First Female State Secretary of the ALP
Member of the Legislative Council 1976-1982
When Kath Venn first became active in Labor politics as a young union delegate in the late 1940s, women Party members tended to be consigned to the "invisible" work of politics, such as making tea, fundraising and manning the polling booths. As Venn recalled for The Examiner on 3 July 1984, "It just wasn't done for a woman to get up and speak at a meeting in those days." However, she did, setting a pattern for her future career as a highly visible politician and community activist.
Venn was born Kathleen Darragh in Hobart, educated at Ogilvie High School and after finishing her education found employment with the Australian Workers Union. She achieved national prominence in 1969 when she became the first female State Secretary of a major political party in Australia. Her other appointments prior to becoming an MLC included federal secretary of the Labor Women's Organisation, president of the RSL Women's Auxiliary (she was to serve on this auxiliary for 34 years), federal secretary of the Housewives Association and consumers' representative on the Tasmanian Milk Board. A background in community women's organisations was typical of Australia's early female MPs. Many of these organisations were not overtly feminist and reinforced the primacy of women's maternal role, but they enabled women's voices to be heard on matters of importance to them and gave their members the opportunity to develop political skills.
In 1976 Venn became Tasmania's fourth female politician, elected to the seat of Hobart in the Legislative Council after the retirement of Phyllis Benjamin. She served as an MLC until 1982, including three years as Deputy Leader for the Government. She was long identified with the ALP's right-wing and often clashed with the Party's Left faction.
Venn resigned from the Labor Party in June 1984 after it formally reprimanded her for supporting Independent candidate Brian Harradine in his 1983 campaign for the Senate (Harradine had been expelled from the Tasmanian ALP in 1975). The Party's decision to direct its preferences away from Harradine to the Australian Democrat, Dr Norm Sanders, who had played a role in the defeat of the State Labor Government in 1982, was a catalyst. But there was a more general disenchantment: on 26 June 1984 she told The Examiner, "Since the Left took control [of the Party] it has abandoned the principles and policies which attracted the support of Tasmanians generally."
Venn's next political move, in September 1984, was to stand for the Senate as a member of the Harradine group. A press statement released on the 20th of that month cited her major concerns: youth unemployment, the availability of hardcore pornographic and violent videos, struggling war veterans, the erosion of the institution of marriage, consumer protection and "the sanctity of human life". However her bid for the Senate was unsuccessful and she did not contest another election.
Venn remained active in the paid and volunteer workforce after her retirement from parliamentary politics. In addition to working as a marriage celebrant (a career she had begun in the mid-1970s) and Justice of the Peace, she was State President of the Housewives Association until 1991. Other roles in the 1990s included volunteer at the Repatriation Hospital; member of the Prisoners' Aid Society, Mount Stuart Progress Association and Australian Forces Overseas Fund; and Chairwoman of the Ogilvie High School board. She continues - currently as Chairwoman - a quarter-century association with Hobart's Caroline House, a crisis accommodation centre for women.
This entry was researched and written by Michelle Laffer, B.A. (Hons)
The Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women 2005