Mother Russia: Former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner Dead At 76

FORMER VICTORIAN PREMIER Joan Kirner — dubbed “Mother Russia” by the Melbourne press — has died this afternoon, aged 76, after a long battle with cancer; becoming the second female Premier of an Australian state in August 1990 after the resignation of John Cain, Kirner presided over a disgraced Labor government that had virtually bankrupted Victoria until it was annihilated at the ballot box by Jeff Kennett in late 1992.

I must confess that one of my favourite memories of Joan Kirner — sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s surgery at the height of the Kennett government, thumbing an ancient magazine — was seeing a big picture of her in a polka-dot dress, and quoted as saying that she didn’t really understand the fuss about her wearing polka-dot dresses because she didn’t own any of them.

Yet this is the paradox of a woman dubbed “Mother Russia” by Melbourne’s newspapers on account of her deep entrenchment in Labor’s hard Left; deeply unpopular in the political sense, she was nonetheless able to poke fun at herself, and for someone who never met her, I suspect that under what I believed to be her deeply odious politics was probably quite a nice lady — even if she was an uncompromising piece of work.

The news this evening that Mrs Kirner has passed away today after a protracted and very public fight with cancer is sad; it is a reminder that just as politics is highly adversarial and conducted in a veritable battle environment, we are people first and foremost: and in this regard it should be noted that her suffering will not continue, and condolences minuted to her family.

I was still living in Brisbane when Mrs Kirner became Premier, although even then, in 1990, I was paying hawk-like attention to events and goings-on in Melbourne; that year saw my first visit to Melbourne as a tourist, and even in the deepening gloom of a recession that hit Victoria far harder than anywhere else in the country, I fell in love with the place, and I remember thinking when I heard she had won the ALP leadership that August that she had been given the shit end of the stick.

Kirner had, of course, been elected to lead the Victorian ALP after it had spent eight years in government under John Cain Jr, whose reputation for economic management had not only been comprehensively trashed by the utter incompetence of his government, but which threatened for a time to undo Labor’s historic mission to professionalise itself and to end decades-long stints in the wilderness in Queensland, Victoria, federally, and to a lesser degree in Western Australia.

Anyone who remembers the gridlocked Melbourne CBD — with trams parked from one end of Swanston Street to the other — well remembers the chaotic final years of that awful Labor government, which oversaw the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria, the Pyramid Building Society and Transcontinental, and as the ALP lurched toward a massive defeat by controversial firebrand Jeff Kennett, it became clear that Kirner really had been left to carry the can for Cain’s mismanagement and the misadventures of his government.

In truth, there is little to recommend her time as Premier, and few initiatives by which she might claim to have left a mark upon the state (although some point to the Southbank precinct and Crown Casino, both brought to completion by the Kennett government, as her legacies).

Certainly, her government was responsible for the introduction of poker machines into Victoria, along with the spike in problematic compulsive gambling that endures to this day; and about the most memorable aspect of her government was the day Kennett — as opposition leader in 1991 — threatened to cancel parliamentary superannuation for defeated Labor MPs on account of the damage they had inflicted on Victoria whilst in power.

Away from office, Kirner was active in advocating for women’s interests, maintaining a long association with the infamous Emily’s List, and served on the board of Museum Victoria.

I wanted to briefly pay tribute to Mrs Kirner; as a poor Premier at the tail end of the worst state government ever seen in Australia, and a figure of fun who was easy to mock and lampoon politically, there was little public evidence of the venom and malice that marked some of her contemporaries: I suspect she did the best she could. Regrettably — and to the lasting detriment of the state of Victoria — her best, very simply, was not good enough.

I think an appropriate tribute, in the context of this column, should defer to the legendary sense of humour she had and — as I indicated at the outset — an ability to poke fun at herself that was and is as refreshing as it is rare among the current crop of parliamentarians in Victoria, Canberra and beyond; those of my vintage and older will remember the night she and her cadaverous upper house colleague, David White, appeared on the ABC’s The Late Show in 1993 in a send up of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Those who remember and those who do not can nevertheless revisit this event here: and I think enjoying a laugh with (or, indeed, at) Mrs Kirner from a long time ago would be a pleasant enough farewell to a controversial, if grudgingly likeable, figure from another era in politics.