There are special challenges in writing about a current politician. While there are plenty of informants, there is also the spectre of defamation and the whole vexed issue of whether a biography is authorized or not. The political fortunes of the subject may change dramatically, and today’s policies and stances can be rendered obsolete by tomorrow’s developments. Margaret Simons’ biography of Penny Wong was written in 2019, while the Labor Party was still in opposition. Wong was reluctant to be involved in the biography and when she did finally agree to be interviewed, the sessions were conducted in neutral spaces (no empty fruit bowl for her!) with strict limits on what could and could not be discussed. I wonder if she would concede to be involved today, now that she is minister for Foreign Affairs: I suspect not.
Penny Wong is very much aware that she is the first Asian, gay, female Parliamentarian and it was largely because of these adjectives that she decided to run for the Senate with its statewide vote rather than the more geographically concentrated House of Representatives where a targeted negative campaign could cruel her chances. Because she is a Senator, and unlikely to change to the House of Reps, there has been little anointing of her as ‘the next female Prime Minister’.
She has never wanted the Asian/Gay label to define her, but that has happened anyway. I was surprised to learn that her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were an old Adelaide family with a much longer pedigree than many of those who told her to go back to where she came from. She was born in 1968 in Borneo, of Hakka heritage, a group originally from central and southern China, who had emigrated to Borneo to take up land offered to Chinese labourers by the British North Borneo Company. Her father Francis Wong came to Australia in 1961 under the Colombo Plan to study architecture, and he and his wife returned to Sabah, where he became a leading architect and minor public figure. She and her brother Toby were born in Borneo and brought up in a ‘cultural, religious and ethnic melange’. Her much-revered grandmother Lai was Buddhist, her father Catholic and her mother nominal Methodist, and the family celebrated Christmas, Chinese New Year and Muslim religious festivals. In 1976, Penny’s parents split up, and the siblings moved to Australia with their mother, although they returned often to Kota Kinabalu for school holidays. She was unprepared for the racism that she encountered in Adelaide: a neighbour yelled at her to ‘Go back to where you came from, you slant-eyed little slut!) and anti-Asian slogans were spray-painted on their driveway. She was verbally and sometimes physically bullied at primary school. It was at primary school that she resolved not to show her hurt, and this restraint has followed her into her adult, political life, as has -unfortunately- the racist bullying. Racism seems to have formed an invisible straitjacket around her, and continues to constrain her.
This was less true of her sexuality. I was surprised to learn that she had been in a relationship with later premier Jay Weatherill before embarking on a relationship with Dascia Bennett, a woman eight years Penny’s senior with two children, who Wong considered as her step-children. She was later to meet and have two children with Sophie Allouache. As she says:
It is always about the person first. You fall in love with the person…I hope I have some empathy for those whose coming-out experience was really formative, but that wasn’t my experience. I was who I was in most ways before I decided I was in love with a woman. I was formed much more by an awareness of race than sexuality.p.83
Once she was elected to the Senate, she and her political advisor John Olenich were debating ‘how to deal with the sexuality issue’. She protested that she had never been in the closet, and therefore she did not need to come ‘out’ but they agreed to a profile about the two new female Senators written by an acquaintance from university days, Samantha Maiden, which had a single reference to her sexuality: “In Labor circles, it is also well known Senator Wong is gay, a fact she would prefer to leave as a private manner. It was not an issue during her preselection to Labor’s highest ranks.” (The Advertiser, 10 August 2002)
After attending Scotch College where she proved herself to be an outstanding student, she attended the University of Adelaide, and this is where she became involved in student politics as a representative of the Students’ Association and the Adelaide University Union board. She was not necessarily fated to be attracted to the Labor Party. She could have just as easily become involved with the Liberal Party as the Labor Party, until John Howard moved to the right with his racist dog-whistling to attract Pauline Hanson-type voters. It was while she was protesting outside a Labor convention that was debating a graduate tax – and the vote was tied- that she realized the importance of ‘being in the room’, and this has become one of the touchstones of her political stance. At many times- and most particularly during the multiple futile attempts to change Labor party policy on same sex marriage- she remained in the room, even though she was then forced to publicly adhere to a policy that she did not agree with. But for her, the important thing was that the debate was still had, inside the room. But should she have openly opposed Labor policy? In reporting her interview over this topic, Margaret Simon observes that Wong was “defensive and combative”. Wong tells her:
I had a decision to make at that time that I could either resign in a blaze of glory or I could stay and fight. And I did make that decision in 2004- that I would make sure that we changed the party platform one day, and that ultimately we would change the country.p. 149
It was to take twenty-three bills introduced into parliament, usually by minor parties, until marriage equality was finally achieved in 2017. With her hands covering her face and brushing away tears, the country had finally been changed.
Quite apart from the areas of race and sexuality, which are of personal importance to Penny Wong, I had forgotten that she had been responsible for the Water and Climate Change portfolios – two intractable policy areas, both of which were caught up in the toxic politics of entrenched interests and grandstanding. She was not particularly successful here – indeed, has any politician been successful? – although her pursuit of buybacks in the Murray-Darling scheme have turned out to be more successful than the infrastructure improvement approach which followed her tenure, with little evident improvement. As Climate Change minister, she got caught up in the international politics of the COP meetings and Kevin Rudd’s declaration and then retreat from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Her political judgement was astute but largely behind-the-scenes: she was the only colleague to raise the question of the electoral implications of Rudd’s back-pedalling.
Written in 2019 (an updated second edition is due out this year), Margaret Simon was witness to Labor’s defeat in an election that many thought was an assured Labor victory. It meant that Wong remained a shadow minister, but her work in preparing to be Foreign Minister was prodigious, and was evident (after the book had been published) in Wong’s quick spring to action as soon as Labor won office in 2022. Despite Paul Keating’s withering putdown of her for Penny Wong for “running around with a lei around [her neck] handing out money” in the Pacific, I think that she is very capable and her quiet, polite demeanour has enhanced Australia’s reputation, as well as her own.
I know that Adelaide is a small town, but I hadn’t realized how closely intertwined (dare I say ‘incestuous’?) Adelaide politics were, and probably still are both within the Labor Party and in the political arena generally. In the interplay between student politics, the legal/political profession and across formal political parties, allegiances and enmities were formed and continued over time, including when the participants moved onto the national stage. Wong established a firm friendship with Mark Butler, and a combative relationship with Don Farrell, both of whom are Adelaide representatives and current ALP ministers.
Simon makes no secret of the fact that Wong is a political animal. She has played political games and made political judgements, and not all of them do her credit. She has displayed loyalty, particularly to Kevin Rudd long after others had moved away, and to Anthony Albanese, whose time has come. She has made enemies too.
Simons has chosen as her subtitle ‘Passion and Principle’. Apart from the obvious alliteration, I wonder why she chosen “passion” in describing Penny Wong. Her demeanour is deliberately passion-less – her breaking down in tears after the same-sex marriage plebiscite notwithstanding- and Simons points out the ‘Wongisms’ that she uses to keep control of her language e.g. her low, quiet delivery; her expressive eyebrows to suggest skepticism; her vocal tics like ‘the best of our generation’ and ‘let me just say this’. It came as a surprise to read some of her lectures and addresses (e.g. the John Button Memorial Lecture) where she spelled out her beliefs and priorities and I found myself thinking “You are really good” in a way that doesn’t come through in other forums. While not indulging in ‘what-if’ thinking, Wong entertains counter-factuals as part of working out her position, and she eschews the idea of binary thinking, always looking for an alternative.
Her passion seems to have been constrained by the second ‘p’ of the subtitle: principle. In deciding to ‘stay in the room’ she steadfastly abided by cabinet solidarity outside it (something that I am criticizing pro-Voice Liberal front-benchers for doing), even when it went against her own interests. This came through most clearly to me at the 2011 South Australian Labor convention where the question of a conscience vote for same-sex marriage would come up for debate. She warned Julia Gillard (who opposed a conscience vote) that she would publicly support a change to the party platform. As the most senior South Australian member, she held Julia Gillard’s proxy, and knowing on principle that she couldn’t use it, she gave it to Don Farrell, thus giving her opponents an extra vote and opening up a space for Farrell to give an incendiary ‘no’ speech. (p.231) Given how important the question of same sex marriage was for her, that’s principle.
Margaret Simon is not an invisible presence in this biography. Coming from the press ranks herself, she affords an influence to the media that perhaps a political scientist or historian would not.She has had to actively pursue Penny Wong, and the long list of nearly forty named informants at the end of the book and an extensive bibliography and index reflect her diligence in writing this book. At times it reads like a tussle between two feisty interlocutors: she often challenges Wong’s assertions, and Wong pushes back. Penny Wong has been firm about the ‘no-go’ areas (e.g. her brother, her children). This is no hagiography: instead, as with other good interviewers (I’m thinking her of Janet Malcolm) Simon is reflecting on her own practice as a biographer and refining her own ideas about politics and politicians. In the final pages, Simon says:
…as the book had proceeded I had come to think of it as being about politics itself: how hard it is, the price that is paid in the struggle to make change, and both the necessity and inevitability of compromise, even when- as with climate change- such compromise may do us in. I was thinking that perhaps, as with a tragic play, the audience might leave with a greater understanding of the human affairs it depicted. Perhaps they might also grasp the humanity behind the headlines- and what it meant for a person of talent, passion and principle to devote herself to delivering the service of political representation.p 317
And in this, I think that Simons achieved this admirably.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: own copy
Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle selection for April.