Watch Kay Setches enter a crowded room and you see the eyes turn to follow her. A diminutive woman in her mid-70s, slightly stooped after a serious back operation, she has the aura of authority.
Kay Setches attained high office, including three ministerial portfolios in the Victorian Parliament.
But she remains resolutely down to earth, warm and funny, swears like a born Magpies supporter, can talk political intrigue all night and never forgets which side of the class divide she is on.
Everyone wants a bit of her and somehow she finds time for them all, whether they are road workers or MPs.
Laura Brearley, who nominated Kay for the Order of Australia award, wrote in her nomination: “Kay Setches has continued to serve the community with courage and generosity, drawing on the insights gained from a life lived fully and always dedicated to the service of others.”
After primary school, she studied at the Collingwood School of Domestic Arts, where she recalls she did four periods a week of laundry and one period of science. It wasn’t considered necessary for future housewives to matriculate.
She began her working life as a shop assistant in Georges, Melbourne’s most exclusive department store, but behind the scenes her political consciousness was developing. In the 1970s she joined the Labor Party and she started volunteering at a women’s refuge. While helping one woman at a time was useful, she realised it was structural change that was needed.
In 1982 she was the ALP candidate for Ringwood when John Cain’s Labor Party won the Victorian election after 25 years of Liberal Party government.
She served three terms as the MP for Ringwood, from 1982-1992. She also held three ministerial portfolios – Conservation, Forests and Lands; Community Services; and Child Care.
Lots of ministers steer such a cautious path that barely a ripple remains after their term ends. Kay wasn’t like that. She always had an agenda. One of her first acts as Minister for Community Services was to close asylums for people with an intellectual disability and to get the inmates living in houses in the community.
As Minister for Conservation, she and her very close friend Joan Kirner (later Victorian Premier) were responsible for the buyback of houses in the Summerlands Estate on Phillip Island to extend habitat for the fairy penguins. The buyback is still celebrated by conservationists around the world as one of the rare times when conservation trumped human settlement.
Which is what she has told countless people who wondered whether they could possibly stand for political office.
Anne Davie was president of the Friends of Churchill Island in the 1980s when she first met Kay, then the minister of conservation and the owner of a holiday house on Phillip Island. With shared interests in conservation, reconciliation and social justice, they became firm friends.
Anne went on to become a shire councillor and was for many years president of the Phillip Island Conservation Society which achieved many major victories.
“My life would have been very different without Kay’s support and encouragement. She was so experienced and had a lot of good advice. She told me, ‘Stick to the journey you want to be on, despite the setbacks.’
“She has amazing emotional strength and a great moral compass. She stands for all the good things and is a great ally.”
Maddy Harford heard of Kay Setches long before she met her. Even as an MP and Minister, she had a reputation for helping people. “She had a young family but she took in all comers. She kept open house for anyone in trouble.” One family stayed with the Setches for six months until they could move back home.
In the mid-80s, Maddy was part of a women’s group in Melbourne’s outer east that invited Kay Setches – by then minister of community services – to come and speak to them about women’s health
“Kay said there was an opportunity to start a women’s health service in the outer east and told us we would be the ideal group to do it. Rather than say ‘There’s a process’, she said ‘There’s money available and I’m going to write an application on your behalf’.
“That’s when I started working with her more closely. She negotiated with Maroondah Hospital and they made a room available for the service.
“She has a very good brain. She was someone who could get things done. She can work within the system to make big changes.”
Kay and her husband Denis moved full time to Phillip Island after they retired, and about five years ago Maddy reconnected with Kay at a local meeting. She was invited to join a group known as Left Leaning Ladies who lunch together once a month. “Of course politics is always on the menu and Kay directs the traffic,” Maddy says. “State Labor politics remains very dear to her heart.”
Which is how Kay became involved with Jordan Crugnale, the current Labor MP for Bass. In her inaugural speech to Parliament, Jordan referred to Kay as “a positive disrupter”. “She is a force for good, she disrupts things for the good and she always questions the status quo.”
Jordan was Bass Coast mayor when she first met Kay at the opening of the Scenic Estate Conservation Reserve in 2015. She had heard about Kay
Kay, a member of the local branch of the ALP, became a vital, and vocal, supporter when Jordan decided to join the ALP and seek preselection as the candidate for Bass.
“She helped me navigate my way through the system because I really didn’t know how it all worked. She even parked outside the Public Office Selection Committee meeting when I had to speak to a room full of delegates with my pitch as to why they should preselect me.
Once pre-selected, she was mentored through Emily’s List, the group co-founded by Kay and her friend Joan Kirner to support progressive women candidates for parliament.
Jordan says Kay told her the role of MP was a privilege and to own it and be out there fighting for the Bass community. “Normally I’d hesitate to ring a minister. Kay says ‘You’ve got a seat at the Government table and you’ve got their numbers. Ring them!’”
Kay continues to advise her. They often discusses the day’s events as Jordan is driving home from Parliament. “If the phone rings and it’s Kay I pick it up or ring straight back!”
Bass Coast councillor Geoff Ellis first encountered Kay at a meet the candidates meeting at the Cowes RSL in 2016 before the council election. “When I mentioned that I was a unionist, Kay stood up and applauded.” He introduced himself after the meeting and they bonded over their shared left leanings.
Despite Kay’s impressive political record, he says, she never lost her Collingwood-Ringwood down to earth quality. “That’s what makes her so impressive. The other quality I love is her sheer enthusiasm. She is always positive. If something goes off the rails, you don’t give up; you regroup and you get on with it.”
Which is what Kay did after Denis, her husband of 54 years and her great political ally, died suddenly in 2017. A few month later, despite her grief, Kay was back in the thick of things, banging on ministers’ doors for funding and drumming up support for the Phillip Island Storytellers Festival, her brainchild for brightening up the winter months.
The festival and achieved sell-out sessions in its first two seasons in 2018 and 2019 and organisers are confident it will return next year.
Setches says she wants to challenge the typical literary festival audience, and open new windows, by putting different cultures side by side. Last year’s opening session featured rapper Adam ‘Briggsy’ Briggs and environmental warrior Tim Flannery. More than a third of the presenters and sessions were indigenous.
Laura Brearley, who nominated Kay for the AO, wrote of her: “I have seen first-hand how deeply respectful Kay is in her engagement with First Nation community members. Her capacity to respectfully listen and her ability to work sensitively and astutely in complex contexts are central to her success and underpin the respect that she is accorded within the community. Kay has a deep understanding of socio-cultural and political issues and a capacity to work fearlessly in difficult situations.
“Central to her life-long service is a genuine regard and respect for others, particularly those in vulnerable situations.”
Kay continues to work for community change. Following the alleged murder of Samantha Fraser on Phillip Island in July 2018, Kay with other Island women established ‘Change for Sam’, which led to the State Government funding a family violence service which will be part of the new Phillip Island Community Hospital.
Laura concludes her nomination:
“The achievements in Kay Setches’ long and productive life of public service have been underpinned by her strongly held belief about what can be achieved by working with others, particularly in collaboration with other women. Kay has always enjoyed the excitement and passion of a committed group of people working towards the same goal.
“Kay Setches has continued to serve the community with courage and generosity, drawing on the insights gained from a life lived fully and always dedicated to the service of others.”