Joan Kirner remembers the precise moment she decided to be Premier. John Cain had resigned; she had the numbers. And Steve Crabb phoned her to explain at length why he would make a much better Premier than her and how she should stand aside for him.

Kirner listened to all this for half an hour before realising she was indulging in the typical female self-doubt that she had always urged other women to avoid. “I thought, ‘My God, why am I listening to this?’

“For years, I had been saying to other women, ‘When you get the opportunity, grasp it!’, and here I was doing the classic female bit, instead of thinking about how I could do this well.”
She snapped out of it and the rest is history. Her parliamentary career is now history too, but her political life, as she is quick to point out, remains alive and kicking.

On Saturday Kirner turned 60, and yesterday she was singing (badly) a version of I Love Rock’n’Roll in the Regent Theatre ballroom at a $60-a-head birthday bash to raise money for Emily’s List. It seems Kirner will do anything to promote Emily’s List, the support organisation she helped set up in 1996, aimed at getting “the right kind” of women into all of our parliaments. And yesterday that meant borrowing a wharfie’s black leather jacket and reprising the Joan Jett rock anthem she first performed on ABC television’s The Late Show five years ago.

So, where is Joan Kirner at 60? Geographically, still living in the same pretty weatherboard cottage in Williamstown with husband Ron that they shared through all the political tumult. Personally, she is now tougher and more savvy than when she started her public life 30 or so years ago. That’s why Emily’s List, which was originally conceived as an internal network for Labor women, is now an independent organisation, completely autonomous from the Labor Party machine.

Kirner is matter-of-fact about the organisation’s differences with the party that it was established to help. “The party was concerned about two things: One, that we would control our own money and have our own membership and committee, and two, that we insisted on being pro-choice … The network that they were prepared to tolerate didn’t have clear feminist principles and didn’t have control of its own destiny.” In other words, there would have been no point in running it.

As it is, the organisation’s money, mentoring and moral support to selected women Labor candidates has had remarkable early success. It has endorsed 37 candidates and helped 11 new women get into Parliaments across the country. (Emily stands for “Early Money is Like Yeast – it makes the dough rise”.)

Recently, the list matched up Frances Bedford, who won her South Australian seat of Florey with a 14 per cent swing, as mentor for Anne Stuart in Indooroopilly in Queensland, who needed 14 per cent to win. “We do what the women’s movement has done for years, and that is share our experience in a way that sharpens up people’s strategies and makes them feel they can take the next step.”

Kirner says she had a sad week leading up to her birthday. There was the rise of One Nation in the Queensland election and the sudden death of a dear friend and colleague who had fought alongside Kirner to improve the state education system. There are times when she feels that much of what she tried to work for has been undermined.

She has no time for the Prime Minister, John Howard, particularly since he allowed universities to reserve places for fee-paying students.

And she wonders to what extent the policies of the Premier, Jeff Kennett, have fuelled the rise in support for Pauline Hanson: “His removal of the public’s say in Victoria, his cuts to advocacy programs and his devaluing – in terms of resources and respect – of the public health and education systems has contributed to the alienation, particularly in the country areas, that is creating One Nation.”

Kirner still works full-time, fighting for what she believes in. The smart working-class kid who studied her way into university at 16 has never forgotten where she came from, or the people who deserve a fair go. She was on the wharves linking arms in the front line of the union picket during the recent dispute.

She has few regrets – the main one being her lousy timing for ascension to Premier, when she had to battle recession, the State Bank disaster and Pyramid building society collapse.

Asked what she knows at 60 that she wishes she had known at 30, she laughs and asks if she can make it 20: “The contraceptive pill would be the first one, so that I could make a decision about when to have children.

Also, she says, “the importance of superannuation for women, because of course when I got married, I had to resign from the permanent teaching force and lost my superannuation”. (She was not in Parliament long enough to qualify for a pension and must supplement her income now with paid work, such as speeches).

“And the importance of feminism. I knew as a young woman the importance of making my own decisions, because I had grown up with that in my family, but I wish I had known more about the restrictive nature of male power structures and how to operate on them.”


* The funniest: Proving her “manhood” as Conservation Minister in a helicopter viewing bushfires, only to land at Bogong and meet a local who was dressed in full evening dress: tails, dicky front, bow tie. “Are you wearing that gear because wool is a good protection in a fire?” she inquired. “No, Joan,” he said. “I’ve never met a bloody minister before and I thought I should dress up for it.”

* The most embarrassing: Opening a spa at Hepburn Springs – she agreed to don bathers and step into the pool, only to discover, with a splash, that no steps awaited her under the water. That night a TV station played the shot over and over: in and out, in and out. Cabinet was in stitches the next morning.

* The saddest: “When John Cain resigned. He stood up and put his hand on my hand (and told me). I burst into tears in Caucus.”

* The hardest: “Selling the State Bank, without a doubt; the bank that my father had one of the first bankbooks for.”

* The most exciting: “Working with Paul Keating. He was a visionary. But I wish I could have persuaded him that to implement a vision you have to take people with you; you can’t just tell them what’s good for them. And you certainly can’t tell them regularly that ‘This is a beautiful set of statistics’ when their real lives weren’t reflected in those statistics.”

* The most satisfying: “Getting kids with disabilities into normal schools.”

First published in The Age.