Lawrence, Carmen Mary

Lawrence, Carmen Mary
▪ 1996

      When Carmen Lawrence joined the Australian Cabinet as minister of health on March 25, 1994, less than two weeks after she entered the federal Parliament, it seemed only a matter of time before she became the nation's first woman prime minister. Lawrence had previously been the Australian Labor Party (ALP) premier of the state of Western Australia, and she had seized the opportunity to enter national politics at an unexpected by-election. The Conservative state government led by Premier Richard Court, however, pursued her from Perth to Canberra and set up a royal commission, which, many observers agreed, soon turned into a witch-hunt intended to destroy Lawrence's political career. Court instructed the royal commissioner to seek to establish the facts surrounding the tabling (formal submission) of a petition in the Western Australian Parliament in November 1992. This petition, which involved allegations of perjury against lawyer Penny Easton (who committed suicide a few days later), was the last salvo in an acrimonious divorce between Easton and her husband, Brian Easton, a state government official against whom she had brought unsuccessful charges of corruption and financial impropriety. The commission was ordered to investigate the tangled case to see if then premier Lawrence had made improper use of executive power in the matter.

      Lawrence was born March 2, 1948, to a wheat-farming family in Northam, Western Australia. She studied psychology at the University of Western Australia. After being elected to the Western Australian Parliament in 1986, she was chosen to lead the party and served as premier and treasurer of Western Australia until the ALP was defeated at the 1993 elections. After a very short stint in opposition as shadow treasurer and shadow minister for employment, she entered the federal Parliament on March 12, 1994. Prime Minister Paul Keating put her on the fast track into the Cabinet, but from that time forward she was under constant fire from her former political enemies in the west.

      Before the royal commission began its hearings, Lawrence had a reputation for being "Teflon tough." While public opinion was primarily concerned about the huge cost of her legal proceedings, Lawrence herself admitted she had been reduced to tears by her ordeal. She was driven to the brink of resignation and blamed her political woes on her sex. As the only woman in Keating's Cabinet, Lawrence complained that she was "hot political property" and a clearly identifiable target for the opposition. "If you're initially anointed with the saintly stereotype that I was," she said, "only one course of action can follow—the halo will eventually become tarnished."

      (A.R.G. GRIFFITHS)

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Universalium. 2010.

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