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Tuesday, 12 November 2013
Page: 63


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (17:16): by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 30 September 2013, of Janet Frances Powell AM, former senator for Victoria and Leader of the Australian Democrats, places on record its appreciation of her long meritorious public service and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

Janet Powell lost her battle with pancreatic cancer on 30 September, aged 71. Former Senator Powell was not a traditional politician and her path to the Australian parliament was not a route taken by many of us in this place. From a small rural town in the Wimmera, western Victoria, the daughter of farmers, she graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education. She worked as a secondary school teacher at Kerang and Nhill high schools. One of the founding members of the Australian Democrats in 1977, she became the first female Victorian state president in 1984. In 1986 she entered the Senate for Victoria, filling a casual vacancy created by the resignation of Democrats founder Don Chipp. The final paragraph of Senator Powell's first speech gave a clue to her style:

Political dogmatism will not remove inequity, put food on people's tables or find them jobs. The Democrats are not interested in dogma; we are interested in people. We will take up issues as they arise, making decisions as we see them in the light of our longstanding objectives and policies and in the interests of the community as a whole.

Indeed, Senator Powell was a strong role model for women in politics and I understand was always generous with her time and experience mentoring women. She was a passionate feminist. In 1989 she made history as the first woman of either house to have a private member's bill passed by both houses—the Smoking and Tobacco Products Advertisements (Prohibition) Bill 1989, which banned the print advertising of tobacco products.

Her successful amendment of the Disability Services Bill 1986 meant that the psychiatrically disabled were included in such legislation for the first time. Senator Powell was also instrumental in the establishment in 1988 of the Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals, which investigated the use and impact of pesticides.

After a national ballot of Democrat members, she succeeded Janine Haines to become leader of the party in 1990, becoming only the second woman to lead an Australian political party. After the initiation of a petition to oust her as Democrats leader in 1991, Senator Powell lost the leadership challenge. One of the criticisms of her at the time was that she had canvassed the possibility of merging with the Australian Greens, a party that she later joined. Former Democrat leader and founder Don Chipp described this incident as the most tragic story to have hit the Democrats.

A year later in 1992 Senator Powell resigned from the Democrats to serve out her term, which ended in 1993, as an Independent. As Democrat leader, Senator Powell had opposed Australian intervention in the first Iraq war and had advocated cutting military ties with the US. It does sound very Green. In her valedictory speech Senator Powell's admiration of the Western Australian Green senators is apparent, and in 2004 she joined the Australian Greens.

Throughout her career her commitment to the community stood out. The life of a parliamentarian does not leave much spare time on the margins, but Senator Powell always managed to carve out a space to serve the community. After leaving parliament, Ms Powell continued to dedicate her energy to volunteer leadership roles in health, women's issues and services for the disadvantaged. In 2002 Ms Powell was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of her service to the parliament and community, particularly through the leadership of the YWCA. YWCA President Laura Hutchison paid tribute to Ms Powell's 'inspired leadership'. She also said:

Janet was a past president (1994-2000), rowing club patron and life member. She spearheaded a transformation that modernised the YWCA and ensured its survival. Janet drove systemic reform such as changing our constitution to enshrine young women in leadership roles and on a personal level she also mentored a series of younger presidential successors, training a new generation of female leaders. The YWCA continues to benefit from her legacy and is indebted.

Similarly, the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria praised Senator Powell's sense of community, and they did it with these words:

All of us at the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria are deeply saddened by the passing of Janet, a long-time member of the Epilepsy Foundation's patrons council.

I pass on my sincere condolences, on behalf of the government, to former Senator Powell's family, her four children—Katrine, Emma, Nick and Alex—her granddaughter, her friends and her colleagues over the years. They are all entitled to be extremely proud of their mother, grandmother, friend and colleague for her contribution to our community and our nation.