Joan Kirner’s legacy is all around us in Bass Coast, writes Catherine Watson
June 6, 2015
IF YOU want to know why there’s been so much fuss about former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner since she died on Monday, just look around you.
You can see her legacy in the Bunurong Marine Park, stretching from Harmers Haven to Inverloch; the Wonthaggi to Anderson rail trail, used by hundreds of people every week; the koala conservation reserve on Phillip Island; and the former Summerlands estate, now a conservation reserve for penguins.
You can also see it in the millions of trees planted on farms around Bass Coast and in the rural communities strengthened by the revolutionary Landcare movement.
In 2012, at the invitation of the Bass Coast Landcare Network, Ms Kirner came to Bass to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a movement that now has about 6000 groups in Australia and has been widely copied overseas.
By then, she was severely disabled and often in severe pain. But she was there at Bass for the celebration dinner, where she spoke for half an hour, and returned the next day with her good friend and comrade in arms Kay Setches, with whom she had served in cabinet, for a Landcare art exhibition.
Kay Setches, left, and Joan Kirner with artist Bev Watson at Bass in 2012 for the 25th anniversary celebrations for Landcare.
onI was fascinated by the awestruck response of people meeting her. For me it was like meeting Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. How could one be awed by this homely, bent, welcoming, motherly woman?
“Call me Joan,” she said to everyone, and so I will from now on.
Many people have spoken of the way Joan could cross divides, political and social, and get things done. By most measures, she was an unsuccessful politician – you got the impression the political games bored her – and a very successful doer.
At Bass that day, she talked about the early days of Landcare. A city girl, she confessed she knew nothing about farming or the environment when John Cain appointed her minister of conservation. “Except camping – I liked camping. We used to go to the national parks.”
Soon after her appointment, she visited northern Victoria and was shocked to see the massive salinity problem, caused by decades of land clearing and unsuitable farming practices. Convinced of the need for drastic change, she found an unlikely ally in Heather Mitchell, then president of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation.
Sending out young graduates to lecture farmers wasn’t going to work, they agreed. What they needed was a community movement where change would occur literally at the grassroots, with farmers learning by watching what their neighbours did.
The secret of Landcare’s success was that rather than preaching to farmers, it subsidised them to revegetate land and fence off rehabilitated land and waterways. The program was ahead of its time in recognising that there was also a community benefit to an improved landscape and land management practices, and massive social benefits in communities working towards a shared goal.
When Joan was promoted to the education portfolio, she made sure her friend Kay Setches took over conservation so she could continue her pet projects. The two remained close friends and Joan and Ron Kirner were regular visitors to Kay and Denis Setches’ home on Phillip Island.
In a death notice in The Age yesterday, Ms Setches wrote lovingly and with admiration of the woman she described as “my bestie”:
“Victoria’s first woman Premier, APL civil rights and community activist, passionate educationist, conservationist, feminist. A founder of Emily’s List and Affirmative action to get more ALP women’s MPs. Loved clothes, high heels and opera and the Bombers. My ‘bestie’ a Labour Mate and sister schemer.”
After the outpouring of accolades for Joan and her achievements since her death, it’s easy to forget the vilification and mockery to which she was subjected when she was preserving public land and assets and trying to make education more equitable.
When she became premier in the death throes of the 1982-92 Labor government, the Herald-Sun dismissed her as “Mother Russia”, based on her socially inclusive approach. Cartoonists drew her as a frumpy housewife in a polka dot dress who was way out of her depth in the world of high finance and political wrangling.
Her conservation initiatives were also widely resisted, including in our part of the world. In November 1987, some 400 people at a public meeting in Inverloch passed a motion calling on Woorayl Shire and the Wonthaggi Borough Council to inform the Conservation Minister that they totally opposed the formation of a marine reserve between Harmers Haven and Inverloch.
“A marine park will spell the end of Inverloch,” one of those at the meeting declared emotionally.
Wonthaggi resident Frank Coldebella recalls similar local resistance to the idea of using the old rail line for a walking and bike track between Wonthaggi and Anderson.
The Shire of Bass wrote to the government asking it to sell the land to the adjoining landowners. Instead Joan Kirner called for public submissions and, against some local opposition, the line became one of Victoria's first rail trails for cyclists, walkers and horse riders. Today hundreds of people use the trail every week and it is a crucial link in a much longer trail that one day will run from Phillip Island to Wilsons Promontory.
Joan’s intervention also proved crucial in the Summerlands estate saga. The estate, on prime little penguin habitat, had been subdivided and settled before the penguin parade became a huge tourist drawcard and money spinner for the government. The trouble was that hundreds of penguins were killed on the roads each year.
The problem had tested successive councils and governments before Joan convinced her government to commit to a buyback program. Today the houses are gone and the estate is habitat for the penguins that are Victoria’s most popular attraction for overseas tourists.
“The only place in the world where humans have been removed for wildlife!” says Anne Davie, president of the Phillip Island Conservation Society.
She describes Joan as a wonderful friend to Phillip Island. “She loved the island. One of her last acts as premier was buying 30 hectares for the Koala Conservation Centre at a cost of several million dollars.”
Of course, the mainstream media condemned the purchase and other conservation measures as a waste of money by a spendthrift and incompetent government. Leading a resurgent Liberal Party, Jeff Kennett pilloried her as she headed for electoral defeat in 1992.
Ms Davie says it was Joan's grace under pressure during this period that inspired her to become a Phillip Island Shire councillor.
“She never lost that grace, she never lowered the bar. I thought if she has got the determination, if she has developed that thick skin to cop all that, then we need other women to get in there and change attitudes.”
June 12, 2015
I came late to this weeks Bass Coast Post and was so grateful I did not let
it pass me by. Great stories well written abound. None more so than the tribute
to Joan Kirner. Many articles of praise and acknowledgement
appeared in our newspapers but for me Catherine Watson's article shone the
brightest of them all. Joan achieved so much for our region I think we have every
right to embrace her in memory as one of us.
Bob Middleton, Jeetho West
June 8, 2015
Thank you Catherine for the two wonderful articles about Joan Kirner. The story of Daryl and Margaret Hook brought the success of Landcare to our own backyard in Bass.
Identifying a problem and being open to the best ideas to get a solution were obviously a strength of Joan. No pretence and just a plain talker. Joan understood answers need to benefit more than just one group, hence her partnership with Heather Mitchell. Incensed by the needs of those excluded by traditional management practices (eg. the role of women in the teaching profession before equal pay) and the importance of preservation of the environment, Joan championed solutions because they stacked up.
The lesson here for us all is that no one has all the answers, a leader brings the good ideas together and sells the vision until enough people see the light and accept change.
Mary Whelan, Cowes
June 8, 2015
Great article on Joan. Imagine the Wonthaggi surrounds if there was no Landcare, conservation groups, environment stalwarts, rail trail, marine park, etc.
Also thanks to Joan, when I was left with four small children to raise alone, I returned to teaching just before Joan fought for Equal Pay for Equal Work. Even though I had missed years of ‘progress’ up the salary ladder, women were now given the same as men salary-wise. Remember before when women were to be married, they had to RESIGN from the Department!
Also full marks to Joan for fighting for merit and equity to be applied to panel choices in the teaching profession. I went from Band 1 (bottom of the heap) to Assistant Principal in one mighty bound. Women were no longer dragging behind the ‘blokes’ – if you could do the job you ‘got the job’.
What would you expect from the likes of Kennett and his cronies – they would deny it but to them women are a lesser species, and to vilify them is a ‘fair cop’.
Keep up the good work with the Bass Coast Post.
Yvonne McRae Wonthaggi
June 7, 2015
Congratulations on your perceptive look at Joan Kirner. No matter what their individual politics, readers should be able to read the piece and appreciate what Victoria’s first and only woman premier to date achieved not just for our state but for women in politics and other walks of life.
Meryl Tobin Brown, Grantville
June 7, 2015
Nice article on Joan. You hit all the points. Her career demonstrated the shallowness of the pundits, the pointless viciousness of politics and the inexorable progress a tough individual can achieve.
Michael Whelan, Cowes