HerStory Archive

Joan Elizabeth KIRNER

Also known as: née Hood

Born: 1938

Died: 2015

Special Achievements:

Joan Kirner became the first female head of government in Victoria when she was elected by the Labor Party to succeed Premier John Cain Junior following his resignation in 1990. She was Australia's third female head of government and second female premier, a position she held until 1992 when her party was defeated in the state election.

In November 1986, Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell launched Landcare in central Victoria.

In 1996 she co-founded EMILY's List Australia with Helen Creed.

Additional Information:


Joan Kirner graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts before completing a Diploma of Education (DipEd). She taught in state schools and became active in school and parents' organisations including a role as President of the Victorian Federation of States School Parents' Clubs, an influential education lobby from 1971 to 1977 and its executive officer from 1978-82. She was also appointed to several government advisory bodies on education.


1978: joined the Labor Party and became a member of its Socialist Left faction

1982: elected as a Labor member of the Victorian Legislative Council, the upper house of the Victorian Parliament.

1985: elected to the Cabinet of John Cain Jr's Labor government and became Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands.

1988: proposed the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, the first Australian legislation which gave legal protection of rare species. While Minister, and in association with Heather Mitchell from the Victorian Farmers' Federation, Kirner was instrumental in the formation of the first Landcare groups.

1988: shifted to the Legislative Assembly, becoming MP for Williamstown, and was promoted to the Education portfolio. In this portfolio Kirner carried out a series of controversial reforms aimed at reducing what Kirner saw as the class-based inequity of the education system, culminating in a new system of assessment, the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

1988: elected deputy leader of the Labor Party and became Deputy Premier of Victoria

1990: elected Labor leader and thus became Victoria's first female Premier after the resignation of John Cain Jnr

1992: knowing she faced a statutory general election, one which opinion polls gave her virtually no chance of winning, Kirner called an election for October.Although she remained personally more popular than the Liberal Opposition Leader, Jeff Kennett, it was not nearly enough to overcome Victorians' growing anger at Labor for overspending. The Coalition's "Guilty Party" campaign did much to stoke this anger, targeting many Ministers in the Kirner Government and providing examples of concerns in their portfolios.

The Coalition won the election in a landslide, scoring a 19-seat swing—the second-worst defeat that a sitting government has ever suffered in Victoria. The Liberals actually won enough seats that they could have governed in their own right. Kirner remained Opposition Leader for a short period before resigning.

1994: retired from Parliament and was succeeded by one of her former aides for the electorate of Williamstown, future premier Steve Bracks.


Kirner remained active in community affairs and politics, continuing with the Landcare movement which she had established in Victoria in 1986 with Heather Mitchell (then President of the Victorian Farmer's Federation).

In 1993, she famously appeared on The Late Show with colleague David White, MLC for Doutta Galla, in a musical skit performing Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll". This brief performance was covered nationally by the media.

She devoted energy to the Australian affiliate of EMILY's List Australia, by co-founding the organisation which promotes pro-choice women's careers in politics which launched in Canberra in 1996.

In 1998 to celebrate her 60th Birthday, Joan performed 'I love Rock 'n' Roll' at Melbourne's Plaza Ballroom with Jennie George, David White, Sharan burrow, Julia Gillard, Sue Walpole and Jane Clifton.

“We knew we had to change the rules, and we did change the rules, and it took a hell of an effort to do it…And we were doing it for this band of very bright young women that we could see were being kept out of parliament by the blokes. And then of course, we thought, well that's terrific, we've changed the rules, but we hadn't changed the culture. So that's when we set up Emily's List”.

Emily's List Founding member Joan Kirner AC, 2008

In 1997-1998, EMILY's List Australia supported its first candidates in elections and has supported 555 women since then, with 267 elected.

EMILY’s List has also supported such women leaders as:

  • Anna Bligh AC – Australia’s first popularly elected Premier and Queensland’s first woman leader
  • Clare Martin AO – the Northern Territory’s first female Chief Minister
  • Lara Giddings – Tasmania’s first woman Premier
  • Katy Gallagher – the ACT’s third woman Chief Minister and current Senator
  • Carol Martin - the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to any Australian parliament
  • Linda Burney - the first indigenous woman to be elected into the NSW Parliament and then into Australian House of Representatives
  • Founding member Julia Gillard AC, Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.

Kirner was one of the leaders of the movement in the Labor Party to adopt a policy of setting targets for the number of women candidates in winnable electorates. She repeatedly publicly supported candidates identified with her Socialist Left faction. From January 2006, Kirner was the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee for Victorian Communities.

She was also a board member of Museum Victoria, operators of Melbourne Museum, Royal Exhibition Building, Scienceworks Museum and Immigration Museum, Melbourne.

She was a long-time advocate of abortion law reform to legalise abortion and was an avid supporter of the Essendon Football Club.

She died from esophageal cancer in 2015 at the age of 76.


26 January 1980, she was named a Member of the Order of Australia for her community service.

1 January 2001, Kirner was awarded the Centenary Medal.

11 June 2012, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for "eminent service to the Parliament of Victoria and to the community through conservation initiatives, contributions to gender equality, the development of education and training programs and the pursuit of civil rights and social inclusion."

May 2017 the Victorian Government recognised her legacy by offering 25 scholarships to young women, who will participate in the Joan Kirner Young and Emerging Women Leaders Program.

May 2019 Joan Kirner Women's and Children's Hospital in St Albans in Melbourne's west.

15 August 2019 One of two tunnel boring machines (TBM) to be utilised on the Metro Tunnel project in Victoria is named Joan, in honour of Kirner.


Signature Quilt

Signed 60th Birthday Party fundraising poster from 1998

Signed press photograph 1990