KERNOT, Cheryl (1948– )
Senator for Queensland, 1990–97 (Australian Democrats)

Cheryl Kernot was born Cheryl Paton in Maitland, NSW on 5 December 1948, the eldest of four children of Mervyn Roydon Paton, a purchasing officer for the Maitland City Council, and his wife Zena, née Hunter. To help with the family budget, Merv took a second job as manager of the Princes Theatre in East Maitland. Although their parents were not regular churchgoers, all the children received a Presbyterian upbringing. In a 1996 interview Kernot recalled that in her early life she had ‘a good time … I was very lucky; I loved my childhood’. In an era of low career expectations for girls, Cheryl’s parents emphasised to their daughters that they could do anything they wanted.

Cheryl attended East Maitland Primary School, which was also the alma mater of former ALP leader Bert Evatt, and Maitland Girls’ High School, where her interest and prowess in public speaking and debating were noted. After seeing her deliver a speech at a school assembly, local Liberal MLA Milton Morris suggested to her that she should consider going into politics. This, as she reflected years later in her first speech in the Senate, planted ‘the seed of politics in my mind’.

Cheryl won a Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of Sydney and commenced an arts degree in 1967. Two years later, she transferred to the University of Newcastle where she graduated as a Bachelor of Arts. After completing a Diploma of Education at the Newcastle College of Advanced Education, she married Philip Young, a law student, at Maitland in March 1972.

Cheryl commenced her teaching career in Sydney, but after her marriage ended in 1975, she moved to Brisbane. She taught English and coached the debating team at the Anglican Church Grammar School and also became the school’s first female housemaster. On 16 April 1981 she married a fellow teacher, Gavin Kernot, at the school chapel; they had a daughter in 1983. Between 1984 and 1985, Cheryl Kernot worked part-time as a producer of evening talk-back radio programs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Brisbane.

In Queensland Kernot ‘was affronted and confronted’ by Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Coalition Government: ‘Nobody reflected my beliefs; there were practically no women in parliament’. She responded by joining ‘street marches and other forms of protest against laws curbing freedom of association’. In 1980 she watched the state Assembly debate a proposal to impose severe restrictions on the right to abortion. Shocked by the ‘appalling standard’ of debate, she realised for the first time ‘what having no women in parliament meant … It was an epiphany’. Soon afterwards, Kernot joined the Australian Democrats, in part because she believed the party was playing a pioneering role in involving women in politics. She later recalled feeling that she had found ‘the Party for me’. Later that year, under her maiden name of Cheryl Paton, she contested the seat of Ashgrove for the Democrats at the state election, gaining a respectable 12.76 per cent of the vote. She ‘loved campaigning’ and ‘adored the challenge of the hustings’. Kernot’s energy and ability saw her rise quickly through the party ranks: she was appointed policy coordinator for the Queensland branch in 1981, elected assistant state secretary in 1983 and state secretary the following year, and was state president from 1984 to 1989. She served as deputy national president between 1988 and 1990.

Kernot’s path to the Senate was gradual. She was placed fourth on the Australian Democrats Queensland ticket in 1984 and second in 1987, before heading the ticket at the election of March 1990 and taking Queensland’s sixth Senate seat at that election. She was only the fifth woman to be elected as a Queensland senator. Although the numbers of female senators had increased since the election of Dorothy Tangney in 1943, there had been only eighteen female senators when Kernot’s term commenced in July 1990 and she was ‘struck by the extent to which the political system was dominated by men’.[1]

Sworn in on 21 August 1990, Kernot’s experience of entering the chamber was emotional: ‘I felt a few tingles and then I got to walk onto the floor of the parliament to a desk that had “Senator C. Kernot” written on the glass. I just got a bit teary’. The following day, in her first speech, Kernot drew upon Max Weber’s essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ to highlight the need for politicians to combine passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. She emphasised her own passion to leave the world a better place for her child and future grandchildren, declaring that in the four thousand days leading up to the next century, government decisions ‘will either guarantee our children a safe and sustainable future or will ruin forever this fragile planet we have so long abused’. She was concerned that ‘Australians consider most politicians to be self-serving, dishonest and isolated from the real world’ and that ‘the short-term focus of successive governments has put our country in what many Australians regard as a perilous position’. Kernot also discussed matters that would concern her throughout her parliamentary career including ‘the increasing foreign ownership of Australia’s best and most beautiful land’ and the hazards of deregulation. She questioned the economic viability of a proposed spaceport at Cape York and raised the issue ‘of dislocation of the local Aboriginal inhabitants’, asking if the traditional occupants, who were ‘driven at gunpoint from their homes’ ninety years earlier, would again be denied ‘title to their homeland in the name of progress and to benefit a foreign backed conglomerate’.

As a member of a small parliamentary party, Kernot undertook numerous roles, including spokesperson for women’s issues, Treasury matters, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. She was the Democrats’ representative on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from its inception in December 1991 until she left the Senate. Kernot found that Senate committee work provided ‘the best immersion course in the detail’. An additional strength was that it allowed members to ‘build good working relationships with people from all parties’. This was particularly true of the Select Committee on Superannuation, on which she served from 1991 to 1993. The Democrats had committed in principle to the Keating Government’s introduction of compulsory superannuation legislation, embodied in the Superannuation Guarantee (Administration) Bill 1992 and three related bills. The non-government members of the committee were aware that the bills would proceed and, as a result, all members cultivated ‘a really good cross-party working relationship’. Kernot recalled that the select committee was ‘very constructive’ and enabled the Democrats to secure significant amendments to the legislation. Despite having been in the Senate for just short of two years, Kernot was lauded in the Sydney Sun-Herald as ‘a possible future leader of her party’.

Kernot was an influential member of the Select Committee on Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures, established in August 1991 to examine a controversial bill which sought, among other things, to ban political advertising on television and radio. The Democrats having initially opposed that part of the bill, it was Kernot’s support for a revised scheme involving the allocation of free air time and a restricted ‘talking heads’ format that facilitated the passage of an amended bill in December 1991. In August 1992 a majority of the High Court found that part of the legislation was invalid, having discovered in the Constitution an implied guarantee of freedom of political communication.

Kernot was concerned by the number of major Australian brands, such as Billy Tea, Violet Crumble, Minties and Vegemite, taken over by companies based overseas. She argued that ‘It is not in the national interest to use foreign investment as a short term solution to our economic problems. We do need foreign investment. Let us have it on our terms’. From 1993 to 1995 she served as the Democrats’ representative on the Select Committee on Certain Aspects of Foreign Ownership Decisions in Relation to the Print Media. The background to the inquiry involved an allegation that Prime Minister Keating had acted against the national interest in a conversation with the owner of Fairfax newspapers, the Canadian publisher Conrad Black, by offering to support increased investment in Fairfax by Black in return for ‘balanced’ coverage of the 1993 election by Fairfax newspapers. A majority of the nine person committee—the four Coalition members and Kernot—ultimately found the allegation to be substantiated.

The committee also examined the role of the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) in media ownership decisions. In a reservation to the majority report, Kernot wrote that the term of reference relating to the FIRB ‘was included at the Democrats’ insistence’, and was the party’s ‘principal motivation’ for involvement in the committee. Controversy arose over whether members of the FIRB could be compelled to appear before the committee after Treasurer Ralph Willis instructed a senior public servant not to cooperate on the ground of public interest immunity. A furore erupted when Kernot, the committee’s deputy chair, stated in a media interview that the Democrats were prepared to seek the jailing of the public servant for contempt in order to demonstrate that the Executive was accountable to the Parliament. Kernot believed that: ‘The ability of a Minister to prevent information being publicly scrutinised by asserting—and not having to prove—that the release of the information is against the public interest runs counter to all tenets of proper public accountability’. In 1994 Kernot introduced a private senator’s bill to empower the Federal Court of Australia ‘to enforce lawful orders of a house of the Parliament or a committee for the production of documents’ and to make the failure to comply a criminal offence. Although the bill did not proceed, after the Committee of Privileges recommended against it, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice concludes that ‘Senator Kernot’s bill and the inquiry by the Privileges Committee may have had a salutary effect’ in that ‘ministers were perhaps not as ready to resort to claims of confidentiality or public interest immunity as they had been in the recent past’.[2]

Expectations that Kernot would eventually lead the Democrats were fulfilled in April 1993 when she replaced Senator John Coulter as party leader. In the leadership ballot of party members she secured eighty-one per cent of the vote. By early 1994 Kernot was widely perceived as a political leader who had ‘refashioned’ the Democrats, making them ‘respected players for the first time in several years’. Confident and accomplished in dealing with the media, she judged herself fortunate to have ‘fabulous staff’, an ability to get to the heart of issues, and ‘reasonably good political instincts’. She made no secret of her ambitions for the party and her determination to make the party relevant. In a speech to the National Press Club she warned those ‘who have been content to peddle the line that the Democrats are the political wing of the Nimbin Settlers Society’ to ‘re-program their word processors’. Kernot wanted to move beyond the party’s well known slogan to ‘keep the bastards honest’ and to establish the Democrats as a party with a broad and distinctive set of policies, ‘an alternative Opposition’.

As leader, Kernot achieved substantial amendments to the Keating Government’s 1993 budget, despite the seven Australian Democrats senators having to share the balance of power with the two Greens (WA) senators and Tasmanian Independent Senator Brian Harradine (Tas.). In prolonged negotiations with Prime Minister Keating and Treasurer John Dawkins, Kernot focused on ‘nuts-and-bolts issues’, persuading the government to increase the tax rebate for low-income earners, abandon retrospective taxation of long service leave and holiday pay, reduce proposed increases in the price of leaded petrol, and retain optometry benefits within Medicare. These measures, she said, were ‘major improvements’ in making the budget fairer. Kernot ensured that the gains she achieved were revenue-neutral and endorsed the government’s aim of reducing the Budget deficit. The Australian commented that in the Budget negotiations Kernot ‘came of age as a political leader’.

As a result of the decision of the High Court in the case of Mabo v Queensland (No. 2), the Keating Government introduced the Native Title Bill in November 1993. Paul Keating’s adviser, Don Watson, wrote that Kernot played ‘a crucial negotiating role’ in securing the passage of the legislation through the Senate, often acting as an intermediary between the Greens (WA) senators and the government. In the Senate she spoke passionately in support of the bill, arguing that ‘we cannot separate native title from reconciliation … Land rights in Australia can no longer be about largess[e], sympathy or guilt. They are now about recognition and restoration of legal rights’. Kernot reminded her fellow senators that ‘indigenous people of Australia have waited 204 years for recognition under white fellows’ law of what their own laws have always known—that they too own and have a share in this land of ours’. She considered her involvement in the Mabo legislation to be one of the highlights of her life.

Kernot was proud of her ‘catalytic role’ in support of the concept of carers’ leave. She recalled that she ‘pushed and pushed’ on the issue until ‘the ACTU had to start paying attention to it’. In December 1993 she proposed an amendment to the Industrial Relations Reform Bill directing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to determine the circumstances under which workers could be given leave to care for ill family members. In the following year Kernot appeared before the commission in the Family Leave Test Case to argue the case for the inclusion of paid carers’ leave as a minimum award entitlement. The commission determined that working parents could take a portion of their leave entitlements to care for ailing members of their immediate family. Kernot believed that the case ‘put a big focus on the whole work and family issue’ and achieved ‘an incremental structural change’, allowing for the possibility of a separate category of carers’ leave in the future.

In the run-up to the federal election of March 1996 Kernot announced that the ‘environment, education, and the economy’ would be at the heart of the Democrats’ election policies. She emphasised the ‘threat’ to Australian ‘economic independence’ by globalisation and ‘privatisation for its own sake’ and specified Australian Democrats ‘opposition to the sale of Telstra by any future government’. At the poll, which swept the Keating Government from office, the Democrats doubled their vote but this did not translate into additional seats. Although the Democrats maintained their opposition to the sale of Telstra, John Howard’s Coalition Government introduced legislation to partially privatise Telstra in May 1996. Seven months later, the Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill passed the Senate with the support of the two Independent senators, Brian Harradine (Tas.) and Mal Colston. Colston’s defection from the ALP in August 1996 reduced the capacity of the Democrats to exercise the balance of power.

There was greater scope for negotiation with the Howard Government over proposed industrial relations laws. During September/October 1996, in some fifty hours of negotiations with the Minister for Industrial Relations, Peter Reith, Kernot secured 166 amendments to the Workplace Relations and other Legislation Amendment Bill in return for Democrats’ support. The major changes included an expansion of allowable award matters and the addition of provisions protecting women and part-time workers, while the newly-established individual enterprise agreements, known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA), would now include a ‘no disadvantage’ test measured against awards. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission would also play a role in vetting AWAs. Reith acknowledged that the Democrats’ input was ‘very constructive’ and improved the bill.[3]

As a result of her negotiating skills, Kernot was widely regarded as an effective and successful leader of the Democrats. Her popularity with the general public saw her named on the National Trust list of 100 Australian Living Treasures in late 1997. Her announcement on 15 October 1997 that she was resigning her Senate seat and leaving the Democrats to seek ALP preselection for a House of Representatives seat therefore came as a complete surprise both to the general public and to her Democrats colleagues.

Kernot gave two reasons for her ‘unavoidable’ departure from the Australian Democrats: ‘One, my personal and growing sense of outrage at the damage being done to Australia by the Howard Government. And two, my concern that from my position in the Senate I had a limited capacity to minimise that damage’. She had ‘reached the conclusion that … the imperative at the next federal election lies not in battling to extract a share of the third party vote to keep balance of power in the Senate. It is to play a more direct role in the removal of the Coalition Government’. A few days later, she specified the attitude of the Liberal Party to Pauline Hanson, Prime Minister Howard’s failure to offer an apology to Aborigines and Treasurer Peter Costello’s ‘mean and vindictive’ first budget, as crucial factors in her decision to join Labor.

Ideologically Kernot had always inclined more to the left than to the right and she agreed with Labor Senator Robert Ray (Vic.), that ‘she had a Labor heart’. Five years earlier, she had told an interviewer that prior to discovering the Democrats she had ‘usually voted Labor’ despite her dislike of the compulsion upon members to follow the party line. Her maternal grandfather, whose intellect and capacity she admired, was active in the Newcastle Shop Assistants’ Union and was a ‘powerbroker behind the scenes in the ALP’. In a speech at the ALP National Conference dinner at Hobart in 1998 Kernot told the conference delegates that she was ‘coming back to my grandfather’s party, the party of coal seam communities where I grew up’.

Labor Party leader Kim Beazley claimed that, by joining Labor, Kernot had put the party a step closer to winning the next election and polls published shortly after she joined showed a huge surge of support for Labor. However, the shift to Labor meant that Kernot was subjected to more intense media scrutiny. The cultures of the two parties were also very different. In retrospect, Kernot reflected that she was naïve: ‘I think being in the Democrats was a bit of playing politics—I thought it was really serious but when I got to the Labor Party I realised it wasn’t!’ There was also a marked distinction between the House of Representatives and the Senate. She found the House of Representatives more ‘macho’ than the Senate, which had ‘a bit more time for the debate of ideas’.

Kernot gained ALP preselection for the marginal Liberal seat of Dickson on the northwestern outskirts of Brisbane, which she won at the October 1998 election by a margin of 176 votes. In Labor’s shadow cabinet Kernot took responsibility for regional development, infrastructure, transport and regional services but she moved to the employment and training portfolio in October 1999. It was reported that she had requested the move because it was not ‘possible to travel extensively and maintain the second most marginal seat in the country’. At the November 2001 federal election, Kernot lost the seat to the Liberal candidate, Peter Dutton, with a swing against the ALP of 7.3 per cent. The following year she published an account of her time with the Labor Party, Speaking for Myself Again: Four Years with Labor and Beyond, in which she described her difficulties in adjusting to the Labor Party’s masculine and competitive culture. On balance, she felt that the party had given her insufficient support and had failed to fully utilise her experience and expertise.

The book’s publication prompted journalist Laurie Oakes to reveal that Kernot and Labor Senator Gareth Evans had had a five-year affair. The revelations provoked considerable debate about the propriety of Oakes’s actions and whether the media were treating Kernot differently from male politicians in similar circumstances. Kernot believed that she had suffered disproportionately as a result of the disclosure, compared to Evans, citing inter alia the fact that she was unable to obtain a job in Australia. From 2003 until 2008, Kernot worked as program director for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, based at the Säid Business School, Oxford University, and as director of learning at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, London. From England, Kernot continued to support the ALP; on a visit to Australia in 2007 she offered to stand for a New South Wales state seat.

In September 2008 Kernot was appointed associate professor and director of teaching and learning of the newly-established Centre for Social Impact, a collaboration of four universities based at the University of New South Wales. In 2010 she stood without success as an Independent for a New South Wales seat in the Senate. The following year, Kernot said that she would like to be remembered for her ‘time of leadership that I didn’t waste’.[4]

Rae Wear

[1] This entry draws throughout on Kernot’s memoir, Cheryl Kernot, Speaking for Myself Again: Four Years with Labor and Beyond, HarperCollins, Pymble, NSW, 2002, and David O’Reilly, Cheryl Kernot: The Woman Most Likely, Random House, Milsons Point, NSW, 1998, and an interview conducted by the author in February 2011; CT, 28 Dec. 1996, p. 16; CPD, 22 Aug. 1990, p. 2003.

[2] O’Reilly, Cheryl Kernot, p. 136; CPD, 22 Aug. 1990, pp. 2003–7, 24 June, 1992, p. 4414, 16 May 1991, pp. 3534–5; AFR (Syd.), 17 June, 1992, pp. 1, 5; CPD, 20 June 1991, pp. 5080–2, 14 Aug. 1991, p. 242; Senate, Procedural Information Bulletin, No. 61, 26 August 1991; Select Committee on Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures, Report on the Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures Bill 1991, Canberra, 1991; Australian Capital Television v Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106; Select Committee on Certain Aspects of Foreign Ownership Decisions in Relation to the Print Media, Percentage Players: The 1991 and 1993 Fairfax Ownership Decisions, Canberra, 1995, pp. xvi–xx and Reservation by Senator Kernot, pp. 3–5; SMH, 14 Feb. 1994, p. 7; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, p. 616.

[3] SMH, 5 Feb. 1994, p. 25, 3 Nov. 1993, p. 3; O’Reilly, The Woman Most Likely, p. 154; Australian (Syd.), 10 Oct. 1996, p. 3, 28 Aug. 1993, p. 23; Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, NSW, 2003, p. 452; CPD, 15 Dec. 1993, pp. 4626–7; Media Release, Senator Cheryl Kernot, 11 Aug. 1994; Sunday Age (Melb.), 21 Jan. 1996, p. 5; CT, 20 Jan. 1996, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 28 Oct. 1996, p. 1; CPD (R), 28 Oct. 1996, p. 5875.

[4] CT, 16 Oct. 1997, p. 1; Media Release, Senator Meg Lees, 15 Oct. 1997; Kernot, Speaking for Myself Again, pp. 36, 49, 136; Sunday Herald Sun (Melb.), 19 Oct. 1997, pp. 12–13; Sunday Age (Agenda) (Melb.), 13 March 1994, p. 4; Daily Telegraph (Inside Edition) (Syd.), 21 Dec. 2002, pp. 35–7; Mercury (Hob.), 4 Oct. 1999, p. 5; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 21 Dec. 2002, p. 5; Transcript, ABC TV, ‘Compass’, 23 Oct. 2011.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 233-238.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1990–97 (AD)

MHR, Dickson, Qld, 1998–2001 (ALP)

Leader of the Australian Democrats, 1993–97

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, 1990–93

Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, 1990

Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, 1990–91

Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies, 1991–93

Select Committee on Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures, 1991

Select Committee on Superannuation, 1991–93

Select Committee on Sales Tax Legislation, 1992

Select Committee on Certain Aspects of Foreign Ownership Decisions in Relation to the Print Media, 1993–95

Committee of Privileges, 1994

Economics Legislation Committee, 1994

Joint Committee on Native Title, 1994

Select Committee on Certain Land Fund Matters, 1995

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, 1996

Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund, 1996–97