Woman Lawrence, Carmen (1948 - )

Northam, Western Australia, Australia
Academic, Parliamentarian, Political leader and Psychologist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in the Western Australian agricultural district of Northam in 1948, Carmen Lawrence was one of seven children whose parents who had not been able to enjoy an extended education and were determined that their children would receive one. From the age of six Lawrence was educated in the Catholic tradition, mainly as a a boarder, at Marian Convent at Morawa; Dominican Ladies College at Dongara and Santa Maria College at Attadale from which she matriculated in 1964. The quality of her education was patchy, especially in the area of maths and science, but there were enough good and committed teachers along the way to ensure her success. She matriculated with distinctions in six subjects, a General Exhibition for Academic Achievement and a Special Subject Exhibition in economics. If nothing else, says the first woman to become premier of an Australian State, 'the uneven quality of my teaching taught me some self reliance' (Interview).

Lawrence arrived at the University of Western Australia in 1965. Living at St Katherine's College, she enjoyed the community life and quickly became involved in college leadership when she became the freshers' representative. She was not involved in any formal student politics while on campus, although she did serve as President of the Newman Society for a term and half, resigning when she came to realise that although Catholic values were important to her, the doctrine no longer made any sense to her, given that other faiths shared those same values. She graduated with an honours degree in psychology in 1968, at a time when she was becoming more aware of the political issues of the day. 'In the late 1960s I started to take more notice of what was going on and I didn't like a lot of what I saw' (Interview). She was active in her opposition to the Vietnam War, (at one rally in Perth she urged young men to burn their draft cards) and supported the women's liberation movement through her active involvement in the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL). During a short period in the early 1970s when she was living in Sydney and Melbourne pursuing an academic career, she worked with leading feminists such as Beatrice Faust, Eva Cox and Sally White to develop the initial WEL questionnaire put to candidates in the 1972 federal election, asking them to declare their positions on matters of interest to women.

Returning to Western Australia in 1973 as a single mother with a six week old son, Lawrence tutored and lectured at Curtin University from 1973 to 1978 and was a lecturer with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Western Australia from 1979 until 1983. She continued with post-graduate research, having won two scholarships for PhD studies in psychology, and received her doctoral degree in 1983, for her study of Maternal Responses to Infant Crying. She then worked in the Research and Evaluation Unit of the Psychiatric Services Branch of the Department of Health of Western Australia.

It was around this time that she began to become involved in formal politics. She joined the ALP believing it was the party that best addressed her concerns about equity issues. She stood in the State election in 1983 in the unwinnable seat of East Melville and was pre-selected, unopposed, in 1986 for the seemingly unwinnable seat of Subiaco. Running an energetic, local campaign in which she combined targeted door to door visits with writing regular columns in the local newspaper about the issues that mattered, Lawrence won the seat and entered State parliament as a back bencher. In 1988, following the sudden departure of Brian Burke as Premier, she was appointed Minister for Education. At the 1989 election, her seat of Subiaco was abolished in a redistribution and she won the new seat of Glendalough.

The Western Australian Labor government was in a state of crisis as a result of corruption allegations against the cabinets of two successive premiers, Brian Burke and Peter Dowding. In February 1990, Dowding was forced by his colleagues to resign. Lawrence, a prominent opponent within the Labor Party of Brian Burke's Right faction, of which Dowding was a member, replaced him as Premier on 12 February 1990. 'The fact that I wasn't opposed indicated the extent to which the government needed a shake up', she says. It also indicated that she was regarded as 'tough enough and competent enough' to do the job (Interview).

While Lawrence recognised the historical importance of her election as leader, she did not overplay it because her main concern was to restore public confidence in the government. She called the Royal Commission into Commercial Activities of Government and Other Matters 1990 in order to get to the bottom of the corruption allegations, believing that 'coming clean was the only option if they were to move forward' (Interview). She was determined to create a framework for proper governance for implementation by future governments.

While some of her government colleagues opposed the establishment of the Royal Commission, most of them agreed it was necessary and the decision to proceed was one arrived at by consensus. She believes that any authority she had as a positional leader was dependent upon the strength of the relationship she had with her cabinet colleagues. 'Cabinet runs the government, and I was first among equals' (Interview). Indeed, she believes that one problem with contemporary politics is that the cycle runs so fast, it is much harder for leaders to adopt a consensual leaders style. 'Debates are rarely held over months these days' (Interview).

After three years in government creating solid economic foundations at the same time as they implemented important social policy by investing in housing, improving child protection measures and following through on recommendations that arose from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Lawrence Government was removed at the 1993 election. She remained as opposition leader until 1994 when she was convinced to make the transition from state to Federal politics. Prime Minister Paul Keating had been impressed by her leadership in and out of government and believed she would be an important asset to his own cabinet. In March 1994, she won the by-election for the seat of Fremantle, recently vacated by John Dawkins, and was quickly appointed Minister for Human Services and Health and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in the Keating government. The Government lost the 1996 election, but Lawrence remained in the Shadow Ministry in the Environment portfolio.

In 1995, Lawrence was accused of misleading parliament, accusations that eventually led to charges of perjury of which she was acquitted in 1999. This period was the low point in her political life and she stood down from Cabinet in 1997 pending her trial. In 2000, Opposition leader Simon Beazley reinstalled her as shadow minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, the Arts and Status of Women. During the 2001 federal election campaign, Lawrence strongly disapproved of Beazley's support for the government's policy of detaining asylum-seekers. In December 2002 she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet, because she could not support the party's immigration policies. She resigned from parliamentary politics altogether in 2007. In between times, she spent a year as the ALP President in 2004 'because she felt the party needed reinvigorating especially with regard to asylum seeker policy' (Interview). She was concerned that the parliamentary ALP had moved too far from its members. After her political career, Lawrence returned to academia as a Professorial Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia.

Lawrence is proud of her government's achievements, and is always careful to say that they came as a result of a group effort. The media fixation on individuals in politics annoys her, because her experience is that nothing happens without support. 'Celebrity Politicians' like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating 'could not have achieved what they did without the authority of their respective cabinets' (Interview).'Influencing policy was more important than influencing people.' For Lawrence, the critical question was always 'did we work effectively to get results? Because it is never just one person' (Interview).

Additional sources: Carmen Lawrence interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 5 December 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/25; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Carmen Lawrence interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 5 December 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/25; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources