Carmen Lawrence interview, 4 June 2014 and 2 July 2014

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Carmen Lawrence interview, 4 June 2014 and 2 July 2014




After training as a research psychologist at the University of Western Australia and lecturing in a number of Australian universities, Dr Lawrence entered politics in 1986, serving at both State and Federal levels for 21 years. She was at various times W.A Minister for Education and Aboriginal affairs and was the first woman Premier and Treasurer of a State government. She shifted to Federal politics in 1994 when she was elected as the Member for Fremantle and was appointed Minister for Health and Human Services and Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She has held various portfolios in Opposition, including Indigenous Affairs, Environment, Industry and Innovation and was elected national President of the Labor Party in 2004. She retired from politics in 2007. She is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Australia to establish a centre to research the forces driving significant social change in key areas of contemporary challenge as well as exploring our reactions to that change. The centre will also seek to expose for public discussion the processes most likely to achieve social change where that is a desired objective.


Lawrence, Carmen


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Carmen Lawrence


UWA, School of Psychology, Room 3.07


Interview 1: 48 minutes, 53 seconds
Interview 2: 48 minutes, 16 seconds
Total : 1 hour, 37 minutes, 9 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Family background. Family on both sides have been in WA since 1853 and settled in Toodyay and York. Carmen’s parents, Ernest and Mary, both lived in this area. They married just before the end of the Second World War and moved to a soldier settlement called Gutha in 1947 and had seven children. Carmen was educated at a Catholic boarding school in Dongara. The Lawrence’s were very keen for their children to get the education that was denied them. From the age of 7 to 10, Carmen attended school at Marian Convent, Morawa then went back to boarding school at Dongara. At age 14 or 15, she attended Santa Maria College in Attadale where her older sister had been. The standard of Catholic teaching was not very high at this time. There was no careers advice.
08:53 Carmen attended UWA in 1965 when she had just turned 17 (on 2 March). She enrolled in subjects she liked and was good at and did a general arts degree. She gained her Leaving Certificate and passed 7 subjects with 6 distinctions (equal with Robert French, the current Chief Justice of the High Court). St Catherine’s where she boarded provided some advice and support. St Catherine’s was the only women’s college and there would have been about 80-100 female students boarding there. In Arts there were more women so the ratio would have been about 70/30 but the campus was full of male students studying medicine, science, law and engineering.
12:10 Lectures were held in the new Arts Building from her second year. She studied Psychology, Economics, English and Italian. Psychology was very interesting. There was an old Psychology Building located where the new Child Studies Centre is behind Maths and the Computing Centre. The Department was interesting and lively. It was more or less part of the Arts Faculty but uneasily straddling Arts and the Sciences. English literature was interesting but she felt there was no point continuing with it if she was not going to become a teacher. Dorothy Hewett, and Fay Zwicky were tutors. The tutorials were more memorable than the lectures! Italian was very good for teaching pronunciation as she had never spoken the language before. Economics was enjoyable in 1st year but not so much in 2nd year. She was awarded a prize in economics and in psychology so was encouraged to continue with these subjects into 2nd year. She dropped English and Italian in 2nd year and did a first year unit in Biology. Alan Richardson tutored Psychology at Saint Catherine’s. John Ross and Vince Di Lollo were young academics. The student body in the Psychology Department were friendly so Psychology won out over Economics.
16:53 The school was anti-Freudian and very behaviourist. Human behaviour had always interested her. The degree became an end in itself. She did not think about future use. She picked up more prizes in 2nd year and was chosen to do Honours at the end of 2nd year (a Bachelor of Psychology). She was thinking about being an academic but then took a year off and re-thought her path. She was offered jobs due to her good results and had no trouble getting jobs that she applied for.
19:49 The early 60s on campus was still fairly quiet and conservative. Carmen took part in various organisations at St Catherine’s but the emphasis was on study. There were social events between the colleges. There were sporting events. It was like a small country community. She was involved with the undergraduate dramatic society and the Newman Society (the Catholic Society). The psychology community had their own club. The social life was restricted more or less to weekends. Most of the students were supported by their parents or had Commonwealth Scholarships. She did not take a job in term time but worked over the summer holidays in the Psychology Lab. Both Carmen and her younger sister were supported by their parents at St Catherine’s College. Her three younger sisters also attended UWA and her parents bought a house in Shenton Park where they moved on retiring.
22:54 St Catherine’s was a bit like a boarding school. Pat Church, the Warden was very strict. In 1967, as a senior student (elected by the student body) Carmen tried to intervene when a boarder was expelled for having a man in her room. There was a common room for tutors and senior students. There were formal dinners where residents wore gowns. No drinking was allowed. If you were over 21 and invited to the senior common room then you could have a glass of wine with the Warden. When you had enough of these rules and regulations you found alternative accommodation. Carmen left during Honours. The rooms contained a bed and some storage and a study desk. Students were encouraged to use the common rooms to make tea and coffee and socialise. The food was institutional but better than boarding school. There was not much provided by way of lunch on campus so many students returned to the halls or took a packed lunch. The campus finished at the Reid Library so it was quite easy to return for lunch.
26:52 All the colleges interacted. There were balls, sporting events and dinners. All of the colleges had balls and these were a highlight. Carmen and her sister made their ball gowns. The dresses were made of satin or silk and elbow length gloves were worn. She also made her everyday clothes. Sometimes there was a band. Many people had their own radios and listened to popular music. Spare time was spent mixing on the campus or at the beach in the summer or playing sport. Student clothing was fairly formal. Female students wore skirts and jumper – trousers were rarely worn. It grew more informal in the 1970s.
31:25 Discussion of topical issues took place in tutorials. St Catherine’s had a series of tutorials that were run by campus academics. It was a sheltered world. Television was rare and discouraged. Radio and reading were the ways students found out what was happening in the wider world. The student movement gathered momentum in the early 70s. When Carmen returned as a PhD student in 1970 she tutored at St Catherine’s and became involved in the anti-Vietnam movement. Having travelled around the world for a year in 1969 she had been exposed to more ideas. Carmen recommended at one of the anti-Vietnam marches and meetings that young people should burn their draft cards. This was totally illegal. [Phone rings] The campus was very lively in the early 70s. Carmen then decided that she didn’t want to complete her PhD and left in 1971. St Catherine’s students set up the Libertarian Socialists. They campaigned against the Miss University Quest. Women’s issues, Vietnam and social issues generally were being discussed in the lead up to the 1972 Federal Election which saw Gough Whitlam and the ALP take power.
36:06 St Catherine’s College had a float in PROSH complaining about the absence of women in politics in about 1967. The protest over the beauty contest (Miss University) was in about 1971. It was the last year that it was held. There were very few women academics and those in the university were only at junior levels.
40:30 Carmen had not been a member of any political societies on campus and considered these people to be to-ing the line and just playing at politics. The Guild appeared to be a training ground for politicians. In 1970-71, the PhD students went on strike as they were being underpaid. They were successful and PhD payment rates are now linked to whatever is paid to an externally contracted person. University teaching was also under scrutiny in the 1970s. UWA had not kept pace with shifts in student opinion and global opinion. It was conservative and a little bit complacent. Murdoch University began operating in 1973 and WAIT became Curtin so there was more competition.
46:00 As part of their lab work, Psychology students used the computer centre. There was a big mainframe computer to analyse the data. They had to write the programmes and handed them over to the computer staff who hand punched the cards which were inserted into the computer. It took days to get the results back.
Interview 2

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 When Carmen decided not to continue with her PhD studies, she took a 6 month research contact with the Department of Corrections Unit in West Perth. She also visited prisons. The psychology element in prisons today is almost non-existent. Then she worked as a research assistant in both Sydney and Melbourne. She enjoyed the creative side of both cities. The UWA degree was highly regarded as it was the only university in WA at that time. In Melbourne, Carmen and her friends were the founding thirteen of the Women’s Electoral Lobby. The status of women and women’s issues were not really on the radar in the lead up to the 1972 Federal Election.
05:44 When her son David was born, she returned to Perth so that she could continue to work with the support of family and friends. Child-care was virtually non-existent. Back in Perth she lectured and tutored part-time at UWA and WAIT (now Curtin) from 1973-1978. In 1979, she enrolled for a PhD part-time at UWA and a little later got a job as lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science in the Faculty of Medicine based at QEII Hospital for four years. Her PhD topic was Infant Crying and Material Responsiveness using statistical modelling in co operation with UWA mathematician Terry Speed.
11:15 She was invited to go and work in the Research and Evaluation Unit of the Psychiatric Services Branch of the Department of Health and researched the effects of alcohol in pregnancy and anesthetic on the cognitive functions of the elderly. She was here for three years (1983-1986).
13:30 She had been involved in the Labor Party and in 1983 stood for election in an unwinnable seat. In 1986, she was asked to represent the seat of Subiaco. This was a way to influence policy from the inside. There were many issues in the seat of Subiaco such as saving Bold Park bushland and traffic calming in Wembley. She sat on the Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce and was also on a committee that examined anti-discrimination legislation. The psychology degree was useful in knowing where and how to do research. There were more women in politics since the 1983 election especially on the Labor side.
19:28 In 1990, she took over from Peter Dowding when he resigned as Premier. She had been Education Minister for 2 years. It was a challenging time for education. She was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1989. She was treated quite well as a female Premier. There was media stereotyping but it was not as trivial as today with social media being so rife. As Education Minister she attended several graduation ceremonies at UWA. As Premier she recalled visiting UWA and being photographed with the Duke of Edinburgh outside Winthrop Hall. There were several ex UWA people involved in the political sphere at that stage.
24:40 Issues in the 1990s included traffic and public transport. Labor expanded the railway network. There was some city planning and moves to stop the urban sprawl. Mining was in the doldrums. As Education Minister she chaired a review of the Dawkins Report and recommended a single graduate school. In 1993 she was leader of the opposition and then became the Federal member for Fremantle (1994-2007) and offered a position in Cabinet.
29:36 As Health Minister she had a strong interest in indigenous health. Advisers were generally bureaucrats. Policy advice generally came from the public sector. Terry Moran in today’s Financial Review comments that “Parliament House has been populated by “teenage political advisors” who know very little, if anything, about governing and policy making”.
32:27 In 2008, she contacted UWA. Alan Robson was receptive to the idea for a Centre for the Study of Social Change. Initially it was located in the Institute of Advanced Studies and then as part of the School of Psychology. UWA has changed since the 1960s and 70s. The focus is on academic performance through producing research papers. The students don’t seem as independent. Some of them are very politically aware but there is more emphasis on the end result of the degree leading to employment rather than for intellectual curiosity.
41:56 The big change in teaching is the recording of lectures. Many students no longer attend the lectures. Senior staff engages in less hands-on teaching. The teaching and learning environment is not emphasised enough. The social side of life as a staff member is not as inclusive as it was. Postgraduate students do a practical element but there are too many undergraduate students to be given supervised practical work. In 3rd year she teaches how Psychology can be applied to contemporary problems.



Lawrence, Carmen, “Carmen Lawrence interview, 4 June 2014 and 2 July 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,