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Joan Kirner never given credit for starting reforms

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Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner started the process of reform that was later amplified by Jeff Kennett, says former secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet Terry Moran.

Moran, who ran the state training system during Kirner’s time as education minister and was later appointed head of the then-Department of Employment and Training by her, paid tribute to the state’s first female premier following news she had died on Monday of oesophageal cancer.

“In the circumstances, I think she did a very good job as premier”, Moran told The Mandarin. The federal Hawke and Keating government reforms hit manufacturing-reliant Victoria hard — during her 1990-92 stint in power, the state was seen as Australia’s “basket case”, suffering high unemployment and a staggering economy.

The collapses of the State Bank of Victoria and the Pyramid Building society affected confidence, while revenue consequences of structural change in the economy placed huge demands on the budget.

Another big problem was strikes by public transport unions which, thinks Moran, “eroded Victorians’ trust in government” and contributed to the Labor party’s massive loss at the 1992 state election.

Seen by some as a ‘stop-gap’ put in place to stem Labor’s loss of support from voters amid a pile of economic and fiscal problems — many out of the control of any Victorian government — Kirner, along with her predecessor, John Cain, started many of the reforms Kennett would later take further and eventually receive credit for.

Although Kirner spent much of her time trying to stabilise the ship of government and never pushed through the level of radical change Kennett later led, she began the process of reining in the budget, created the Department of Employment and Training to help create an advice base to deal with the rapidly shifting economic and employment environment, sold the State Bank to the Commonwealth Bank and set in train some of the processes that have shaped Melbourne as it stands today.

Moran points out that Kirner recruited Ron Walker and created the major events regime that continues today and started work on the overhaul of the Docklands. The Cain government, in which she was a minister and then deputy premier, liberalised liquor trading laws and worked with the City of Melbourne on an inner Melbourne strategy. The Cain government also started and built what is now known as Rod Laver Arena and a range of cultural initiatives.

“The Cain and Kirner governments basically set Melbourne up for its emergence as a very exciting city, which emerged under Kennett and continues today,” said Moran.

She was innovative as environment minister, helping communities become involved in solving local environmental problems through the creation of Landcare. In education, she set up the two-year Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) program for year 12s and led the integration of students with disabilities into the mainstream school system.

Kirner nominated as among her own proudest initiatives reforms in family violence and rape law, as well as the legalisation of abortion, which she continued campaigning for until it passed in 2008.

And while the structure of the public service today — a smaller number of departments doing a range of things — largely reflects the changes of the Kennett era, Kirner made a start on “returning state Treasury to its traditional role of managing the state budget” and pushed the Department of Premier and Cabinet to orient itself more towards providing “strategic” input.

“You never had any doubts as to where you stood with Joan. She liked a robust discussion on policy”, recalls Moran. “She was decisive and insisted on effective implementation of policy, much like John Cain.

“She was rightly sternly insistent on pushing for increasing employment of women in executive roles and similar treatment of others such as indigenous Victorians. This was within the post-1960s expectation that moving the public service to being more representative of the general community was important to the authenticity and credibility of the public service in a democracy such as Australia,” he argues.

“It is a pity that Joan’s insistence was not always apparent throughout Australia.”

Former secretary of the then-Department of Victorian Communities Yehudi Blacher worked with her in her role as community ambassador throughout most of the 2000s, where she would travel around the state talking about community building and social inclusion issues such as community housing and maternal and child facilities. Kirner “was a rockstar in the community” he recalls, and respected on both sides of the political divide.

“She was very particular about telling you what was working and what needed improving,” said Blacher. “She would also sometimes provide gratuitous advice on which department was pulling its weight and which wasn’t.

“I always found that really valuable.”

Correction: This article originally referred to the then-Department of Education and Training, which should be the Department of Employment and Training.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.