role in schooling in the Williamstown community or moving on into politics. It was about how she empowered other people to be part of the contribution and then how they gave her the strength and power to do more things than she would have been able to do in her own right. No matter what side of politics you sit on in Victoria, we would all say that Joan Kirner made a real difference through her contribution.

I want to spend some time speaking about her period as the Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands between 1985 and 1988. It was good to go back and read her valedictory speech when she was leaving Parliament. She talked about when she was first given the portfolio and the challenges around land degradation and salinity at the time. She said:

… we were calling out a few experts to help farmers, who were not experts according to the experts, to manage that issue. The farmers wondered what the hell had struck them when I became minister and wondered what they were going to do with this socialist left feminist.

I was farming then, and I do remember that time, but what is also interesting is that she went on to say:

We worked out that the way to do it was on a catchment basis with farmers as the experts, to give them the expertise to assist them to plan, change and own that change. We changed the rules and the bureaucracy, and we changed the minds of the people on the ground.

I think that says a lot about her style again and the fact that it was about being inclusive and people understanding why the change was needed and what the outcomes would be. Any of us who have the opportunity to serve as a minister in that portfolio need to bear in mind that quite often the bureaucracy needs to be reminded of that change and the fact that it is actually the people on the ground who can make the greatest difference if they are given the advice and the expertise to do that and not lectured to by those who may want to tell them how to do things into the future. That whole‑of‑catchment process that Joan started as minister is still in place, and I think it is very important that we keep it, particularly the issue of the interdependence between the upstream and the downstream. People are very quick to blame someone else for their woes, but there is that interdependence.

Some of the other reading I did referred to the fact that at the time quite a few farmer groups were lobbying Joan as minister, saying, ‘If we can just build a drain and put our salinity water in the Murray River and send it further down, that will solve our problem’. It actually creates a greater problem for those further downstream, so that whole‑of‑catchment approach remains valid now. That is not to say that before Joan’s time as minister things were not done to improve farming methods and soil conservation. The Soil Conservation Authority did a lot of good work before that time, but I think it was that process of inclusiveness that changed the way things were done and had a new way of looking at things. Instead of blaming people for previous decisions it was a matter of saying, ‘This is what we have at this time; we need to do something about it into the future’.

It was also interesting to read a case study of Landcare by Joan Kirner. In it she said:

I also knew, from my parent club days and visits to country areas. that it is the farming women and men who were the real stewards of the land, and if we didn’t involve them in decisions about improving the land, nothing would work.

That again points to the issue of inclusiveness. At that time Victoria had just come through the 1983 drought, which some members will remember. Some might also remember seeing the photo of a huge dust storm that enveloped Melbourne at that time. I do not think a lot of people in Melbourne realised there was a drought until that dust storm hit. Thanks to the work begun by Joan and Heather Mitchell for Landcare, during the more recent drought — which was longer in duration than the 1983 drought — effectively there were no dust storms because people were farming in a very different way. That is a credit to the process used at the time and also to the farmers.

In starting Landcare, Joan used her skills to create partnerships. Joan and Heather Mitchell, who was the president of the Victorian Farmers Federation at that time, co‑chaired the development of Landcare in Victoria. The first Landcare group was developed on Terry Simpson’s property at Winjallok. For those people who do not know where Winjallok is, it is just south‑west of St Arnaud, which is now in the seat of Ripon. At that time, it was not about planting trees; it was about controlling rabbits and deep‑rooted perennials on a denuded hill in that area. The concept of planting trees was something that came later.

However, success has many parents. The work that Joan and Heather Mitchell started with Landcare in Victoria was then adopted from a national perspective by Rick Farley, then CEO of the National Farmers Federation, and Philip Toyne, then CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation. If you read the history of Landcare, you might believe that it was Rick and Philip who were the ones who developed Landcare on a national scale, and they probably did from a national perspective, but I do not think enough credit has been accorded outside Victoria to Joan and Heather Mitchell for the work they did.

Obviously as things grow to be successful, other people adopt them. Bob Hawke, the then Prime Minister — someone who was always good at backing a winner — made sure we had a decade of Landcare, putting something like $350 million into it. What started as Joan’s idea of taking her community activism to the Landcare movement went on to be adopted by the then Prime Minister and receive substantial funding from the federal government. Next year we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Landcare. As others have said — and no doubt others will go on to say as we continue this condolence motion — Landcare continues to go from strength to strength. But it is always important to remember where it started, particularly the concept that built it, and not lose sight of that as we move into the future.

Another thing Joan did as a minister at that time was to start the Rural Women’s Network, which gave advice both to her as minister and to government. It included women in the decision‑making of government. That network is still going. That has been a great concept through the ages. Those members who attend the Rural Women’s Awards every year might know that they grew out of the Rural Women’s Network. This network has empowered a lot of women to get involved not necessarily just in mainstream politics but also in community and agricultural decision‑making in this state.

To Joan’s husband, Ron, her children, her grandchildren and her many friends — as was identified by the many people who were at the Williamstown town hall, the school and in the annex for Joan’s state funeral — I offer my condolences on behalf of the coalition. I finish by saying: Joan Kirner’s life made an absolute contribution to Victoria. Vale, Joan Kirner.


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