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What drives Penny Wong

Oct 3, 2019 • 17m02s

Penny Wong is the intellectual leader of the Labor Party. Now the subject of a major biography, her politics is shaped by her experiences of difference and her belief in compassion.

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What drives Penny Wong

92 • Oct 3, 2019

What drives Penny Wong

[Theme music starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

Penny Wong is the intellectual leader of the Labor Party. Her politics is shaped by her experiences of difference and her belief in compassion. Her biographer, Margaret Simons, on what drives the most guarded woman in politics.

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Penny Wong:

The Labour party is a party that has always looked to the future, I think. That, that is… and we have done well where we have offered a vision for that future and I’m proud of the campaign we have run and the policies we’ve put forward.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Margaret can we start with Penny Wong's childhood.

MARGARET:

Yes, she was born in Borneo which has been part of Malaysia since the early 1960s and lived there until she was eight. Then she came to Adelaide which was her mother's hometown when the marriage broke up.

ELIZABETH:

Margaret Simons is a journalist. Her most recent book is a biography of Penny Wong.

MARGARET:

It was formative in many ways. So in Borneo, of course the tropical environment is a very ethnically diverse environment. She'd been brought up in a real religious and cultural mélange. And she comes to Adelaide and it's cold by comparison. And she and Toby were the only Asian faces in the primary school, the Coromandel Valley Primary School in the Adelaide Hills, and they suffered extraordinary racism. The great change to the face of Australia that took place largely as a result of Malcolm Fraser's government and the opening up of Australia to Asian immigration hadn't yet happened. They were just on the brink of that. They had a racist neighbour who shouted over the fence at Penny, called her a slant eyed slut and told to go back to where she came from. Racist graffiti was painted on the driveway of their home and at school the bullying was constant and brutal and sometimes physical.

ELIZABETH:

So tell me about her relationship with her brother at that point.

MARGARET:

Mmmm. Well Penny and Toby, they were about three years apart in age. Penny's earliest memory is of Toby crawling across the floor in their home in Borneo, dribbling. So they were very close, all through their childhood and into adulthood.

ELIZABETH:

So she went to Scotch College after a few years at her local primary school in the Adelaide Hills.

MARGARET:

Yes.

ELIZABETH:

It's one of the oldest and most prestigious schools, not only in Adelaide but in the country.

MARGARET:

It's like a different world. Yes.

ELIZABETH:

What did you describe that like... that change of going to that school?

MARGARET:

Well things began to get a lot better. So she went to Scotch College as a scholarship girl. Scotch College is, as you say one of the most wealthy and prestigious schools in Australia. I visited it as part of my research for the book.

I also went to Coromandel Valley Primary School which is a public school and has no history that's been kept really that I could find, no teachers who remembered Toby and Penny as kids. There were no archives, no pictures, no school magazines and then of course you go to Scotch where just about every movement has been recorded and they keep copious records particularly of prominent alumni.

It's just at the foot of the Adelaide Hills so you can stand on the main veranda of the old building and look over the plains of Adelaide towards the city centre. There's a small working farm, there are playing fields that seem to go on forever. You know, you can feel the money, in short.

And things began to get better for her there. First of all, obviously people were a little bit older and perhaps less inclined to bully because of that. But there were also other Asian students, largely boarders. But by then she had adopted a very tough exterior and a determination to excel, to basically prove that she was better than her persecutors and that toughness, that tough facade and also the fiercely guarded internal life was really set by then. She excelled in sport. She excelled academically. She ended up a school captain. It was really a golden period for her.

ELIZABETH:

In your research of this period, you uncovered a poem that Penny Wong wrote when she was only twelve or thirteen...

MARGARET:

I was staggered really. I think it's an extraordinary poem for anybody of that age to write. But I also thought it said something about Penny. It's provocative I guess to suggest that a poem about a shark says something about a politician. People read it in a sort of cliched way of a predator on top of the food chain. But for me, it's…. what comes through in the palm of her admiration for the creatures adaptation, for its slickness, its fierceness, its power. I think that says something about Penny.

ELIZABETH:

Would you mind reading it for us.

MARGARET:

Sure.

MARGARET:

Menaces the deep man fears and hates you, yet admires you. You slink through the water like a snake, cutting cleanly through the dark ocean. Your skin like well-stretched leather, eyes that gleam like embers in the murky water, razor sharp teeth ready to rip and tear. Little fish scuttle behind rocks, eels slither away in fear as you glide above them. Even the mighty whale will not tangle with you and man conquer of all, dares not trespass in your domain.

Yeah that's a fortified child.

Reading some of the things she wrote at Scotch College apart from the poems, the tone of her writing is absolutely that of a private schoolgirl. She's obviously made that transition and was able to adapt.

[Music starts]

MARGARET:

But though her parents were divorced by then, she was still regularly visiting her father during school holidays back in Malaysia. She was still very much in touch with the extended family there and continued to be up to the present day. So she was living in two worlds, that formed her in many many ways, and bridging them.

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ELIZABETH:

So Margaret, I wanted to ask you to take a second outside of the kind of chronology of Penny Wong's life. She now is known as one of the most guarded people in Australian politics. Did she agree to speak with you while you were writing this biography?

MARGARET:

Eventually, yes.

So I approached her for the first time in 2016 asking if she'd cooperate with the biography and the answer came back with a firm “no” and I dropped the idea. And then after the same sex marriage survey in 2017 I tried again at the publishers urging and again she said no. But this time both I and the publisher felt that we should do it anyway, whether or not she would cooperate. She was shadow foreign minister, likely to be the next foreign minister. She had just been a huge part of a major social reform. And of course there was immense interest in her, she's become a popular politician without being populist which I think is an interesting counter to the times.

For a year I researched the book on the assumption that I would not get an interview with her. And then right towards the end there was a meeting in her office in Adelaide which was off the record where she basically tore into me for doing the book without her permission. And she said that she had experienced me like a shadow in the corner of her life for the previous year. But once we got through that we actually sort of got on quite well, I think.

ELIZABETH:

Let’s go to her early years at university. Who is she at this point and what were her politics?

MARGARET:

She is very left wing. Well to the left of the Hawke Keating Government at the time and that was a barrier to her joining the Labor Party, initially. She was, in particular against the reforms to higher education which led to the introduction of fees for students. And what we now call the HECS system. She had had a gap year in Brazil and that was quite formative as well, experience of poverty there that she'd seen. She was a member of a very left wing body called Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean which was backed by the Socialist Workers Party.

And then there was a formative experience. She was demonstrating against the introduction of fees and higher education outside a meeting of the state Labor conference and she had a conversation there with a woman who's still one of her closest friends in which this person said well why aren't you inside arguing this case, what are you doing outside that's too easy. It's a long conversation went on throughout that day and at the end of that conversation she joined the Australian Labor Party.

And from that point on she made a fundamental decision which still guides her today that it is better to be inside the room of power even when that involves quite fundamental compromise, than to be outside taking the easy route of protest.

ELIZABETH:

So this is the late 80s. Did John Howard and some of the policies that he had at that time also play a role in her wanting to join the Labour Party?

MARGARET:

Yes. So it was while she was at university that John Howard, then leader of the Opposition introduced a policy for discrimination in immigration on the basis of race. It was hugely controversial within the party. People crossed the floor including Philip Ruddock. And Penny Wong remembers this very well when she talked about in the interviews, I say in the book it felt like the temperature of the room dropped and she said ‘I will never forgive him.’

And it was sometime during the Howard years in government that her brother Toby failed to come home on time and she Penny and her mother were frantic wondering what had happened to him. It turned out that he'd been on a bus on the way home. Some yobbos got on and begun racially abusing him and the bus driver stopped the bus and ordered Toby to get off. And he had had to walk home and he arrived foot sore and in tears. And Penny said to me it was people like that bus driver that John Howard was talking to when he said that there were too many Asians that we shouldn't have Asian immigration and the impact of that on her and Toby was, you know, enormous.

ELIZABETH:

Penny goes on to work in the union movement and as an advisor to the Carr government in NSW. And then eventually she wins pre-selection as a South Australian senate candidate in 2001.

MARGARET:

So the 2001 election of course was the Tampa election. It's largely about refugees and about race. It was also after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. And this really wedged Labor. It was a classic Howard wedge because on the one hand Labor didn't want to be seen to be weak on border protection and on the other hand, of course, didn't want to pander to narratives about racism. It was traumatic for the Party to feel themselves so wedged in that way.

ELIZABETH:

And they thought of course that they were going to win that election and then—

MARGARET:

—Yes. Yes they thought they would win that election but of course didn't.

The trauma of that election, what it did to them internally in the Party really messed with their heads as one of her advisers said to me you know. That remains, I think one of the issues that Labor wrestled with.

ELIZABETH:

And this is the moment that she comes into Parliament — in this difficult moment for the party but also around race in this country...

MARGARET:

Well that's right. And she was one of very few Asian faces in the Parliament at that stage or even as she puts it in the federal in the Parliament House; there were very few Asian faces. So yes race was front and centre both in the public dialogue but also in her mind.

ELIZABETH:

Not long after that election her brother Toby commits suicide.

MARGARET:

The day of the election was also Toby's 30th birthday. He was by now very troubled. He had developed a serious drug addiction, was living in Melbourne suffering from depression. Penny and he had had many phone conversations in which she'd try and talk him through what he was going through and ten days after she was elected, he took his own life which was just a terrible, terrible period.

ELIZABETH:

So she’s beginning her political career with this family trauma but also the trauma of race politics at that time?

MARGARET:

Yes. Well her maiden speech is really all about that. The convention with maiden speeches of course is to sort of nod towards your principles and thank the people of your electorate, and so on. But her maiden speech was a very, very angry speech. She talked directly about what she saw as John Howard's political use of race and she links all that directly to her own experience and to Toby's experience. It's an astonishingly powerful speech.

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Penny Wong’s maiden speech:

“Who can forget that most enduring image of last year's election campaign. That photograph of the prime minister in sober black and white, attempting to look statesmanlike with the slogan ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

MARGARET:

She says in that maiden speech that her core political principle was compassion, and particularly compassion for the marginalised.

Archival tape — Penny Wong’s maiden speech:

“...compassion must be that underlying principle, that core value at the heart of our collective consciousness. If not compassion then what?”

MARGARET:

Then she says as though addressing Toby:

Archival tape — Penny Wong’s maiden speech:

“Your life and death ensure that I shall never forget what it is like for those who are truly marginalised.”

MARGARET:

Much more recently as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs she referred to that speech and said that she still believed compassion was her guiding principle and the most important principle in politics.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

What do you think Penny Wong's particular skill is in the Parliament today?

MARGARET:

I think she is the intellectual leader of the Opposition. She doesn't want to be prime minister. She never has. She's been totally consistent on that in public and in private.

She wants to be foreign minister. She's still shadow foreign minister and she's leader of the opposition in the Senate which is an extremely influential and important position so she's part of Labor's leadership team. She acknowledged that after the election defeat, which she didn't see coming, she thought about quitting politics, but within a few days she decided no, I still want to do this.
[Music ends]

If Labor wins the next election she will be Minister for Foreign Affairs and I suspect a very significant person. It is of course easily the most challenging time in Australia's foreign affairs since the Second World War, arguably ever. And I think her position as somebody of Chinese ethnicity at the time of the rise of China is both symbolic of what Australia is, now, and also some of the challenges that we face.

If Labor doesn't win the next election. I wouldn't be surprised if she does consider leaving politics. She's been in the Senate since 2002 it’s a long stint. She's got young children and she would have to think you know what else do I want to do with my life?

ELIZABETH:

Margaret Simons thank you so much.

MARGARET:

It's a pleasure.

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[Theme music begins]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The UN has called on the government to release the Tamil family fighting deportation from Australia. The family has been held on Christmas Island since late August, after an attempt to deport them was blocked by a court injunction. The UN has requested that the government transfer the family into a community setting arrangement or find another way to end their existing situation while they await a Federal Court decision on their case.

And Westpac and ANZ are among the banks withholding some of the Reserve Bank's official interest rate cut from borrowers, passing on about three fifth’s of Tuesday’s historic rate cut to consumers. This is the first time that none of the four major banks have passed on the rate cut in full since the Federal Reserve embarked on its most recent round of reductions.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Theme music ends]

Penny Wong is the intellectual leader of the Labor Party. Her politics is shaped by her experiences of difference and her belief in compassion. Her biographer, Margaret Simons, on what drives the most guarded woman in politics.

Guest: Associate professor of journalism at Monash University and author of Penny Wong: Passion and Principle Margaret Simons.

Background reading:

Penny Wong: Passion and Principle by Margaret Simons, published by Black Inc.
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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92: What drives Penny Wong