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Christine Milne: Condolence statement - Janet Powell

Speeches in Parliament
Christine Milne 12 Nov 2013

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, pays tribute to the contribution of the late Senator Janet Frances Powell.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (17:29): I rise today to join with others in the Senate to celebrate the life and pay tribute to the contribution of the late Senator Janet Frances Powell. Janet was an extraordinary woman, as we have heard, in her upbringing and her aspirations to do better things for Australia-for women, for the community and for the nation. That is what she set out to do from a young age, from country Victoria, in the work that she did to get to university at that time and then to return to country Victoria to teach. She took into country Victoria and into those schools enormous leadership and inspiration for young girls to go on in life and to do the best they could possibly do and achieve their full potential. Right to the end of her life, she mentored women in every place she went, whether it was in schools or in the parliament, and when she left the parliament she continued to mentor young women, as has been said, in terms of leadership roles. She was a member of the Patrons Council of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria and a life member of the YWCA. She was appointed to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. She was a Member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of her service to the parliament and the people of Australia and her leadership of the YWCA.

In terms of the Greens, as well, she invested a huge amount of time in helping young women through the party and talking to them about how to make way and how to continue to contribute both to politics and to strengthening the community. As has been said, she was a founding member of the Democrats in 1977 and then replaced Don Chipp as the senator for Victoria in 1986 and then won the seat in her own right the following year. Once she became leader of the Democrats in 1990, she aspired to merge the Democrats and the Greens, and at that time, in the early 1990s, the Democrats were a much larger and more established party than the Greens were. I was present at the meeting that we had in Launceston with Janet when she came down. Bob Brown and I went and met with her and talked to her there, and her aspiration was to merge the two strongest progressive forces in Australia so that there would be one stronger progressive force, in her view, and also she wanted to move beyond the Democrats' aspiration of, basically, a hand on the shoulder of government. She wanted to go beyond that and see the progressive side of politics form government, and you can see that in the kind of legislation that she introduced. It was more than just accountability that she was seeking; she was trying to implement a progressive agenda in a whole range of areas, as has been outlined.

She had a very difficult time of it and, as has been said, she resigned from the Democrats in 1992 after the leadership spill, but she remained in the parliament for the rest of her term as an Independent. The former Senator Gareth Evans said of her time in parliament:

... I think won a great deal of respect and admiration for the way in which she has withstood, with apparently infinite good cheer, the buffeting of what has been, on any analysis, a pretty tumultuous political career.
I think that is absolutely true, and she remained very even-handed, very kind and very positive in spite of all that had happened to her at that time. She joined the Australian Greens in 2004 and she stood as a Legislative Council candidate in the 2006 Victorian state election. She was unsuccessful in that but, as I have indicated, she made a big contribution to the Australian Greens and in particular the Greens in Victoria.

I want to go to some of her achievements in the parliament. As I said a moment ago, it was beyond accountability for the government of the day; it was actually progressing reform. Senator Wong spoke a moment ago about her private senator's bill on tobacco advertising, and both Senator Abetz and Senator Wong have also recorded her success in having psychiatric illness included in the definitions of disability for the purposes of disability services legislation. Her vocal opposition to the Gulf War was really courageous at the time. She was outspoken. Her pacifism was on show for all to see, and she made such a contribution that the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, recalled both houses of parliament in January 1991 to debate Australia's involvement. I think the leadership and courage that she offered in the course of that debate were quite extraordinary, and I pay tribute to her pacifism. I also make reference to her work in trying to advance sustainable and organic agriculture. I think that, having been brought up in the country and having taught in the country, she had seen some of the impacts of the increasing industrialisation of agriculture, and she instigated the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals to have a look at that at the time.

She was always guided by a strong sense of social justice, and that came out particularly in relation to women's rights. You would have to say that she was not only a role model for women in politics but a pioneer for women in politics. The leadership that she offered was not only in the policy initiatives that she brought to the parliament but also in her sustained commitment for change and her courage in continuing to argue for that change regardless of the opposition that came before her. As has been said, her attempt to strengthen affirmative action legislation is really important, as are her attempts to end discrimination of all kinds on the basis of sexuality and her success with the Defence Force. But she went beyond that. She continued to argue to end discrimination right till the end of her life.

I want to particularly say to her children, Katrine, Emma, Nick and Alex, that they should be really proud of Janet for what she contributed, and I am sure they are. She mentored many of us, and in terms of environmentalism she was quite extraordinary for her time. I spoke to her before she died, and she showed enormous courage in the face of death. Interestingly, even then her whole concern was to stay with the course of action for a more progressive, more inclusive, fairer Australia. That is what she wanted, that is what she campaigned for and that is what I pay tribute to her for doing. On behalf of the Greens, I just want to say that she is an inspirational model of our party and I really admire the fact that she was prepared to take on the idea of a merger right in those early days, and right till the end of her life she stayed committed to a strong progressive movement in Australia to bring about change. I pay tribute to Janet Powell.


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