October 2019

Arts & Letters

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’

By Amanda Lohrey
Margaret Simons’ biography of one of the country’s most admired politicians

Our abiding fascination with politicians is hardly surprising: they help to explain to us who we are. The question is, just how much do we need to know, or can we know with certainty, about a public figure? And what kind of man or woman is drawn to a career in politics?

The art of political biography is, in part, an attempt to answer these questions, and especially to account for those who endure to occupy positions of leadership. Orthodox biographies too often run to the format of a predictable skim along the surface of events, but for a while in the 1970s and ’80s there was a spate of biographies that drew on psychoanalytical theory in an attempt to give depth to what was often mere chronicle. The tradition produced first-rate scholarship in Australia under the aegis of Alan Davies in the Melbourne University Political Science Department. Notable works included Graham Little’s sympathetic studies of, among others, Malcolm Fraser, and Stan Anson’s study of Bob Hawke.

In Britain, Lucille Iremonger’s The Fiery Chariot focused on the number of British prime ministers who were illegitimate or orphaned as children – more than 60 per cent as opposed to the national average of 1 per cent. Leo Abse’s controversial Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice sought to explain Thatcher by way of the Oedipal triangle; Thatcher, it seems, despised her mother but had a potent bond with her father, a provincial politician who treated her as a son. Did the strong identification with the father account for Thatcher’s success as a leader among men? (Former UK Labour minister Barbara Castle once described Thatcher as the only real man in the Tory cabinet.) But despite the famous iron will – supposedly a masculine attribute – Thatcher had an instinct for how best to embody a powerful conservative archetype of the feminine, choosing to dress as a mirror image of the Queen, right down to a stiffly lacquered coiffure and the empty handbag. It proved to be good camouflage; no one ever ridiculed her appearance.

These attributes – the will, and skills, to prevail, and the careful presentation of self – are of special interest in the case of women politicians who must overcome traditional stereotypes, along with some especially vicious misogynist bastardry (see Julia Gillard). And yet public opinion polls reveal that Penny Wong is one of the most admired and trusted politicians in Australia, on both sides of the political divide. Quite how a part-Chinese lesbian in a same-sex marriage with two children via sperm donor and IVF came to occupy this elevated status in a still racist culture must exert an irresistible attraction for any biographer, and distinguished journalist and academic Margaret Simons has risen to the challenge.

In her preface to Penny Wong: Passion and Principle (Black Inc.), Simons reveals that Wong at first refused to cooperate, describing Simons’ dogged work-in-progress as “a shadow in the corner of my life”. Later, reluctantly, she agreed to a handful of guarded conversations conducted in neutral office suites. Interviews with Wong’s parents and her partner of 12 years, Sophie Allouache, were declined. Friends describe Wong as shy and Wong labels herself an introvert, but this may strike the reader as disingenuous. Why would a shy person enter the bearpit of politics, even if less electoral gladhanding is required of senators than of lower-house members, the latter required to exhibit an unfaltering bonhomie. Simons speculates that Wong’s guarded character derives from her experiences of racism, both early and ongoing. At the age of eight she emigrated from Malaysian Sabah – and her Malaysian-Chinese father’s family – to her mother’s home city of Adelaide where, for much of her childhood, she felt “embattled and hypervigilant”.

But Simons also poses the generic question: what does a serving politician have to gain from any biography that is other than anodyne?

Australian politicians tend to come in three dominant styles: the patrician (Menzies, Whitlam), the technocrat (Hewson, Keating, Rudd) and the good bloke (Hawke, Gillard, Morrison, Albanese). Good blokes are one part good neighbour, one part larrikin and one part mongrel, which is pretty much how many Australians like to see themselves. Technocrats are too clever by half, but patricians are admired for their grace and civility, the superior ease and courtesy with which they conduct themselves in the public arena. Wong is every inch the patrician: calm, rational and not given to public displays of rancour. Like New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark, she has a low, well-modulated voice without any of the higher notes and rising inflections of so many other women in public life. (Hillary Clinton was often derided during her campaigns as “shrill” – a “screaming banshee” – while Thatcher had elocution lessons to lower the tone of her voice as a way to enhance her authority.) Does it help that Wong dresses almost invariably in a conservatively tailored trouser suit and a plain shirt? This exempts her from any of the sexist commentary on her fashion sense of the kind regularly inflicted on Gillard.

A distinctive personal style can confer coherence on a political career that it might otherwise lack, especially if the politician in question is light on substance (think Barnaby Joyce). Known for both her work ethic and her intellect, Wong could not have this accusation levelled at her, as she’s widely respected as a master of policy detail and a skilled negotiator geared to compromise, where compromise means constructive outcomes. At the age of 26, already a significant player on the left of South Australian Labor, she moved from Adelaide to Sydney to work for the CFMEU as one of its frontline negotiators in what proved to be an uncommonly successful implementation of Regional Forestry Agreements. Under Labor premier Bob Carr, the outcome was a sizeable increase in national park acreage along with a relatively enlightened industry package. Later, Wong was to be criticised from the left for working for the enemy (forestry), and the process left her with an enduring disdain for the environment movement. In her view its leaders suffered from a disinclination to compromise: “they couldn’t deliver”.

The green issue was to arise again in her career when in 2007 she became minister for water and climate change in the new Rudd government. This time, according to Rudd, she pleaded with him in 2010 not to abandon the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, arguing that to jettison it would damage both his leadership and the credibility of the government. She was right on both counts. She also urged Rudd to call a double dissolution when failure to arrive at an agreement with the Greens and the Opposition had stymied the proposal, and she was right about that as well. Throughout this process she found the Greens leadership intractable and blames them, in part, for the debacle that ensued. They, on the other hand, portray her as overly combative in her negotiating style, “abrasive and dismissive”. She is known to have a temper.

Wong was 33 when first elected to the Senate in 2001, and her first move was to ask the then Labor leader in the Senate, John Faulkner, to appoint her to committees that dealt with finance and public administration rather than health and social policy, because “that’s where they put the girls”. In time she became noted for her forensic cross-examination of ministers while on the Labor government’s Expenditure Review Committee, describing herself to Simons as “a lot more fiscally conservative than a lot of my colleagues”. In the last three years of the Labor government she was its finance minister and the first woman to lead the government in the Senate. After Bill Shorten was elected party leader in 2013 she became shadow minister for trade and investment, and here the comparison with the Coalition’s Julie Bishop is irresistible. Bishop entered the arena of foreign affairs in 2009 after making a hash of her short-lived tenure as shadow treasurer.

It can be difficult to write entertainingly about the day-to-day slog of politics, the endless grind of committee work, the machinations of factions, the minutiae of legislation, but Simons, author of two fine novels and a lauded biography of Malcom Fraser, is a skilled story-teller who manages to weave a compelling narrative that is notable for its clarity and pace (she is especially good on the fiasco of water policy and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority). While respectful of Wong’s right to privacy in her personal life, Simons produces a biography with many surprises. The patrician Wong, it emerges, has her own touch of mongrel, and the word “ruthless” comes up in interviews surprisingly often. But as Simons portrays her, at all times Wong’s commitment is to “staying in the room”, even if it means voting on two occasions against proposals to introduce same-sex marriage while working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for eventual change, a strategy that led Greens leader Christine Milne to dismiss her as just another “machine Labor politician”.

In the wake of the Rudd–Gillard trauma, Wong was one of the few senior Labor politicians to emerge with increased public respect. Since then, as Simons observes, she has since become something of a cult figure among progressives (this despite being less radical than her left-leaning admirers assume her to be). There is even a Twitter account devoted to the famous eyebrows, so often raised in contempt of prevaricating opponents. But after 18 years in politics Penny Wong remains an enigma. To many she represents the kind of diverse and inclusive – and smart – Australia they would like their country to be. Many Labor voters would opt for her as party leader, but while she may be one of the country’s most admired politicians she herself doubts that she could make a successful transition to the lower house, pointing to the fact that only one in 20 voters (5 per cent) would have to switch their vote on racist grounds for Labor to lose a less than very safe seat.

Perhaps the key to Penelope Ying-Yen Wong lies in the proud reference she makes to her Malaysian side as a matriarchy of strong women. She shows Simons a photo of herself, four years old in Sabah and serving tea to her paternal grandmother, Lai. Simons describes it thus: “She is kneeling on a cushion in front of the old woman, a tray solemnly extended. Lai is sitting ramrod straight, with a stern expression, her head inclined to the little girl. As Wong remarks, it is a moving picture because of the combination of Lai’s pose and her obvious focus on the child: ‘You can see she loves me, even though she is being strict.’ Today Wong keeps this image on her phone.”

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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