Federation Week: An Australian Mosaic - Joan Kirner

Visions for a Nation

Transcript of speech delivered by the Hon Joan Kirner for Visions for a Nation

Joan Kirner graduated as an English, History and Social Studies teacher from Melbourne University in 1958. Following her time as a teacher, she became a well known community activist arguing for greater parent participation in decision making in government schools. In this role she became State President, Executive Officer and national President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed her as a member of the School Commission in 1973 and she was awarded an AM by the Fraser Government in 1978 for her services to education and the community.

Joan Kirner entered the Victorian Parliament in 1982 as a member of the Cain Government. After three years as a backbencher she served as Minister of Conservation, Forests and Lands, then Education, Women’s Affairs, Deputy Premier and finally Premier from 1990-1992. Joan Kirner was Leader of the Opposition from 1992-1994 and then resigned from Parliament. Joan Kirner recently co-authored the best selling ‘ Women’s Power Handbook’ and continues her acitive role in the community. She is co-convenor of EMILY’s List, an organisation providing support to women seeking to election to government.

The Honourable Rob Lucas, Opposition Leader Mike Rann, my distinguished panel colleagues, members of the Centenary of Federation Committee and Hawke Institute, Family, Friends, colleagues and the legendary Charles Kingston in absentia.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at such a significant Federation gathering. Just sometimes like tonight I wonder to myself what a nice working class girl like me is doing on a platform like this, especially when I think back 30 years ago. It is 30 years since as a parent / school activist I sitting across the table from then Minister Malcolm Fraser lobbying for school funding according to need. Now as former Premier of Victoria I am sharing this platform with him on equal terms. Let’s hope that’s an inspiration for women here tonight.

My I begin by thanking Lewis O’Brien for his welcome to country and pay my respects to the Kaurna nation, their elders and the local aboriginal communities of Adelaide.

I hope that the welcome ceremony augurs well for a discussion tonight which enhances our respect for country and for the peoples of this nation and the world.

Our discussion is taking place at a time when many people in this nation and across the world are troubled, even fearful, about our security and our future. Sadly for the people in many other countries this is the norm, but for many Australians, especially young Australians, these are is new and very challenging times.

In today’s fearful new world, we all face a central challenge. How do we as a nation strengthen democracy at home and abroad at the same time as we enhance and empower humanity rather than destroy, impoverish, or divide our people and the people of the world.

Today, in Australia, we are all faced with the question, “what are the fundamental values that underpin our vision for our nation.”

Paul Kelly of “The Australian” newspaper, put it well recently on the ABC Sunday Insider Program:

“We are all faced with the question of our values - individual, community, national and global. Valuing people, valuing democracy, valuing peace, tolerance, cohesion, co-operation and the elimination of poverty above profit, division, competition, and all kinds of fundamentalism.”

So I want to begin my “Visions for Our Nation” with a plea to all in this gathering and beyond to shape our nation according to our human values as a nation: not according to the perceived political demands of the moment.

As a first step, we must be clear that a secure Australia, a strong Australia, is one which Professor Kenneth Gailbraith describes as:

“a society in which all of its citizens must have personal liberty, basic well being, the opportunity for a rewarding life and racial, ethnic (and I would add) gender equity.”

To advance that kind of society in Australia I wish to emphasise tonight the need for a vision which embraces:

  • an agreement on our past and future between indigenous and non-indigenous people;
  • the achievement of social, political and economic equity for women;
  • the recognition and strengthening of our local communities and communities of interest to ensure citizens participate in shaping their own futures. For I am convinced that unless we want to continue to alienate many Australians from the political process, we must ensure that people affected by decisions participate more fully in making these decisions.

First let me address briefly from a non-indigenous persons point of view, as we don’t have an indigenous person on the platform, a key element for Australia’s future. The need for an agreement between Australia’s indigenous and non-indigenous people on our past and our future.

In my view, one of the reasons that the major Centenary of Federation celebration in the Melbourne Exhibition Building, though impressive, failed to resonate with the people, was the failure of our nation’s leaders on the day to commit to two symbolic and nation building acts for Australia in the 21st century - reconciliation and a republic.

Public policy and community marches in all Capital Cities indicated broad community support for reconciliation, though disagreement on the specifics. But recent deliberative polling across Australia done by Adelaide academic Dr Pamela Ryan and her Issues Deliberation team have demonstrated that community discussion, when it is on-going, well informed and interactive, can bring indigenous and non-indigenous people closer together on this crucial issue for human dignity and national progress.

According to the Final Report of the Deliberations group, through this process of in-depth information and consultation between all parties there were high levels of support for reconciliation being part of our vision for the nation.

There was agreement on the need for:

  • Formal acknowledgement that Australia was occupied without the consent of Indigenous Australians (81%);
  • Formal acknowledgement that Indigenous Australians were the original owners of the land and waters (81%);
  • An apology to the “stolen generation”;
  • Greater investment in education as the major practical reconciliation policy after recognition (59%);

I believe this deliberative process and the results clearly indicate the potential for the agreement I and others advocate.

And what is the alternative? The alternative is what we have now. In the words of Australia’s Nelson Mandela, Patrick Dodson:

“I believe the alternative to such an agreement are fear, racism, ignorance, and continuing social dislocation.”

Like Patrick Dodson, I want the Australian people to continue their work on an agreement so that we don’t:

“find ourselves in a position 20 years from now looking back at these times and realising that we had missed significant opportunities to sign off on an agreement - an agreement that is as important to our nation today as the Referendum was in 1967.”

The second element in my vision is the achievement of social, economic and political equity for and by the women of Australia.

Recently I had the pleasure of the being house guest of Australasia’s second woman Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark. An impressive, gutsy and no-nonsense woman and political leader. Strangely, I am still waiting for a similar invitation from an Australian Prime Minister! Perhaps I’ll have to wait for the sisterhood to be installed in Kirribilli. We’d like to see that!

In New Zealand you couldn’t help but be impressed with their ongoing achievements in gender and racial equity. It is the first Country in the world where women won the right to vote. It has achieved the Waitangi Treaty between Maori and pakeha New Zealanders and it has effective, progressive women in the key top jobs of Prime Minister, Governor-General, Chief Justice and Head of Telstra, as well as women making up 30% of the their national Parliament. What I wouldn’t give for political leaders in Australia who would, like Helen Clark, say and mean the following words:

“When I first went into parliament (it) was a mean and ranting place and a lot of personal abuse took place. (Now that I am Prime Minister) I won’t tolerate it.”

Part of my vision for gender equity in our nation is to achieve the critical mass of women in the Parliament who are necessary to emulate and surpass New Zealand’s achievements.

We have some of the basic ingredients in place. More women are now completing secondary and tertiary education than men but limitations in post-graduate monetary rewards, career diversification and promotion still undermine equity.

We have also made great strides in more equal parliamentary representation for women. It took some 40 years for the first woman Senators to be elected and some 60 years for the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. But since 1994, the number of women in Parliaments across Australia has almost doubled (from 125 to 214). Moreover, due to the effective introduction and successful implementation of Labor’s Affirmative Action target, the number of Labor women is now double that of Liberal women. (128/67).

And in the last two elections (Western Australia and Northern Territory) I am pleased to say that the first two Indigenous women, Carol Martin MP (Kimberley WA) and Marion Scrymgour MLA (NT) have been elected to Parliaments in Australia. Both won with the strong financial, mentoring and training support of women across Australia through our new women’s political support network EMILY's List.

But we must not rest content. There remain at least three more challenges in my vision of gender equity in politics:

  • the amendment of our Constitution, as in Canada and South Africa, to ensure that equity is a requirement of government;
  • taking action to ensure that by 2010 half our parliament are women;
  • the election / selection within a decade of our first woman Prime Minister, Governor General and Chief Justice. The talent is there - political
    parties need the will.

But gender equity means more than political equity. As Vera Brittain, an eminent British writer and feminist wrote in 1931:

“Political equality is Dead Sea Fruit unless it leads to economic equality.”

Economic equality is the second element of my vision for the nation. As a nation we pride ourselves on the “Fair Go”, but I can assure you that as a nation we have a long way to go to achieve economic equity for women. Let me share with you the disturbing facts on Australia’s failure to deliver pay justice to women in both salary and working conditions.

  • In 2001, average wages for women are $166 per week less than those of men;
  • Across all industries women in full time work earn 11.2% less than men.
  • In the finance sector women earn 23.2% less than men;
  • More than 50% of all full time women employees are paid less than $500 per week compared to 25% of men;
  • 75% of all casual work is part time and of these 1.5 million workers, 87% are women;
  • women casual workers earn on average $104 per week or 40% less then men casuals;
  • 44% of all women who work regular overtime are not paid for those extra hours, compared to 28% for men;
  • Only 1.3% of senior Australian executives are women - the lowest rate in the developed world. We compare badly with the USA which has 5.1% women executives;
  • Australia lags behind the world in parental leave rights;

About 70 per cent of women employees in Australia have no paid maternity leave rights. When New Zealand passes its paid maternity leave laws in April 2003, Australia and the USA will be the only two “Western” countries without government funded paid maternity leave: the average is 12-14 weeks;

To ensure that Australia underpins its future by harnessing fully the talents of women and men, my vision for the nation embraces a 10 point - economic equity action plan for women. The plan includes:

  • Reversal of the Australian government’s refusal to sign the optional protocol for the CEDAW (for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women). A protocol which would give Australian women a last resort appeal to the United Nations Committee on Discrimination against women. 68 countries including Bosnia and Peru have signed the protocol which Australia helped develop and then declined to sign;
  • Re-installation of the central umpire in award bargaining which throughout Australia’s industrial history has provided greater protection for women’s wages and working conditions;
  • Introduction by bi-partisan agreement of 12 weeks paid maternity leave in the private sector;
  • An amendment to Australia and States’ Constitutions to require equity in all areas of government action;
  • Detention of the Sex Discrimination Act without amendment;
  • The provision of more flexible working hours and work-place conditions to facilitate family caring and sharing of children;
  • Demonstration in practice that our children and grandchildren are the nation’s prime asset by paying decent salaries to staff in childcare and early childhood education development;
  • Extension of the access for women to second chance education and training.

The third element of my vision, which I haven’t got time to enlarge on this evening is the need for creating strong partnerships in community building.

The principles on which I based the creation of Victoria’s Land Care in 1985-86, which Bob Hawke then translated to National LandCare, are in my view the principles and practice for attaining community participation in the major questions that shape our nation’s future.

If, the implementation of all our vision’s for this nation we embrace the principles and practice of:

  • Empowerment;
  • Inclusions;
  • Access;
  • Co-operation;
  • Diversity;
  • Equity;
  • Productivity;
  • Sustainability;

If we adopt these principles in our practice, we will generate a sense of pride and ownership that is essential to building strong communities and a strong nation.

Let me finish with two anecdotes.

First, my Late Show leather-jacketed performance of the Joan Jett song “I Love Rock and Roll.” It wasn’t the best rock ‘n roll performance you’ve seen in your life, but it was one of the best things I did politically. It had an extraordinary impact on the community. Why? Suddenly I connected with the community as a human being. I had embraced my own humanity.

My second anecdote is from a conversation I had as the then Chair of the National Committee of the Centenary of Federation by Lillian Holt, a leading Aboriginal academic, formerly from the Aboriginal Community College in South Australia. Lillian said,

“Joan, I believe Australians should talk more about racism. Talking about racism in this country is about collective healing, and we can learn as a result of it. It is not about being anti-white, it is about being pro-humanity. For what has diminished me as an Aboriginal woman in this country has diminished all Australians, both white and black.”

I am hope that at the end of tonight we will all share a vision that both enhances our humanity and our nation.

While the views presented by speakers within The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia, or The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: Strengthening our Democracy - Valuing our Diversity - Building our Future. The Hawke Centre reserves the right to change their program at any time without notice.