From the Archives: Brickbats and bouquets for first ‘Madam Speaker’

Mrs Child was duly elected 78-64. Perhaps to prove that gentlemen in the bush still know how to treat a lady, the National Party member for Maranoa in Queensland, Ian Cameron, was the first to congratulate her with a bunch of flowers and a kiss.

Pope John Paul II signs the visitors' book at Parliament House as Joan Child, Bob Hawke and John and Janette Howard look on. November 24, 1986

Pope John Paul II signs the visitors’ book at Parliament House as Joan Child, Bob Hawke and John and Janette Howard look on. November 24, 1986Credit:Rick Stevens

Mr Hawke was next to peck Madame Speaker’s cheek.

“See if he kisses Leo,” said an interjector, referring to the imminent election of NSW Labor MP, Leo McLeay, as Deputy Speaker.

(His election provided some pantomime as left-winger Gerry Hand yelled out to right-winger McLeay: «Leo, I just wanted you to look,» as he forced his own hand to write “McLeay” on the ballot paper.) The slightly-built, but forthright Mrs Child, who, as you would imagine, needed a piercing voice as a prerequisite for the job ahead of her, made her position clear.

No-one who ever came into the House was independent and everyone owed their allegiance to a party.

“Being impartial and being fair is quite a different thing.”

The niceties were then over and as soon as Question Time began, MPs started getting that lean and hungry look.

Perhaps it had something to do with a 24-hour strike by employees in the parliamentary catering service which denied members and non-members alike the delights of Parliament House food and caused Mrs Child to declare that the House would rise early at 7.30.

The Opposition Leader, John Howard, asked the Prime Minister whether the Government would pass on the drop in oil prices to motorists, or did he “propose to cheat them?

“Mr, er Madame Speaker,” stumbled the PM, “I suppose when it comes to comments about cheating we have the benefit of listening to Australia’s number one cheat…”

National Party leader, Ian Sinclair, who’ll try anything twice, leapt to his feet suggesting that standing orders demanded that personal references like that should be withdrawn.

Joan Child pictured in the Speaker's chair, 1986

Joan Child pictured in the Speaker’s chair, 1986

“Could I suggest to the Right Honourable Leader of the National Party that the phrase was just used to the Prime Minister by the Honourable Leader of the Opposition,” Mrs Child boomed.

The flowers by now had probably wilted.

“Firsts” are not new to Mrs Child.

In 1974 she became the ALP’s first woman MHR. It was Labor’s first win since 1901 in the electorate of Henty, a middle class area, the centre of which is Carnegie, 8km south east of Melbourne.

There is another important “first” which Mrs Child hopes to see realised within the next few months.

Widowed for 22 years, she has five sons and her four grandchildren are all boys. Another grandchild is expected soon and the Child family is hoping for its first, daughter.

While federal MPs will have to address a Madam Speaker for the first time in 85 years, Mrs Child commented: «What’s in a name? Everyone calls me Joan, anyhow.»

Mrs Child, who has been Deputy Speaker for more than a year, says her main job as Speaker will be to “keep order”.

“For 97 per cent of the time the House runs peacefully and with good humour,” she said. “Emotive issues will always come up.

Joan Child and Paul Keating in ALP caucus meeting in Canberra, August 18, 1986.

Joan Child and Paul Keating in ALP caucus meeting in Canberra, August 18, 1986.Credit:David Bartho

«Opposition members can become frustrated and can cause an outburst. I know too well because I have served on the Opposition benches. A Speaker should bring good humour to Parliament and members need to be aware just how far they can go.”

Mrs Child has faced almost as many elections as she has had jobs since she found herself in the role of bringing up five teenage sons, Peter, now 39, a pharmacist, Andrew, 36, a teacher, Geoff, 35, a computer programmer, Gary, 31, a policeman, and Roger, 29, a builder.

She said: “After my husband died I became an eight to five factory worker but with cut lunches, leaving before the boys went to school and coming home after them — it didn’t work out.

«Next I worked part-time in a dress shop and that didn’t work out. I began cooking at a geriatric home for 22 elderly people, lots of eggs, cream and baked custard and I was a good cook.

«After that I tried to live on a widow’s pension. When I couldn’t make ends meet I went out to clean houses and that worked better. Life was hard.»

Mrs Child combined housekeeping with jobs as secretary of a suburban ALP branch, and later as a delegate to the Victorian conference of the Labor Party.

She has been winning and losing the seat of Henty for almost 15 years. She first campaigned in 1972 and lost narrowly, gaining a swing of 9.2 per cent when she needed 9.3 per cent. Mrs Child entered Parliament in 1974 when she won Henty in the Whitlam years, lost it in 1975, failed to regain in 1977, won it back in 1980 and she has retained it at the 1983 and 1984 federal elections.

A large personally-signed portrait of Mr Whitlam hangs in her electoral office.

“I loved him. He is a great man. History will record him as a great man,” Mrs Child said.

Mr Hawke? “Politics are different now. There was little notice taken of politics before Mr Whitlam’s era.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks at the State Funeral for The Honourable Joan Child AO, March 5, 2013.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks at the State Funeral for The Honourable Joan Child AO, March 5, 2013.Credit:Angela Wylie

“There was little legislation before his days. He brought excitement to politics. Politics now aren’t very exciting. Politics today are a hard slog. Although there was a light-heartedness in the leaders of the Whitlam Government there is nothing gung-ho in today’s leaders.”

… But Mr Hawke?

“Whitlam,” Mrs Child continued, “was a political animal. Mr Hawke never brought his famous larrikinism into Parliament.”

Mrs Child lives in a Carnegie weatherboard behind a high fence. She has been burgled eight times but says that the only valuables she has are two inexpensive rings which she never takes off and she spends Saturday mornings shopping even though many friends believe “groceries fly off the shelves into my home”.

Her regular relaxation is having dinner parties for which she caters and cooks at home, and a game of cards — conversation whist — which she plays with her family.

June Child served as Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives from February 1986 to August 1989. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours of June 1990, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia. When she died in 2013, aged 81, a State Funeral was held.

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