Top photo: Parlamentsdirektion/ Mike Ranz
President of the National Council, the Austrian House of Representatives
by Helfried Carl
Barbara Prammer was born on 11 January 1954 in Ottnang, Upper Austria, to parents with a working class background and strong social democratic roots. She became politically engaged early on in the social democratic youth organization and already by then developed a keen sense for [in]justice.
Thus, when she realized that she had been discriminated against on gender grounds by not having been promoted as the best qualified candidate to head the municipal administration at which she was working as a registrar, she decided to quit her job and to study sociology in nearby Linz instead. As a teenage mom of a son (and later on also of a daughter while studying at the university), she proved capable of overcoming considerable obstacles with iron discipline and courage.
Soon her political talent became apparent: She was elected to the Provincial Diet of Upper Austria for the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) at the age of 37 and, upon joining the Diet, she was immediately chosen as its Deputy Chair. In 1995, she joined the Provincial Government, with environmental affairs and housing among her responsibilities. In 1997, she became Minister for Women Affairs in the Federal Government. It was at that time that she started to take a keen interest in international politics, with a strong engagement in the women’s organization of the Socialist International, to which she was twice elected as Vice Chair.
In the year 2000, after the SPÖ lost its seat in Government, Prammer joined the National Council as an MP for the first time. In 2002, she succeeded the then Federal President-elect Heinz Fischer as Second President of the National Council. With the SPÖ as the front runner at the elections in 2006, Prammer became the first female President of the National Council. Many women - and Prammer herself - regarded this as a historical breakthrough in the long march toward gender equality in Austria.
In her Chairmanship of Parliament, she never forgot the time when her Social Democratic Party had been relegated to the opposition, deriving a strong conviction that Parliament must not only legislate, but also control the government. Prammer always saw herself as a feminist. Fighting gender-based discrimination for her meant also to give unrelenting and public support to the cause of gay rights.
To her, all aspects of the human rights agenda - particularly the protection of minorities - were connected to the cause of promoting democracy in Austria and abroad. Still, she managed to discuss these subjects even with the most adverse international interlocutors in a way that was invariably both firm and polite, without ever failing to also point out that there remained more to be done in Austria as well.
After Austria decided to grant the right to vote to all above 16 years of age, Prammer created a “democracy workshop” in the Austrian Parliament catering to children from 8 to 12 years old to learn about different aspects of parliamentary democracy and democratic participation in day-long sessions, including e.g. media training. Internationally recognized as both innovative and relevant to other countries as well, the democracy workshop has now being instated by a number of countries. Montenegro just recently named its version in her memory and honor as “Barbara Prammer Democracy Workshop.”
As President of the National Council, Prammer was also chairing ex officio the National Fund and the General Settlement Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. To her, this meant an obligation to make sure that - often symbolic - payments would be made as soon as possible to reach the dwindling numbers of survivors, but also to remind Austrians of the historic fact that far too many had supported Hitler’s Anschluss and the national socialist regime. In September 2013, in the midst of the campaign for general elections to be held on September 29, Prammer was diagnosed with cancer. Her decision to go public with her illness - until then not at all usual in Austrian politics - won admiration from almost everybody.
With the dedication and discipline that had always been her hallmark, she underwent chemotherapy for 10 months while staying in office and performing her duties as if nothing had changed. It was thus a surprise to many citizens to hear of her passing on 2 August 2014. Her unbiased chairmanship of Parliament, her strong convictions and her fight against cancer had solidified her year-long position as the most respected political personality in the country second only to Federal President Fischer.
Furthermore, Barbara Prammer was pleased when a law was passed in Parliament in 2012, changing the text of the national anthem to sing also about Austria’s “great daughters” alongside the traditional “great sons” of the country. With her, Austria truly has lost one of its greatest daughters.