Carmen Lawrence

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Dr Carmen Lawrence

Dr Carmen Mary Lawrence (born 2 March 1948), Australian politician, became the first directly elected Federal President of the Australian Labor Party in 2003, after a meteoric rise in politics followed by several spectacular falls.

Lawrence was born in Northam, a country town in Western Australia, into a strongly conservative and Catholic family. She was educated at Catholic schools and at the University of Western Australia, where she attained a PhD in psychology. She worked as a tutor at the University of Melbourne, then as a lecturer at the University of WA until 1983. She then worked for three years for the Western Australian Department of Health.

During this period Lawrence moved away from her conservative family background and joined the Labor Party. In 1986 she was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, and in 1988 she was appointed Minister for Education. The Western Australian Labor government was in a state of crisis as a result of corruption allegations against two successive premiers, Brian Burke and Peter Dowding. In February 1990 Dowding was forced to resign and Lawrence was brought in as a "cleanskin" premier.

Carmen Lawrence was the first female premier of an Australian state. However, she was not the first female head of government of an Australian state or territory. That honour went to Rosemary Follett, who became Chief Minister of the ACT on 11 May 1989.

The chain of events that derailed Lawrence's career began on 5 November 1992 when a petition was tabled by a Labor member of the WA Legislative Council alleging that one Penny Easton had perjured herself in the Family Court. Easton was engaged in a prolonged divorce settlement case with her ex-husband, Brian Easton. The petition also alleged that Richard Court, the Liberal Opposition Leader, had leaked official documents to Penny Easton to assist her case.

This might have been just another rather grubby political exercise except that on 9 November Penny Easton committed suicide. Her family alleged that the tabling of the petition caused her to do so, and also alleged that Lawrence had authorised the tabling of the petition as a tactic to damage Court. On 10 November Lawrence told Parliament that she had had no prior knowledge of the petition.

In February 1993 the Lawrence government was defeated by the Liberals and Court became Premier. Lawrence stayed on as Opposition Leader until early 1994, when she accepted an offer from Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating to enter federal politics. In March she won a by-election for the federal seat of Fremantle (once held by Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, and later, Whitlam-era Education Minister Kim Beazley senior), and was immediately appointed Health Minister in the Keating government.

In May 1995 Premier Court set up a Royal Commission into the Penny Easton affair. On 13 September Lawrence told the Commission under oath that she had no recollection that her Cabinet had discussed the tabling of the Easton petition, despite evidence from a former Cabinet member, Keith Wilson, that the petition had been discussed, and that Lawrence had approved tabling it. On 14 November the Royal Commission found that Lawrence had lied to the Western Australian Parliament when she denied knowledge of the petition. Although her statements in Parliament were protected by privilege, her testimony to the Royal Commission was not.

Lawrence came under intense pressure to resign from the federal ministry, and Keating came under equally intense pressure to dismiss her. They decided to "tough it out," however. Keating denounced the Commission as a political stunt and accused the Commissioner, Kenneth Marks QC, of bias. Lawrence won some admiration for her refusal to crack under this pressure, but the damage done to her reputation, and the distraction of Keating from other issues, were factors which contributed to Labor's defeat by the Liberals under John Howard at the March 1996 federal election.

The new Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, was also from Western Australia, and came from the Right faction of the Labor Party which opposed Lawrence. Nevertheless she was elected to the Opposition frontbench and appointed shadow Environment Minister. But on 21 February 1997 Lawrence was charged with three counts of perjury. She immediately stood down from shadow ministry. The trial took more than two years to reach a conclusion. Lawrence again said that she had no memory of a Cabinet discussion of the Easton petition, although she did not actually deny that such a discussion had taken place. On 23 July 1999 she was found not guilty. Lawrence has previously suggested that issues of memory and its function will be the subject of a paper or study she may undertake or release. (ABC News, 7:30 Report, 23/7/99). This has not yet occurred. The release of cabinet documents following the expiry of confidentiality limits may reveal the nature of proceedings at the time of Lawrence's premiership. (Refer Enid Campbell UWA Law Review et al.)

In September 2000 Beazley approved her re-election to the Labor frontbench, and appointed her shadow minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, the Arts and Status of Women. But during the November 2001 federal election campaign Lawrence strongly disapproved of the line taken by Beazley on the issue of asylum seekers (see MV Tampa), and during 2002 she became increasingly dissatisfied with Labor's position on migration issues. In December 2002 she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet.

During 2002 the Labor Party approved a series of reforms proposed by its leader Simon Crean, among them the direct election of the party's National President by the party membership (the post had previously been filled by election at the party's National Conference). The election took place in November 2003. Lawrence emerged as the candidate of the party's Left faction, and campaigned in favour of a policy of better treatment for asylum seekers entering Australia.

Although she did not win an absolute majority of the votes, Lawrence topped the poll and was elected President, taking office on 1 January 2004, shortly after Mark Latham succeeded Crean as party Leader. The National Presidency is mostly a figurehead position, and Lawrence took no part, at least in public, in the bitter recriminations following the party's defeat at the October 2004 election, which led eventually to Latham's resignation. Her term as National President ended on 1 January, 2005, when she was succeeded by Barry Jones.

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Preceded by:
Peter Dowding
Premier of Western Australia
Succeeded by:
Richard Court

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