Dr Elisabeth Kirkby's commitment to making the world more equitable is inspiring and her achievements in doing so, remarkable.

Lynn Lovelock, former Clerk of the Legislative Council and colleague of Elisabeth, reflects on Dr Kirkby's impact on NSW and the importance of sharing stories of women in politics.

What impression did Elisabeth make on you?

Parliament at that time was a very male-dominated institution, both within the chamber and out.  It was not uncommon to find yourself the only woman in a room, all too frequently on the receiving end of flippant comments about your appearance – your dress, your hair, your shoes – rather than being taken seriously and treated with respect. As a young woman, I found it unsettling and often demeaning. Liz was someone who never seemed to notice the lack of gender balance, never seemed daunted by the prospect of taking on the establishment and effecting change wherever she could. 


She was not afraid to be herself, to dress as she wanted and to speak her mind. I will never forget the first time I saw her sweep into the chamber in one of her many colourful kaftans, oblivious to the rolled eyes and sniggers of her fellow members in their dark suits and tailored jackets. She took her seat on the crossbench regally, a raft of documents spread across the bench in readiness for the coming debate. 


She spoke on almost every bill before the house, frequently moving amendments, and never giving up in the face of inevitable defeat. She always had a host of private member’s motions on the Business Paper, never ran out of questions during Question Time, and raised issues at every opportunity during adjournment debates. Her energy was indefatigable. Principles mattered, and she never missed an opportunity to promote them. Often funny, always plain-speaking and approachable, other members respected her.


How could they not? She was both inspiring and indomitable. 

What impact has Dr Kirkby made on the NSW community?

Until 1987, one of only two Legislative Council Committees was the Subordinate Legislation Committee, tasked with oversight of regulations issued by the Executive without recourse to Parliament. When the Legislative Assembly manoeuvred to replace the Council committee with a joint Regulation Review Committee, Dr Kirkby opposed the change, raising concerns that the new committee, dominated as it was by the lower house, could effectively stifle its role in oversighting subordinate legislation. 


Her concern drove her to move for a new sessional order, one which provided that motions to disallow statutory instruments would be given precedence over government and general business. It was a canny move, and she managed to secure the support of most of the crossbench, as well as the opposition. Under the sessional order many regulations which might otherwise have passed by unnoticed were debated in the House, and quite a few were ultimately disallowed. The sessional order was so successful in highlighting problem regulations that in 1996 the government amended the order to provide that before the motion for disallowance could be moved, the House would first decide, without amendment or debate, whether the matter should be given precedence. Lacking the numbers to pass this hurdle, the majority of disallowance motions subsequently dropped back into a spiralling maze of private members’ business, and were consequently never considered by the House.


In 1990 Dr Kirkby played a key role in activating a procedure, which although provided for in the Constitution, until then had not been utilised. Under section 38 of the Constitution Act 1901 any Minister who is a member of the Legislative Assembly is allowed to sit in the Council for the purpose of explaining the provisions of any bill for which that Minister is responsible. The House was dealing with the Industrial Relations Bill, a complex piece of legislation which excited passionate but conflicting views across the house. Hundreds of amendments were drafted and circulated, leading to confusion about their impact on the bill. Dr Kirkby sought advice on a means to ensure clarity about the bill, its intent and operation, as well as the impact of any of proposed amendments. Acting on that advice, Dr Kirkby successfully moved a motion to allow the Hon. John Fahey, as Minister for Industrial Relations and employment, to sit in the Council during Committee of the Whole stage and answer questions in relation to both the bill and any proposed amendments. In all, the proceedings lasted over 10 days during which 484 amendments were made to the bill.


The following year a rather difficult situation arose in the House during debate on the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Bill. Dr Kirkby was passionate about limiting the ability of the tobacco industry to advertise, especially to young people. Proceedings became heated, and in the course of arguments and interruptions Dr Kirkby stated ‘I am not in the hands of the tobacco lobby, as the Liberal Party is, and I do not have to follow the Liberal Party line’. Objection was taken, and the President ruled the comment unparliamentary and ‘properly offensive’ to the member taking objection. Dr Kirkby was ordered to withdraw her remarks, but in doing so she claimed it was under protest. As a consequence of her demurral she was reported to the President, and subsequently adjudged guilty of contempt of the House. She was suspended for the remainder of the sitting, although as the Leader of the House noted, this amounted to a one minute suspension as the House was about to adjourn.

What can we learn from Elisabeth's story?

From her years in the Parliament we learn the value of commitment, hard work and tenacity. Displaying grace under fire, she rarely raised her voice, and always treated others with respect and civility. She showed it is possible to disagree with someone without demeaning them, a concept with which many politicians grapple. Given that she began her parliamentary career as a political party of one, and ended it as a political party of just two, she has left behind a legacy matched by few of her colleagues.

Which other women in NSW Parliament impressed you?

The Hon. Virginia Chadwick was intelligent, resourceful and imposing, her illness and early death was a loss to the country.  Opposition Whip from 1984 to 1988, then a Minister of the Crown from 1988 to 1995, she became the Legislative Council’s first female President in 1998. As President, she displayed a keen sense of duty to the House, following procedure and precedent impartially even when under pressure to conform to her party’s line. I was particularly impressed with her rather delightful knack of securing success against the odds by somehow convincing her opponents that her ideas were really theirs. I attended many meetings where we went in without any hope of success only to leave with agreement on everything we proposed. It was a marvel to witness.

I am pleased though that the Legislative Council is going ahead with a project to have a bust of the Hon. Virginia Chadwick installed in the chamber alongside the double rows of male busts currently in place there.

I also worked closely with two other female Presidents in my time as Clerk, the Hon. Dr Meredith Burgmann and the Hon. Amanda Fazio. They both supported me in my role as Clerk and were appreciative of and receptive to the advice I provided. Dr Burgmann was the Chair of the Privileges Committee before she became President, and in my role as Clerk to that Committee I learned much from her about handling difficult people and issues. I am particularly grateful to the Hon. Amanda Fazio for her willingness to listen to advice and act in the interests of the Parliament rather than those of the Government in relation to the Gentrader inquiry in 2011, a matter which has become a constitutional precedent in NSW.

How do you think we can honour and remember women's achievements and contribution to society?


To tell their stories and make sure they are not relegated to footnotes in the story of our country’s development. To do this we need to write new history books, to teach our children that woman have been just as important in the development of Australia as men, and to continue to highlight women’s achievements in all forms of media.


We have to do this ourselves rather than expect a system which is heavily biased towards men to somehow correct itself and redress the imbalance. That is never going to happen.

Why does history matter to you?

As Maya Angelou said ‘The more you know of your history the more liberated you are’. I have always believed that without an understanding of our past there is little hope for a better future. It is not that we are condemned to relive it, as some might contend, but rather that ignorance prevents us understanding it, and consequently from learning from it.

Our thanks to Lynn Lovelock for giving us an insider's view of NSW Parliament.

Lynn retired from the position of Clerk of the Parliaments and Clerk of the Legislative Council in October 2011, having previously held the positions of Deputy Clerk, Clerk Assistant and Usher of the Black Rod.


Her role was to provide expert advice on parliamentary practice and procedure, to oversee management of the House, and to assist in the general management of the institution of Parliament as an entity.

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet, work and explore.

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