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Sense and sensibility
In her recent autobiography, the former prime minister Julia Gillard conceded that back in 2006, when she was manoeuvring to install Kevin Rudd as the leader of the ALP, she’d mistaken Kim Beazley’s “more nuanced understanding of electoral politics” for a “lack of interest in the work of opposition”. It would be easy to make a similar mistake in relation to the present deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek. She seems to carry herself above the fray, almost to the point of diffidence. Not for her the confected outrage of the 24-hour media cycle. On ABC TV’s Q&A program, where she is the ALP’s most frequent guest, she projects an air of bemused tolerance in the face of George Brandis, Peter Dutton, Joe Hockey and other political opponents – a raised eyebrow here, a serene smile there – as if she thinks them wearisome, even juvenile.
As with any talent quest, authenticity is key to thriving on Q&A, which has left Plibersek in the unusual company of Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce: like them, she knows her mind and speaks it, albeit with a little more caution and composure. Colleagues note that she abhors affectation. Most politicians’ parliamentary offices feature a “display wall”, one that might double as a potential backdrop for a press portrait or TV interview. Not Plibersek’s. Missing are the usual paraded tokens of gravitas and glory: sporting-code affiliations, arrangements of leather-bound texts and framed selfies with world leaders. Instead there’s a low shelf of photos of her family, an ephemeral collection of books and, overlooking her desk, a picture of a plain suburban house by Chris O’Doherty, aka Reg Mombassa.
Our interview is scheduled for 6 pm, but the shadow minister for foreign affairs is keen to duck out to a parliamentary function hosted by a crowd she got to know in her previous role as health minister. Vision 2020 Australia, which targets preventable blindness, numbers among its directors the former Hawke government science minister Barry Jones, whom she’s known since first working in parliament as a staffer for the Labor senator Bruce Childs 20 years ago. Plibersek and Jones, now 82, stand arm-in-arm for a good five minutes, catching up on each other’s news.
“I don’t miss my past portfolios; it’s not that,” she says as we return through the empty corridors to her office. “It’s just that you never lose interest in them. Anything that you come to know in depth remains fascinating on an intellectual level. You also can’t switch off the emotional connection with the people that are involved – either the people you are serving or the people who are seeking to help the same group.”
Paradoxically, it was these ties that compelled her to move on from the health portfolio after last year’s election loss. “It’s very difficult to hang around and watch your successor dismantle what you’ve done. I’ve been in opposition before, so I’ve experienced these elements, the destruction of the things you care about. Choosing foreign affairs is a positive way of dealing with the change.”
Not unusually for Canberra, the day has been one of headlines over substance. The morning’s papers set the mood with revelations that more than 100 police officers were involved in anti-terror raids on seven Melbourne properties, which yielded the sum total of one arrest of a bearded pizza cook alleged to have sent an American man $12,000 to join the Islamist insurgency in Syria. This news thoroughly overshadowed reports that Treasurer Joe Hockey was writing off his debut budget, which had been languishing since May, and which, if the polls were any indication, had done so much to animate the ALP’s raison d’etre. (When I put it to Plibersek that the budget had been a gift to Labor, with its cuts to welfare, pensions, education and health care, she retorted, “A pretty nasty gift!” She also pointed out the “most revolting” cuts in the budget had been those to foreign aid.)
Any chance that the government’s dubious economic management would reclaim people’s attention was lost that afternoon. Prime Minister Tony Abbott poured petrol instead of water on a campaign by some of his more out-there backbenchers to “ban the burqa” from Parliament House. Abbott told gathered journalists that he found the garment “confronting” and that it was “a matter for the presiding officers” – led by his friend and parliamentary speaker Bronwyn Bishop – as to whether women covering their faces presented an undue security risk.
Predictably, thousands on social media took instant offence in the name of a woman’s right to wear what she likes. Equally typically, Plibersek did not. (It would be two days before she offered journalists this variation on what was by then a very stale joke: “I’d prefer it if Tony Abbott didn’t get about in his Speedos either. But it’s a free country.”) After all, the inherent severity of the burqa was not at issue. Rather, Plibersek’s primary concern was with what the prime minister didn’t say.
“The danger of having the focus so much on risk and threat is that there’s a heightened level of nervousness that plays out as aggression and animosity in the community,” she tells me, alluding to reports the previous day of Muslim women and girls being assaulted or having their headscarves yanked off on public transport.
“At times of tension it’s really important that leaders assert those things that are good about our democracy, and that we reassure each other that we’re all part of it. We need to be self-aware and not change the way that we treat each other and the level of trust between us. We need to absolutely pump up efforts in community cohesion.”
Though Plibersek praises an earlier speech by her party leader, Bill Shorten, to this end, she is reluctant to single out Abbott for criticism. Others – Muslim leaders, fellow parliamentarians, state premiers – need to step up, too. Also, she is mindful of “haters”, those ever ready to see the worst in someone. When Abbott was ridiculed a year ago for pointing out there were no “goodies”, only “baddies”, to support against Syria’s Assad dictatorship, Plibersek refrained from a cheap shot – Abbott’s choice of words might have been simplistic, but he wasn’t wrong. Similarly, when Abbott last month attempted to win tabloid adulation by vowing to “shirtfront” Putin, she left the derision to others.
If deputy leaders didn’t get to choose their portfolios, foreign affairs might have eluded Plibersek. Her reputation has been built on tackling social issues, such as homelessness, domestic violence and discrimination. More significantly, she is of the Left, a faction less inclined to bipartisanship (and, specifically, to pro-Israel views) than the portfolio generally demands. Back in 2002, in an otherwise sharply argued speech dismantling the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Plibersek described Israel as a “rogue state” for its longstanding flouting of UN resolutions. She also called its then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, a war criminal.
Today, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a crack between the government and the Opposition on security or Middle East policy. Plibersek has long recanted her comments on Israel and appears to be in lock step with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, on the matter of Australia’s renewed military engagement in Iraq.
Plibersek draws clear distinctions between the current action and that of 2003. Eleven years ago, she says, the motivations and objectives were “flimsy”. This time, the cause is just: Islamic State is committing acts of genocidal atrocity, the Iraqi government is asking for help, and there is a genuine coalition of support.
She also believes that Islamic State, unlike Saddam Hussein, represents an actual threat to Australia, by recruiting and training Australian citizens and threatening attacks on Australian soil. Plibersek was part of the parliamentary joint committee that approved new laws in the name of anti-terror that could see journalists jailed for up to ten years for reporting on Australian special intelligence operations, including major bungles. Her ALP factional colleague Anthony Albanese has since said the bill should have had more scrutiny. Even ASIO’s (and the Abbott government’s) greatest champion in the media, the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, has said that the attorney-general, George Brandis, and his ALP opposite, Mark Dreyfus, should “hang their heads in shame” for rendering ASIO’s activities impervious to journalistic scrutiny.
The ALP initially tried to spin its acquiescence by suggesting it was “picking its battles”. Plibersek, however, tells me that she thinks the concerns are overstated.
“We spent a lot of time looking at the legislation,” she says. “I don’t think we can ignore that the security alert level has been raised. We have a security and intelligence agency with a proven track record that says we are at risk at the moment, and if they are arguing for extra resources then we should listen to that.”
She adds that while “it’s very difficult to balance” the level of actual threat with community concern, “you can’t underplay that threat”.
There seems little risk of that, at least. Of late, bins have been removed from country railway stations, warnings in city stations urge people to report if they “see something”, police footage of so-called anti-terror raids is being released pronto to breakfast television, and further tranches of special spy and police powers are being rushed through parliament.
Thus far, the ALP has seemed resolutely disinclined to accuse the Abbott government of alarmism. The last thing it wants is to be seen as “soft on terror”. Yet Plibersek must be fervently hoping that security issues won’t continue to dominate the news agenda to the extent that they have. Not only is this state of affairs to the electoral advantage of the incumbent government, but she abruptly finds herself as far from the Left of the ALP as she’s ever been.
Meanwhile, on other global issues, Julie Bishop and Plibersek remain poles apart – on foreign aid, for instance, and on tackling climate change. Plibersek wants Australia to be a “good global citizen”, one that leads by example and seeks to do right by other nations as well as advancing its own interests. She has implored the Abbott government to act on direct requests from West Africa for expert medical staff to help contain its Ebola outbreak. She also wants Australia to lift its refugee intake from Syria and Iraq, for any country prepared to bomb another’s regime must surely be prepared to accept those fleeing from it.
Growing up in Sydney’s Oyster Bay, Tanya Plibersek sought to satisfy her craving for news of the world through the pages of her father’s copy of the afternoon Sun. After university, she had designs on becoming a foreign correspondent or a diplomat. The former seemed unlikely when she was knocked back for a cadetship with the ABC. As for the latter, she explains wryly: “My second language is Slovenian and there is not quite so much call for that in DFAT [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade].”
Plibersek’s parents, Joze and Rosalija, were the children of peasant farmers. They both grew up in eastern Slovenia, which the Germans occupied during World War Two. Rosalija would hide in the cellar whenever the soldiers arrived to seize what they could. After the war came communism and a bitter stepmother. Kicked out of home at 13, Rosalija boarded with various relatives before taking a train to the capital, Ljubljana. On the way there, a woman gave her a job. It was the first of many “small kindnesses” that eventually saw Rosalija make it to Italy and from there to Australia. Joze had likewise immigrated, after hitching to Austria. At 21, he was sent to work on the Broken Hill railway line, then the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme, and became Joseph. Meanwhile, Rosalija, now Rose, worked in factories and as a maid. Rose met Joseph at a Slovenian dance in Sydney in 1956. They married six months later, had two sons and, after another decade, a long-wanted daughter.
“My parents would never have met if they’d stayed in Slovenia,” reflects Plibersek. “They were helped on their way by the kindness of strangers. And they have always lived their lives remembering that; they are extremely grateful people. Part of my father’s response, for example, was that he’d always pick up hitchhikers. He’d pick them up coming home from work, offer them a shower, a sleep, then my mother would make them breakfast and he’d drive them back to the highway.
“Their generosity is sort of a comedy in my family now. One of the things I love about having a Slovenian heritage is that I feel I’ve got two wells to draw from: two cultures, two histories, two languages. Slovenians place a very big emphasis on hospitality, cooking for people, sharing food. And I like that.”
Plibersek, who takes turns with her staff to prepare the office lunch (her specialty is chicken soup), pulls a book from the shelf to show me plates of Slovenia’s dramatic countryside. “I’ve been back a lot of times,” she says. “Dad worked for Qantas [as a plumber] and we went back every two or three years on a family holiday. So I had a view of what my life might have been like had my parents stayed in Slovenia.” One of her earliest memories is of labourers cutting wheat with a scythe and bundling it into sheaves on her grandfather’s farm, and of bullocks doing the work of tractors.
“It makes me think: just as my grandfather could not have imagined what I’m doing and the life I’m living with the technology I’ve got, what’s life going to be like for my kids in 40 years’ time? What sort of work and preparation do kids today need for that world? That’s why it’s so important that we invest in public education and why universities should remain affordable. We must be prepared for change.”
Plibersek has said that it breaks her heart to see people take democracy for granted. If it were up to her, all schoolchildren would be able to recite the citizenship pledge. Conversely, she admits she was an “odd child”, precociously serious and political, with a budding taste for opera. She says her brothers as well as her parents instilled in her an unstinting sense of fairness: “The vibe in our house was that people would always look after each other.” Her parents loved Al Grassby, the Whitlam government’s minister for immigration and advocate for multiculturalism, and she recalls her older brother, Ray, lying on the ground in tears after Gough Whitlam was dismissed. She was five at the time.
She joined the ALP at 15, only to leave it two years later after a “dummy spit” over the Hawke government’s sale of uranium to France. She rejoined while studying journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. “One of the things I love about the Labor Party is that it is not a social club. It’s a movement of people who care passionately about the country and about the world. That does occasionally mean big arguments. It also means that our party members have high expectations, and I feel the weight of that, the responsibility, very strongly.”
She has borne other, bigger burdens; Plibersek has not wanted for real-life perspective in her political career. At the time of her preselection for the safe ALP seat of Sydney, in 1997, she was gutted with grief: her brother Phillip had been murdered in Port Moresby three weeks earlier. Then there’s the remarkable redemption story of her husband, Michael Coutts-Trotter. When the pair met as students in 1991, he was still on parole after serving almost three years of a nine-year prison term for importing heroin. Today the former junkie is one of New South Wales’s most senior bureaucrats. He and Plibersek have three children, all born after she entered parliament in 1998.
Plibersek’s role models were deeply principled stalwarts of the party – people like Tom Uren, Margaret Whitlam, Bruce Childs and Robert Tickner, the minister for Aboriginal affairs under Paul Keating and a “fabulous, decent, kind, gentle, thoughtful local member”. With this company in mind, Plibersek is believable when she says she is baffled by criticism that voters no longer know what Labor stands for. “That’s a glib thing to say,” she bridles. “I’m as clear today about Labor values as I’ve always been. We stand for a fair society and a strong economy. It’s not hard.” Or, as she told a “Tea with Tanya” fundraiser in country Victoria while clutching someone’s four-month-old baby, “Labor wants for all children what we want for our own children.”
Of course, not everyone buys the earnest image. In 2012, the Australian anointed her “the princess of political correctness”. In the main, though, criticism has been muted, most noticeably from shock-jock Alan Jones, who, in an interview with Plibersek late last year, somehow managed to add to his record of misogynist slights against Julia Gillard when he observed that “now that much of the stupidity about gender has disappeared from the debate, I can also say [Plibersek] is attractive”.
Another partial to Plibersek’s elegance is Kim Williams, the former head of News Ltd. Williams and his wife, Catherine Dovey (nee Whitlam), have known the Coutts-Trotter-Pliberseks for many years. Dovey recalls that her parents’ vote was split during the 1997 preselection battle, Margaret siding with Plibersek and Gough voting for her Greek-Australian opponent. “I told Tanya she should have played up her ethnic background,” says Dovey, half joking. “My father always did appreciate those.”
In Williams’ view, one of Plibersek’s trademark qualities, alongside her “unusual truthfulness” and her “exceptional taste in husbands”, is her “wonderful calm and grace under pressure”. His wife agrees. “She’s very proper. I like the way she won’t be bullied by interviewers. She doesn’t raise her voice, an approach we don’t see enough of in the public domain.”
If between them Williams and Dovey make Plibersek sound like she’s stepped straight out of a Jane Austen novel, it shouldn’t surprise: Plibersek adores Austen. When I mention the author’s influence, she nods and muses, “What would Jane do?” – as if this were a guiding principle in politics as well as in life. In a 2007 speech to the Jane Austen Society, to which she gave the playful title ‘Insights, Advice and Cautions for a Young Lady Legislator’, Plibersek nominated Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood as her favourite character, and thanked Austen “for the merciful release from melodrama she has provided in Elinor: for demonstrating that strong feelings need not be on constant display”.
She argued Austen remained relevant “not because of the manners she describes, but because of the deeper lessons of virtue: self-knowledge; consideration for others; morality; delicacy; charity and disinterestedness”. Plibersek went on to discuss “the balance between obedience and integrity”. “Judgement is required to know when to follow and when to lead,” she said. “I have no formula for this; inevitably I will err on one side or the other at some time. Loyalty and honesty should both have a claim on us, though they might sometimes appear conflicting motivators.”
In politics, though, Plibersek has generally opted for loyalty. She has, for instance, been conspicuously absent in the debate over asylum seekers. Indeed, in her new book Julia Gillard describes Plibersek’s loyalty as “spectacular”.
Says Plibersek: “Look, I can be fierce, sometimes. The things that we argue about in here [parliament] matter. There are times in politics when you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to do the grand gesture?’ But it’s almost always a mistake because … you wear the consequences of a defeat. The republic [push in 1999] was an example of that. The setback for the republican cause has got to be 20 years.”
Plibersek’s many fans invariably enthuse about the big “what if”: what if she were leader. Gillard and Bob Hawke both sounded her out about taking over from Kevin Rudd after last year’s election loss. But Plibersek, now as then, flicks away the notion with ease: “Really, when I first came to work in Canberra as a staffer for a backbench left-wing senator [that job] was all I could ever have wished for. It’s not that I’m not ambitious. It’s just that where I am so exceeds anything I’d ever planned for myself. I have no sense of ambition unmet. At all.”
Still, her experience shows that “opportunities arise when you least expect them”. I put it to her that Kim Beazley was perhaps the last leader known for his courtesy and diplomacy. “People used to say he was too nice to be prime minister,” she says. “I always thought that was the most ridiculous criticism. He was very able to make tough decisions, he was deeply intelligent, and the fact that he exhibited courtesy – well, I marked him up for that. And I could never understand why people would mark him down for it.”
Yet the same may well be happening to her. The former NSW treasurer Michael Egan, who thought she was the “outstanding” candidate to lead the party after the election loss, has since wondered whether she is ruthless enough. So does her friend Barry Jones. Despite his patent admiration, he is quick to caution that fundamental decency and gentleness can only carry you so far in politics. “I say this at the risk of sounding superficial, but the most successful politicians have something of the killer in them.” He offers a quote from the long-time Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, who said of Kim Beazley that he was “the first ALP leader since Ben Chifley not afflicted by a gross personality disorder”.
“You’d think this might have worked in Kim’s benefit, but of course it did not,” says Jones. “He lacked that kind of obsessive quality. Put it this way, if you were to have asked Kim Beazley if he was Labor’s ‘man of destiny’, he’d just have laughed. Whereas Whitlam, Hawke or Keating would have taken you seriously.
“Kevin Rudd shared that killer quality. Julia Gillard, too. Latham, of course, had too much of it: he wanted to kill everything in sight.”
Jones doesn’t mention Bill Shorten, though his role in bringing down Rudd, and then Gillard three years later, can’t be forgotten. At the same time, might there not exist a view that the public has tired of this dog-eat-dog business? Might voters not be longing for a more mannered form of leadership?
“Well, there is that,” says Jones, as if pondering the thought for the first time. “Tanya exhibits a wonderful authenticity, a luminous quality that is appealing. But whether that can be enough, I’m not sure.”
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