Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2023

Tanya Plibersek On Her Own Terms (2023), by Margaret Simons

Wikipedia tells me that 154 women have been elected to the Australian House of Representatives since Federation, and women have had the right to both vote and sit in parliament since 1902.  Four decades later, the first women were elected.  It was not until 1943 that Dame Dorothy Tangney,  (1907-1985) became the first female Senator while Dame Enid Lyons (1897-1981) was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and became the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. I have Anne Henderson’s 2008 biography of Enid Lyons somewhere in the house… but if someone has written a biography of Dorothy Tangney I can’t find it any trace of it, though I expect she gets a mention in A Woman’s Place, Women and Politics in Australia (1984) by Marian Sawer and Marian Simms.   

An article published by the ANU in 2021 was about how political biographies focus on men.  Well, yes, of course, you’d expect that to be the case, but would it surprise you to learn that of 31 political biographies [1] published since 2010 only 4 featured women? They were:

  • Margaret Simon’s 2019 bio of current Foreign Minister Penny Wong, see my review;
  • Lekkie Hopkins’ bio of May Holman (1893-1939) whose list of achievements is so long you really must click the link to my review see them all;
  • Also by Lekkie Hopkins, with Lynn Roarty, a bio called Among the Chosen of Patricia Giles OA (1928-2017) who founded the WA branch of WEL and was a Senator, serving as president of the International Alliance of Women after her retirement;
  • Pauline Hanson (about whom the less said the better.)

And surely it’s a surprise that eight years after our first female Prime Minister had departed the scene, that there was no biography of her?  The ANU article says that she and other women politicians have filled this gap by writing memoirs, but seriously, that is no substitute for a warts-and-all analysis of their contribution to public life.

So Margaret Simons’ choice of Tanya Plibersek MHR as the subject of a 2023 biography is interesting.  Why Plibersek, and not Gillard, eh?  I think the answer to that question is partly that Simons is interested in the future not the past.  But her introduction  to Chapter 4 mirrors my own thoughts:

The arc of history is easier to perceive in retrospect.  Looking back, Plibersek’s time in parliament can be understood as a series of episodes when, if an alternative path had been taken, Labor and Australia’s history might have been very different.  What if Labor had kept Kim Beazley as its leader, rather than switching to Latham in 2004? What if, after the trauma of Latham losing the 2004 election, the party had again stuck with Beazley, instead of moving to Kevin Rudd? What if Julia Gillard had not deposed Rudd as prime minister in what he went on to describe as a coup?  Perhaps the dysfunction in the government would in any case have led to its downfall — or perhaps the cabinet would have confronted Rudd with the consequences of his management style and the ship of government would have been brought back to an even keel.  Perhaps, then, Labor would have won the election of 2010 in its own right, instead of being forced into minority government.  Perhaps Labor would then have retained government at the 2013 election, instead of losing to the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott.  There might have been no Abbott government, no Turnbull government, and no Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Australia would be a different nation. Within the ALP, leadership would have passed to a new generation in a more orderly, less damaging fashion.  But that is not what happened.  Instead, Labor’s dysfunction blighted its six years in government between 2007 and 2013. (p.96)

Although I’m interested in politics, the last thing I want to do as a reader is to revisit Gillard’s responsibility for some of this mess, and perhaps Margaret Simons as an author felt the same way.  It’s interesting to me that Simons, whose journalism I really admire, has chosen to write biographies of two women ALP politicians who are steady, unflappable, calm and methodical.  Both have impressive credentials and electability: they work hard and have a cult-like fan base both within the ALP and beyond; both are thought by some to be future prime ministerial material  but neither are charismatic.  Although both decline to revisit that disastrous history, it is clear from Simons’ account of Rudd’s downfall that both think that it should never have happened. Both recognise that unity is essential to good government and electability; both are pragmatic, sometimes voting to support issues with which they don’t agree, in order to remain in the tent where you may at least have some influence.

Plibersek is admired and liked for her calm, empathy and kindness, and for her highly successful management style in various ministerial roles.  Do we remember that when she was the Minister for Housing, implementing the white paper on homelessness in the first Rudd government, that programs were managed so efficiently that the number of homes exceeded the targets by about 13 percent. That with Rudd providing prime ministerial support and Plibersek implementing an intelligent, effective program, 32,000 new homes were built, in a long-term addition to Australia’s stock of social housing? That tens of thousands of lives have been quietly but dramatically transformed because of the simple expedient of a secure home?  

The Social Housing Initiative was one of the big successes of the Rudd government, and that was largely Plibersek’s achievement — through her preparation of a coherent policy framework, and through her sheer competence in a complex job of management.  It says something about the nature of our national conversation, and of our politics, that today almost nobody outside the housing sector remembers that it was done — because there were no problems.  That’s how we value competence. (p.181)

Well, that’s one interpretation. My view of it is that in order to shore up Gillard’s always unpopular position as the one who shafted a popular sitting prime minister, the celebratory feminist narrative of the first female prime minister as we read it in the media and in a raft of hasty books about it, was that the Rudd government was entirely dysfunctional.  The only space ever given to Rudd’s achievements was the Apology to the Stolen Generations.  So a Rudd/Plibersek achievement to redress homelessness never got any airtime, not even from the ALP itself.

Simons tackles the accusation that Plibersek lacks the ambition and the ruthlessness needed to be prime minister, exploring the idea that she might represent a different kind of leadership — less macho, more team-orientated, with less ego.  Well, maybe, but in Chapter 6, Simons writes that in the face of the Global Financial Crisis Rudd and Swan acted boldly.  That audacity and capacity for a prompt, decisive response to an unprecedented situation meant that Australia was the only advanced economy not to suffer a severe recession.

This biography draws attention to the question of what kind of political leaders we want.  Is ‘presidential politics’ morphing into a feminised kind of leadership, as the Teals would have us believe? Or is it the case that all organisations, including our parliaments and governments, need a blend of personality types whose strengths and weaknesses balance each other to achieve good outcomes?

This biography makes interesting reading, and it’s even-handed and humane in the way that it handles personal issues within Plibersek’s family.  I wonder who will be the next subject of Simon’s perceptive pen?

Tanya Plibersek, On Her Own Terms has also been reviewed by Geordie Williamson for the (paywalled) Saturday Paper. 

Update, later the same day, in response to a question and my reply in comments below:


To clarity the criteria by which this number of 31 biographies were included in the ANU study I downloaded the article ‘Where are the Great Women? A feminist analysis of Australian political biographies’ by Blair Williams from the ANU website. The article explains that the list was compiled using the NLA’s Trove catalogue over the last 10 years, (p 30).That appears to mean that if a cataloguer identified a book as a political biography, it was included in William’s’ study as one of the 31.   Elsewhere, on p32, in questioning why in the preceding decade no leader of a political party other than Hanson had been the subject of a definitive biography, Williams concedes that selective studies such as Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard do exist.’ But — other than her introductory paragraph about how traditional biographies have been defined on p.24 (see the excerpt below) —she does not explain what it is that makes the Kent book a selective study’ rather than a biography.  Later in the article, on p.36, discussing the tendency for women to retain agency in their own story by writing their own accounts, Williams includes a chart of 12 political autobiographies/memoirs written by women, which includes Gillard’s My Story.  

The writing of traditional biographies has generally been defined as the creation of a coherent narrative around significant events in the life story of a chosen subject.  Political biography goes beyond this to weave a narrative that not only recreates life, but says ‘something about the conduct of politics’. (p.24)

But from reading this very interesting article that, amongst other things, proposes five principles for a ‘feminist political biographical methodology’ a definition becomes clearer to me, though I am loath to go further than I have because I think that those who are interested should read Williams’ article in full.

Source: Australian Journal of Biography and History: No. 5, 2021 »

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Tanya Plibersek, On Her Own Terms
Publisher: Black Inc., 2023
Cover design by Tristan Main, cover image by Kym Smith/Newspix
ISBN: 9781760643386, pbk., 340 pages including Endnotes, an index and an 8 page insert of colour photographs
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Political biographies are not my thing so glad you are here to read and review them, Lisa, so I don’t have to 😀

    Also: charisma is over-rated. Quietly getting on with the job and making a difference to people’s lives is infinitely more important so it’s sad when it’s barely recognised and/or acknowledged. Thanks for calling it out here because I didn’t know about the housing stuff (I wasn’t living here at the time so have little knowledge of the Rudd/Gillard years).

    Housing is in such a desperate situation here and it’s in need of a radical rethink. There seems to be a real emphasis on buying investment properties in Australia (perhaps to shift the responsibility from government to the private market) but it’s clearly not working in terms of accommodating ordinary citizens. Short-term rentals (ie. air bnb) need to be capped. And how about converting disused shops in high streets into homes instead of waiting for an invigorated retail sector to return … everyone shops online these days so we need far fewer bricks and mortar outlets. Just my two bits worth.


    • I agree about Housing, and the worrying thing is the largest group of homeless people is older women. It isn’t being ageist to point that they have less time to be able to better their position than young people, who theoretically at least, can be helped to get an education, get a job, and better their position. Jobseeker consigns old women to poverty because ageism means they are discriminated against in the job market.
      I think it’s generally recognised that amongst a whole lot of factors combining to create the housing crisis, (not the least of which is state governments’ underinvestment in social housing for decades) the excess of investment properties (for short and long term rental) is contributing a lot. Just this month I was out walking the dog and had a convo to welcome some new owners of a rather shabby old house in our street — and it turned out that they were going to rent it out. I got the impression from the blasé way the kid told me this, that this house is not the first investment property this family has. But what to do about the mum-and-dad investors who have turned to doing it to fund their old age because investing in superannuation is risky, is a problem. (There are thousands of people whose super has never recovered from the GFC and will never see it return to levels which would support a decent old age.)
      So it’s a very complex problem.
      The new Minister in the federal government is Julie Collins, and I hope that Plibersek has time to mentor her. You can what’s been done so far from an address she gave to a Real Estate conference here:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder why there has been no biography of Julia Gillard? Even when political leaders write autobiographies, there is usually at least one biography as well.


    • Interesting question. The ANU article (published Sept 2021, see the link in my review) I refer to above refers to the 31 bios published since 2010, and according to the researcher there were only the four I listed above in my review.
      However, if you look at Further Reading in the Wikipedia article about JG there is no shortage of books about her, all published between 2010 and 2015, i.e. within the scope of that study. We can only presume that they are not *biographies* according to whatever criteria the researcher used. (I’m guessing that she had some sort of criteria that excluded political histories and memoirs.)
      There may have been a biography that meets the researcher’s criteria since the 2021 ANU article, but if so, I can’t find it.
      I’ve just looked again at the ANU article and there is a link to the papers which can be downloaded, see so perhaps the papers explain what criteria was used…


  3. I am on the mid-north coast now, and what strikes me is the number of houses that sit empty because they are rented out as AirB&B’s over Christmas and Easter only – and we have a huge homeless population.

    There is something terribly wrong when people (often middle aged and older women and also older men) are living in their cars and house after house sits empty for most of the year.

    It’s infuriating, and a it’s real problem in holiday coastal areas. I also think it’s a disgrace.

    Things are so bad here that every Wednesday, combined charities provide free meals and mobile laundry services and counselling to homeless people – and it draws a big crowd.

    When I left Bathurst we were heading into winter and there were plenty of people living in cars and tents. It snows in Bathurst in winter!

    Interesting post Lisa – I’ve been absent for a while due to moving house – and sorry to be slightly off-topic about Tanya, but the housing situation infuriates me. Hope you and yours are keeping well!


    • No, you’re not off topic, I am with you 100% because it distresses me.
      I am too old and wise to expect any government to do all the things I want it to do, but I have voted all my life not for my own hip pocket but to improve the lives of others and if this government doesn’t do something significant to improve homelessness and Jobseeker poverty, I won’t know where to turn.


  4. I read a couple of the Julia Giullard books that came out after her Prime Ministership. They were definitely not biographies – more like a political memoir in that they focused on a particular event or period of time rather than her whole life. To be fair, I’m not sure that Rudd has had one either (although there was one written before he was PM, like Albanese who also had one written a number of years ago). Or Abbott. I think that last PM to get a comprehensive bio was John Howard.


    • I suppose in one way, it’s not surprising. I’m sure they don’t sell, except to political junkies!

      Liked by 1 person

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