Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

Penny Wong, Passion and Principle, by Margaret Simons

I’m not one of those who dismiss all politicians as self-serving and a waste of space.  I’ve met too many who genuinely wanted to change things for the better, even if I didn’t agree with their choices and/or they didn’t always achieve their ambitions. But I’m also not one of the ‘Penny Wong fan club’ or her 235,000 followers on Twitter.  I just think she’s one of the most interesting politicians we have, and when one of the best journalists we have in this country— Margaret Simons— writes her biography, I want to read it.

Simons bookends the bio with Penny Wong’s lack of enthusiasm for its existence.  She did not want the book written, though she eventually reluctantly agreed to interviews. Famously circumspect, Wong insisted that her personal life remain private, and consistent with her public persona, though she was willing to own her mistakes and errors of judgement, she also refused point-blank to discuss issues such as the destructive leadership debacle or to reveal any cabinet discussions. Simons had to rely on others to learn that amongst Wong’s less well-known political attributes, she has consistently been an astute judge of her leaders, both in terms of their character and their capacity to attract the vote.  Simons is even-handed, using multiple sources to unpack the betrayals, but reading between the lines, it’s clear that Wong values loyalty and stability.  Because that’s how you stay in government, and then you can get things done.

Despite these access limitations, Simons has written an immensely readable book, in the notoriously difficult genre of political biography.  And in the process, despite herself, Wong came to believe that the book might have some benefits…

Not so much the obvious thing

— a high-profile gay person as a role model for others, and ‘that meaning something to vulnerable people

Simons suggested that as the book came into being, she herself

… 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.

Simons likens it to an audience responding to a tragic play leaving the theatre 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.

Wong concedes that maybe a book about her career is just a small way in which we can have that discussion about what we hope for and expect of political representatives and the polity, and what we can do better. 

Simons asked Wong if she thought it was still possible to meet the needs of the nation through democratic political processes:

‘I have to,’ she said.  ‘What is the other path?  We see the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism.  These are bad things.  History should remind us of that.  So what’s the alternative?  We have only this path.’ She quoted Churchill’s famous saw about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others. (p.317)

I learned some interesting facts to add to the Penny Wong narrative.  Although she is hailed as the first female gay Asian in the federal parliament, on her mother’s side, she’s more ‘Australian’ than many of the racists who abuse her.  Her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were pioneers in colonial South Australia, and the reason Penny was born in Borneo was because the White Australia Act meant her Chinese father, Frances Wong, who was in Australia as a student under the Columbo plan, couldn’t get residency here after marrying her mother Jane Chapman.  So Penny was born in what is now the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu, but came to Australia at the age of eight when her parents’ marriage failed.  Hers was the only Asian face at Coromandel Valley Primary School in the Adelaide Hills and she learned to mask her feelings there as a defence against relentless bullying…

She was a brilliant student, winning a scholarship to the elite Scotch college in Adelaide where she excelled at everything she did, including sports and drama.  And as you’d expect, her interest in politics emerged at university where she switched from medicine to Arts/Law.  Her politics were at that time far to the left, but her unwillingness to join the Labor Party was overcome by persuasion from a friend called Lois Boswell.  At the time there was fierce student opposition to the Graduate Student Tax, better known now as HECS, but Boswell challenged her position: what was she doing outside demonstrating when she should be inside trying to influence the future of the party?

Penny Wong replied that she could not, on principle, join a party that was proposing to introduce fees for education.  Boswell referenced the vote that had just taken place — a tie.  It really mattered ‘who was in the room’. Being outside protesting was easy. Winning the debates that mattered was harder. (p.60)

It is because Wong recognises the value of ‘being in the room’ that she has made some decisions that have betrayed her own principles.  Famously, she voted with her party and the government to ban same-sex marriage.  Simons reveals her anguish about it.  On the night of the vote she told a friend, Carol Johnson, that she was in an impossible position, that she felt she had done the best she could. ‘Basically she felt bound by party policy, and that leaving the party wasn’t really an option because what would that achieve?’ 

Johnson thought that the Labor Party didn’t fully understand what it had done to Wong in forcing her to choose between her personal beliefs — her very identity — and her political allegiances.  ‘I don’t think it would have occurred to most of her colleagues just how difficult it was to ask this woman to basically vote for her own oppression… Penny was prepared to do that because she knew that if the law was ever to change, you need to work with the major parties… that it was a longer-term political project.  But it was incredibly difficult and distressing to her.’ (p.148).

Simons also writes with great empathy about the heroic struggle to negotiate agreements at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit when the rift emerged between developed and developing nations over who should shoulder more responsibility for carbon emissions reduction.  Wong and Rudd worked tirelessly to salvage what they could, and both were pushed beyond exhaustion.  In this context, Wong makes an important observation:

At its most basic, there was the need to sleep — at least sometimes.  There was the need, in the maelstrom, to find time to think.  Time to think is a scarce asset in government and under the pressure of the media cycle.  Yet thinking time, says Wong, allows you to ‘settle yourself’… to determine what is urgent, and what is important.  To be creative and think laterally, creatively, about how to get around obstacles.’ Kevin Rudd, she believes, did not give himself enough of it. (p.194)

It’s chastening to think what might have been, if Rudd had taken better care of himself after Copenhagen.

I know, of course, that some readers will take one look at this review and not bother with it because they’re ‘not interested’ in politics. That’s a perfectly legitimate PoV, provided you think the world is just fine the way it is, and that nothing will come along to compromise that.  But if you would like things to be better than they are, well, nothing changes without politics, and in a democracy, that means that means paying attention to the politicians and the policies they promote so that you vote for what you actually want.  What was so noticeable about the ABC’s recent TV program about the opinions and voting behaviour of ‘Quiet Australians’  was that whether it was Newstart or action on climate change, they did not actually support the policies they’d voted for.

There’s an interview with Simons here.

PS (the next day) There’s a review by Jane Goodall here. I don’t agree with her conclusion that For all Simons’s meticulous research, though, the account lacks vibrancy, because the personality at the centre of it is missing. There are few engaging anecdotes or tales of childhood adventures, no confessions of teenage angst.  I think that Goodall is looking for a hidden Penny Wong, and hasn’t understood from reading this book that it conveys a very astute portrait of Wong’s personality.  She is reserved because she has to be: she cops racist abuse every day, and has done since she was a child.  And as for the missing ‘childhood adventures’?  I think this is a remarkably insensitive comment.  Who would want to revisit childhood adventures with a much-loved brother, who took his own life just days after Penny was beginning her career in public life?

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Penny Wong, Passion and Principle
Publisher: Black Inc Books, 2019, 320 pages
ISBN: 9781760640859
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Penny Wong: Passion and Principle

 


Responses

  1. I enjoyed this review. Now I don’t need to read the book. I admit I’m over politics but soldier on. I know it’s necessary to be aware and somewhat involved. I do write letters to pollies and only today got a reply from ScoMo re climate change when I wrote and told him he’s not smarter than David Attenborough. He says one thing in his letter then does so ething entirely different. But back to Wong. I have always admired her but don’t hear much from the lot of them lately. It seems so dire much of the time. Enough from me. A good review.

    Like

    • Thanks!
      AT least you got a reply… I wrote to both Turnbull and Shorten about Centrelink call waiting times, and still haven’t had a reply, and Clare O’Neil my local member was always going to call me back about Elder Abuse – but hasn’t…

      Like

      • I was surprised but the reply was just the party line. Nothing really addressing what I’d written. I told him he wasn’t smarter than Richard Attenborough. He didn’t address that!

        Like

        • Public servants and/or political advisers are the ones who read your letter, not the politician it’s addressed tot. The person responding to it has an all-purpose #InsertTheRecipientName template for replies to letters. As I understand it, though, even though the reply is not worth the cost of the postage stamp, what they do is to file your letter as Pro or Anti by postcode/electorate, and if you are in a marginal seat and one of many objecting to whatever it is and indicating that it’s a vote-changer for you, then they take notice, because the number of people who bother to write a letter is only about 10% of the number of people who care, and of course only a proportion of those will actually change their vote over that issue.
          This is why governments have become so arrogant: *in general, Victoria’s last state election is a recent exception* hardly anybody bothers to express their objections, most people’s vote is rusted on, and the only electorates they have to worry about are the marginal seats. It’s a vicious circle: John Howard’s decision to ignore the 90% of people who objected to the Iraq War showed the electorate that there was no point in objecting…
          It is also why there is not much point in crafting a finely argued PoV in your letter. All you need to do is say ‘I am Pro (or Anti) #InsertIssue and I live in #InsertNameOfMarginalSeat’ and it will have the same effect. (If you don’t live in a marginal seat, then you say you are writing on behalf of friends and relatives who do).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, Lisa. I have this book on my reading pile, and now want to read it sooner rather than later.

    Like

    • Thanks, Jennifer:)
      I think you’ll enjoy it, there’s so much more to it than I have conveyed here…

      Like

  3. If I was going to read a political bio in the foreseeable future, then this is the one I would read. Great review, thanks Lisa.

    Like

    • Yes, it’s the pick of the bunch. Most political bios are dead boring.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Penny Wong is certainly an interesting woman and we’re lucky to have her. I’m glad she saw the bio as a way to discuss the political process. Unlike Wong, I don’t think the left does itself any favours when it all it does is lend numbers to the NSW right. But then the Greens annoy me as often as they enthuse me. Probably I’d vote further left if I got the chance, while barracking for Labor and wishing they’d grow a backbone.

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    • LOL Bill, our politics are different, but you’re just like me, you think none of the parties are good enough and we just have to choose the best we can, gnashing our teeth as we do so.

      Like

  5. […] two here on the blog: Margaret Simon’s recent biography of Senator Penny Wong (see my review here) and a very disappointing one of former SA Premier Don Dunstan.  Craig Emerson’s […]

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