Penny Wong: Passion and principle
Black Inc., $34.99 pb, 368 pp, 9781760640859
Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. Finally, well into Simons’s writing, she was invited to Senator Wong’s office, where Wong gave her ‘a hard time’. The relationship thawed and Simons was able to conduct six interviews. Readers will be glad that Wong overcame her resistance to this intrusion into her life: the stories in Wong’s voice and her personal memories are rich elements of the book. Yet there are recurrent reminders of Simons’s tense relationship with her subject.
Penelope Ying-Yen Wong was born in 1968 in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah in the North Borneo part of Malaysia. This was her father’s home region, where his Chinese ancestors had moved in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Francis Yit Shing Wong was a Colombo Plan student of architecture at the University of Adelaide in the 1960s; he had married Jane Chapman and returned to Sabah with her. People in Borneo suffered severely under Japanese occupation in World War II, including Penny Wong’s paternal grandmother, father, and his siblings.
When Penny was eight, her parents separated. Jane, Penny, and her younger brother, Toby, immediately moved to Adelaide, where her mother bought a house in Coromandel Valley in the hills, not far from where her own English ancestors – who went back to the founding of South Australia in 1836 – had farmed. At Coromandel Valley Primary, Penny and Toby had a terrible time because of the racist bullying they suffered. Racism became part of the children’s everyday experience. Life improved greatly when Penny won a scholarship to the élite Scotch College. She thrived and excelled academically, as well as shining in drama and sport. Toby joined her at Scotch, where he did less brilliantly. Toby’s story is a tragic part of Wong’s life. He dropped out of school, took up music (and drugs), and became a chef. In 1988 John Howard, leader of the opposition, announced the Coalition’s new immigration policy of One Australia to reduce Asian immigration. In Wong’s view, this legitimated the kind of racist abuse she and Toby had received. Ten days after the 2001 election, which first took Penny into the Senate, Toby killed himself. In a powerful maiden speech in August 2002, Wong paid special tribute to Toby, called for Australia to unite as a compassionate country, and condemned the racist division of Australian society exacerbated by Pauline Hanson and John Howard.
At the University of Adelaide, Wong studied law and political science. In her second year, she became active in student politics and was elected to the students’ association and the board of the university union. Wong describes herself as a social democrat. She started to the left of the Labor Party, but in 1988 in the heat of debate and student protest over the introduction of the HECS scheme, she became convinced that it was more important to ‘be in the room’ to influence policy. She joined the ALP and has been on its left ever since. In 1989 Wong was elected general secretary of the university Labor Club; others viewed her as the one in charge.
Wong quickly transitioned from student politics to being active in the Labor Party at state level, and then nationally – with the help of powerful supporters such as Nick Bolkus. Before she finished her degree she began work as a paralegal with the Federated Furnishing Trade union. After graduating, she took a full-time organiser position there just as they were amalgamating with the CFMEU. At the end of 1994 she moved to Sydney to work for the CFMEU. Following the 1995 NSW election, she became a policy adviser to a minister in the new Labor government. In late 1996, Wong, at the invitation of the SA ALP’s left, returned to Adelaide to seek preselection for the Senate. She took a job in industrial law with a firm that represented unions on the left, then moved to the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union to work with Mark Butler, president of the SA Labor party. In 1998 she was selected as the left faction’s candidate for the Senate ticket. In 2000 Wong applied to have her Malaysian citizenship revoked, which it was in 2001. Later that year, at the ‘Tampa’ election won by John Howard, Wong was elected to the Australian Senate.
In the Senate from 2002, Wong would find her feet as a politician and gradually rose within the ALP. With the ‘Kevin 07’ ALP victory, she became minister for climate change and water, a frontbench heavyweight. It was the climate-change portfolio that enabled her to shine on the international stage. In 2013 she became Leader of the Government in the Senate, the first woman to do so, and later the upper house’s Leader of the Opposition. In 2016 she was made shadow minister for foreign affairs.
The biography covers Wong’s personal life, albeit very briefly compared to the politics, by far its main focus. Simons notes Wong’s long-term partners, firstly her five-year relationship with Jay Weatherill, future premier of South Australia, which began while she was at university and he was an industrial officer for the Australian Workers’ Union. After Weatherill, her relationships were with women. Her first long-term woman partner, Dascia Bennett, whom she met in 1995, had two children, so Wong became a stepmother. In 2006 Wong met her current partner, Sophie Allouache; together they have two daughters, Alexandra, born in 2011, and Hannah, in 2015. Along the way, we learn about Wong’s beliefs (she believes in God and was baptised in the Uniting Church as an adult, but accepts all religions as equal) and values – her absorption of her father’s emphasis on education and ambition, and her mother’s feminism and sense of social justice. And we see, over and over, how racism was so pervasive in her life that inevitably it became the paramount issue for her.
Perhaps because of the tension in her working relationship with Wong, Simons is repeatedly critical, describing Wong as being occasionally bad-tempered to staff and others, aggressive, and as having learnt ‘unappealing political skills’ at Adelaide University while engaged in ‘student politics at its worst’. On the other hand, she is ‘principled, intellectual, private, restrained and sane’, generous to her staff – which is loyal to her. Simons notes that Wong’s Liberal opponents have only good things to say about her (as does the cleaner in charge of ministerial offices at Parliament House), and that she is commonly regarded with a mixture of fear and respect.
We should all be grateful that Simons has given us this clear, well-researched, and comprehensive biography, and that Wong eventually contributed the personal memories and views that round it out. As the ALP digests its recent report on how it lost the 2019 election, some commentators are calling for a change of leadership. If Labor does find a seat in the House of Representatives for Wong, she would immediately be a highly qualified candidate for the top job, due to her intellect, political and policy acumen, as well as her speaking skills, compassion, and determination. Whether as prime minister or foreign minister, there is a good chance that she will yet be one of our top leaders, which is a compelling reason for us to know more about the making of Penny Wong.