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Zakharov, Alice Olive (1925–1995)

by Melanie Nolan

This article was published online in 2019

Alice Olive Zakharov (1929–1995), schoolteacher, counsellor, and politician, was born on 19 March 1929 at Kew, Melbourne, youngest of four daughters of Scottish-born Robert Hay, schoolteacher and journalist, and his Australian-born wife Alice Anderson, née Dobie. Her father was unemployed during the Depression and her mother died in 1944. Olive was educated (1936–46) at Ruyton Grammar School, where she was dux (1946), a prefect (1945–46), and editor (1946) of the school yearbook. She later remarked that she had ‘devoured Shakespeare’s tragedies’ in her adolescence (Aust. Senate 1983, 824).

In 1947 Hay commenced an arts degree at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1971), enrolling the next year in a combined course in arts and social studies. She joined the university branch of the Communist Party of Australia, meeting a fellow student, Graham Stewart Worrall, whom she married on 27 May 1950 at the Office of the Government Statist, Melbourne. Unbeknownst to them both, they attracted the scrutiny of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. She suspended her studies in 1949 and worked in various jobs, as a clerk, shop assistant, mail officer, process worker, waitress, fruit picker, and pathology assistant. Having divorced Worrall in February 1954, on 17 April she married Scottish-born Albert (John) Zakharov, an electrical mechanic and communist unionist of Russian and Latvian descent, at the Melbourne Office of the Government Statist. They travelled to Britain for a year, visiting John’s parents in Scotland and returning to Melbourne in mid-1955.

While raising a family, Zakharov lived at Montmorency, working part time as a market research interviewer. She separated from her second husband in 1968 and divorced in 1971. Returning to study part time in 1965, she trained at Melbourne Secondary Teachers College (ACTT, 1967) and completed her arts degree, majoring in psychology. She taught at Watsonia High School (1966–1969) and Montmorency High School (1969–1983), where she became a student welfare coordinator. A member from 1975 of the Australian Psychological Society, she completed a graduate diploma of educational counselling (1976) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Zakharov had joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in about 1963. A member (1973–83) of the Montmorency Branch executive, she was a delegate (1972–85) to the party’s State conference and a member (1977–83) of the Victorian ALP’s health and welfare policy committee. She had a ‘long-held ambition to serve in parliament’ which she deferred ‘until her children were independent’ (House Magazine 1983, 3). In 1982 she secured preselection as a Senate candidate in Victoria. Listed fifth on the ALP’s ticket for the double dissolution election on 5 March 1983, she secured the tenth and final Victorian Senate spot in a landslide ALP victory. In 1986 she moved to Port Melbourne, becoming active in the local community and ALP branch.

In her maiden Senate speech, Zakharov described herself as ‘a socialist, a unionist and a feminist’ (Aust. Senate 1983, 824). A member of the Victorian ALP’s socialist left faction, she prided herself on the range of jobs in which she had been employed. She counted her background as important to her parliamentary work, because she had not been ‘isolated from the realities of life’ for Australians in poverty or need (Aust. Senate. 1983, 1691). An active unionist all her working life, she proudly retained her membership of the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association. A feminist, who argued that women’s ‘unpaid domestic labour underwrites the whole economy’ (Aust. Senate 1983, 823), she was a founding member of the government's status of women committee in 1983. In 1984 she was named Australian Humanist of the Year in recognition of her long-time membership of the Humanist Society of Victoria and her support for causes including equality for women, rights of the disadvantaged, and homosexual law reform.

As a Senate backbencher, Zakharov put her energies into committee work, notably the standing committees on community affairs (1987–1994) and employment, education, and training (1990–94), both of which she chaired. She was a member of a wide range of organisations including Amnesty International, the Victorian AIDS Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Film Institute, the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament, World Women Parliamentarians for Peace, and Psychologists for the Prevention of War. A delegate to peace talks in Vienna in 1987, she was invited by the Soviet Union to witness the first destruction of missiles under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1988. In 1993, at the Victorian launch of the Federal government’s campaign to Stop Violence Against Women, she disclosed publicly that she was a survivor of domestic violence in her second marriage.

While Zakharov was re-elected in 1984 and at the double dissolution election in 1987, it was generally thought that she would lose her seat in 1993, but she won from the uncertain third place on the ALP ticket. Senator Gareth Evans observed that while she was ‘the quietest, most unaggressive and unflamboyant of people , she was ideologically … a very fierce socialist’ (Aust. Senate 1995, 1443). She bushwalked in her spare time and her son had taught her to play the saxophone. On 12 February 1995 she was hit by a car on St Kilda Road after attending a gay and lesbian concert at the Victorian Arts Centre. She did not regain consciousness and died on 6 March that year at the Alfred Hospital, Prahran. Shocked colleagues left single red roses on her Senate desk. Survived by her two daughters and one son, she was cremated on 10 March 1995. A memorial plaque to her was placed in the courtyard at Parliament House in 1995 and a sculpture representing her values was constructed at ‘Olive’s Corner’ in Port Melbourne in 2002. Olive’s Place, a refuge for women and children in Melbourne, and Zakharov Avenue in the Canberra suburb of Forde are named after her.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Senate. Journals, no. 98, 1983, 822–25
  • Australia. Senate. Journals, no. 100, 1983, 1690–94
  • Australia. Senate. Journals, no. 170, 1995, 1443–68
  • Canberra Times. ‘An Atypical Politician Who Went about Her Business without Fuss.’ 8 March 1995, 6
  • Perry, Ron. ‘Zakharov, Alice Olive (1929–1995), Senator for Victoria, 1983–95 (Australian Labor Party).’ In Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Vol. 4, edited by Geoffrey Browne, Kay Walsh, Joel Bateman, and Hari Gupta, 443–47. Canberra: Department of the Senate, 2017
  • House Magazine. ‘Profile: Alice Olive Zakharov.’ 7 June 1983, 3
  • Zakharov, Jeannie. Personal communication

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Citation details

Melanie Nolan, 'Zakharov, Alice Olive (1925–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/zakharov-alice-olive-27773/text35488, published online 2019, accessed online 25 August 2019.

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