Local, Independant and Effective

Vale Joan Kirner - legacy beyond politics

Posted June 04, 2015


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (10:27):  Vale Joan Kirner. Her legacy goes well and truly beyond politics. Today, I would like to speak about the personal, community, national and international impact that I know she has had. I would like to begin with a quote: The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.

Joan Kirner looked into the future and thought, 'We could do better.' She set about doing that. I think she made a significant impact on both the destination and the partners she worked with along the way. She made it better for women, she made it particularly better for the farm women, she made the future better for country communities and she made it better by far for this young, rural country woman.

That was me in my 30s, when I was a young staffer with the Victorian agricultural department. I worked for the Victorian Department of Agricultural and Rural Affairs. Minister Kirner was the Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands. Together with Caroline Hogg, Kay Setches and Evan Walker, and managed by the amazing Frank McClelland, they headed up what was called the Rural Affairs Committee of Cabinet. Our job as rural affairs advisers was to report to that Rural Affairs Committee of Cabinet. There is a huge legacy right across Victoria, Australia and internationally of that particular model of doing work. Today, I would like to put on record some of the impact of and pay enormous tribute to that small team of people led by Joan. We have heard lots of talk about Landcare. Certainly, I personally was involved with it. I became the inaugural secretary of the Indigo Valley Landcare Group in 1988, which still exists.

Another huge contribution that Joan and that team made was the Victorian Rural Women's Network. Twenty-three years later, it is still active and connected, and communities are still engaged about it. I call on the Victorian government, as a legacy of Joan Kirner, to relook at the model of the Victorian Rural Women's Network. Let us empower it and resource it to continue to do good work. I talk about the Women on Farms gatherings where women are still meeting right across Victoria, coming together, networking, finding their voice and influencing government. I talk about the small town study that re-innovated towns and communities in my electorate, particularly Beechworth.

I talk about the Rural Enterprise Victoria workers, workers who were paid to go and do community work and economic development in rural towns. I talk about the structural adjustment that Joan, Carolyn and Kaye organised to be community centred, and the particular work that they did in the Mallee and Felton House, and how this model of putting resources into communities enabled and helped structural adjustment. I can remember particularly the fax machines that they paid for to go to our community houses. What a difference being able to communicate by fax made. To all my communities in north-east Victoria, we continue to benefit from the work of that Rural Enterprise Victoria program. We got economics, and we could see that it would be a driver for innovation and connectivity. Today, when I look around my communities, I can see the result of all that work.

I was a rural affairs adviser, and our job was to serve that committee of cabinet. There were 17 of us right across Victoria, and our job was to look at our communities and report to cabinet on what the issues were. I have to say that it is a daunting task. There was nothing easy about working for Joan Kirner. In fact, I would have to say that she made us scared. We had to be our best selves. She was not above handing back a cabinet paper and saying, 'Do it again'. She was not above saying, 'Well, that doesn't work,' or, 'Where's the logic? Where's the data? Where are the statistics?' and, 'We talked about this last time. Where's the follow up?' The thing that she made us do more than anything else was find those invisible people—where were the mothers, where were the young girls, where were the older women and where were the people with disabilities? From my limited experience of community work, it was a shock. We had said, 'They're not there,' and Joan would say, 'Go and find them, because of course they're there'.

I really want to talk both of the things that came out of the oversight that they had and the absolutely strong belief in community. We have heard a lot about landcare, and I am not going to talk too much about it, except to say that in my electorate of Indi landcare is strong and thriving. It is one of those fundamental planks that underpin our really strong communities. What I would particularly like to talk about today is the Rural Women's Network, and I pay particular homage Jenny Mitchell and Anna Lottkowitz and the work that they did in setting up the Rural Women's Network. Through the women's network, we went on to establish Australian Women in Agriculture. Australian Women in Agriculture went on to run international conferences in Australia, America, South Africa and Madrid, and we are currently working with India. All of this grew out of the commitment of that committee of cabinet to do good work.

The thing about the vision was that Joan absolutely believed in community. She taught us that if you actually see community, and you honour and support it, then anybody can come and work their way through the system—you do not have to start at the top. That is what the Rural Women's Network did. It brought us together in small groups, it taught us how to network in our communities and it taught us how to connect. It did not matter who you were married to or who your parents were, there was a place for anybody in the network. Then we were supported by this fantastic magazine called the Rural Women's Network Magazine. It came out four or five times a year and told our stories so that we could see each other. We absolutely grew in confidence as we knew that this cabinet committee was listening to us and our stories were reported back to us. Then the most amazing thing happened. This cabinet committee took actions on stuff that we thought was important: on telecommunications, on transport, on child care and on education, and they put resources into community-building.

So the Neighbourhood House Network grew and many of us have a career that we worked through the Neighbourhood House Network as we grew in strength and confidence, going on communities, becoming president, becoming secretary, taking delegation to ministers and having our voices heard. The network is still really strong. It is strong in Victoria, but it is also strong in New South Wales, it is strong in Queensland, it is strong in Western Australia, it is strong in South Australia and not so strong—a bit more subtle—in the Northern Territory. So that legacy really lives on.

I would also like to talk about what else has happened as a result of that Rural Women's Network. It gave women courage to stand up to form Australian Women in Agriculture. It gave us women courage to go across and work in Papua New Guinea, Ireland, India and North America, and take the message that women's ways of working in country Australia are strong and powerful. We do not have to be out there and compete with the blokes to do it. Our competitive advantage is our communities, our families and our networks.

I would also like to acknowledge the particular role that the Department of Agriculture played in supporting us women. Tim Reeves was our regional manager. He supported these changes and he gave us young staffers permission to go and do this community work. The Department of Agriculture I think will never be the same. We had these amazing days when Joan Kirner, Carolyn Hogg, Kay Setches and Evan Walker called us together to the Carlton Football Club, that hallowed of hallowed. There were all these ag women talking about what it meant to be a woman in agriculture and talking about what it meant to be a community and connected to our families. It was so different from the blokes' experience of agriculture. We looked at each other and thought, 'Yes, we have got a voice.' We heard our minister saying, 'Yes, not only have you got a voice; you have a responsibility to get out there and be part of designing the future.'

It gives me enormous pleasure today to stand here and say thank you. I acknowledge in this House that I would not be here without Joan Kirner, I would not be here without the Victorian Rural Women's Network and I would not be here without the support and the modelling that she and those women gave us. So, personally, thank you Joan, Kay and Carolyn for showing me that community is a place where I belong. Community gives me the support to come to this House and be a representative of the community. It is linked to economics, those rural enterprises in Victoria, and it is linked to environment—we have to get the Landcare stuff working and communities embedded in it all.

Let me turn to my political career. The fact that I am here is a legacy of Joan Kirner, but it is more than that. I also want to acknowledge the other Victorians who provided such support for me. I do not think it is coincidental that such great leaders come out of Victoria. Malcolm Fraser and Joan Kirner gave us rural people the support and the courage to be people of conviction based in the community and be good representatives. The proof I think is what we have just heard—the people who stand before us today.

The future will be a better place because people like Joan set about building partnerships. She had such faith that if we work together we can create a future that is inclusive. Thank you. I pass on my sympathies to all concerned and particularly acknowledge the work of those great women and thank them for what they have done.

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