Saturday, 8 December 2007

Getting To Know Australia's Minister for Climate Change : Penny Wong

Read full article by Michelle Gratta in "The Age"

here full article in "Sydney Morning Herald"

"... Her Chinese background is a key to understanding this highly ambitious, intensely private woman.

Penny Wong also brings from her Asian background "a focus on education, on discipline, on the importance of family and those close to you, on loyalty, on understanding of the concept of 'face' and not humiliating people".

From her mother, Jane Chapman, who was a social worker, comes Wong's social justice commitment...."
- Michelle Grattan, Columnist for The Age



Michelle Grattan

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket When Penny Wong first entered Parliament, she felt uncomfortable with security guards addressing her as "senator". "I said to them, 'call me Penny' and they said, 'no we can't'."

A Chinese person would address someone much older by a title. "I remember finding it very difficult that older men were calling me senator and that I didn't have a title to call them."

Wong, the nation's inaugural Minister for Climate Change and the surprise big winner in Kevin Rudd's ministry, is as Australian as anyone — she's lived here since she was eight years old.

Yet her Chinese background is a key to understanding this highly ambitious, intensely private woman.

The daughter of a Chinese-Malaysian father and an Australian mother who married in the 1960s (he was a Colombo Plan student) and later divorced, she says her father, a former architect, is "very excited" about her elevation. "To have someone from a Chinese background achieve in Australia — I think he's really conscious of the message that sends."

He lives in Malaysia but they keep in touch. "I was really lucky in my parents. I always say they had the most respectful post-divorce relationship I've ever encountered. They are very good friends."

Wong says she's "undoubtedly more culturally Australian but the first thing that most people notice about you is that you are Chinese. That seems to be the way they talk about it. There are some aspects of how I am which I think were probably formed early in Malaysia and with Dad."

Although accompanied to this week's swearing-in by her female partner, Sophie Allouache, she recoils from people probing her sexuality. "I have never hidden this," she says, but why "the need to ask. Why do they think it's relevant?"

Wong also brings from her Asian background "a focus on education, on discipline, on the importance of family and those close to you, on loyalty, on understanding of the concept of 'face' and not humiliating people".

From her mother, who was a social worker, comes Wong's social justice commitment.

"I do have a very strong idea about a fair go and social justice. I have very strong views about prejudice and people being (judged ) on their merit and their capabilities rather than on racial attributes or stereotypes associated with those."

Penelope Ying Yen Wong, 39, was born in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and brought up in middle-class Adelaide, living with her mother and brother. He died, just after she won her first election in 2001, in circumstances she prefers not to discuss. She had a scholarship to the well-heeled Scotch College; at Adelaide University she studied arts and law, and hit the Labor Club student politics trail as a left-winger.

Academically and politically armed, she then moved into the union world, and became a barrister. "None of my family ever worked for trade unions. I suppose it's the strong sense of social justice that as a young person I had, and that was one of the areas where you could do that. There are not many jobs where your job is to advocate for people in that way."

At the same time, "I was really aware, particularly when I became a lawyer, how few people there were in the profession who were Asian". In one case, the instructing solicitor on the other side was a Eurasian woman.

Wong realised it was the first time that among the lawyers in courtrooms, she'd seen "someone … who looked like me".

On another occasion, a stereotype confronted her: in a slip of the tongue, a lawyer called her Suzie Wong, "to which I said, 'Actually , she's the prostitute.' "

Although she has been in Parliament only since 2002 and had relatively junior areas in opposition — she did get a higher profile as the flawless campaign spokeswoman for ALP headquarters — people who have known Wong for years aren't surprised by her appointment.

Mark Butler, new Labor MP for Port Adelaide and her one-time boss in the South Australian branch of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, says: "She's a ferociously competent, driven achiever.

"We first knew each other as teenagers, university students. Her skills were cross-examination, dissecting information, getting across a brief. She's good at twisting arms, negotiating. This (portfolio) is perfect for her."

John Connor, chief executive of the Climate Institute, observed her when they worked as staff in the mid-1990s in the NSW Parliament, he for an independent and she for the Labor minister for land and conservation. "She was a straight shooter and a pretty tough negotiator," Connor recalls.

When Prime Minister Rudd announced his ministry, he stressed Wong's negotiating skills. Her boyfriend of university days, Jay Weatherill, now a South Australian minister and still a friend, also recalls Wong as "green" in those days. "She was horrified at the deforestation in Borneo (where Wong had lived as a child)," he says.

Wong admits to being a "bit of a swot"; indeed, the first days of her new portfolio have been "like swotting for an exam every day". She says this as she searches her still-bare new office for a bottle opener to open the mineral water that is accompanying our chicken salad rolls. When I say it's always hard to recall who occupied particular ministerial suites previously, she says she's already reminded her staff that, "ultimately we're all just passing through".

Away from work, the private Wong relaxes with yoga, poetry (Emily Dickinson, Keats and Robert Frost are on her bedside tables in Canberra and Adelaide) and Beethoven. "Dad was a big Beethoven fan. So I got introduced to Beethoven very young. If I'm really stressed I go back to the Sixth, probably the second movement."

Wong is the rising female star in Labor's cabinet, which has four women. One can't help thinking of the extroverted Deputy PM Julia Gillard (who also grew up in Adelaide). Apart from their common liking for conservative trouser suits, their personal styles are very different.

Gillard takes in her stride, even turns to political advantage, media interest in her boyfriend, hair and the fruit-less fruit bowl in her kitchen. Her parents chatter happily about their famous daughter.

When I ask to speak to Wong's parents, she takes the request on board. A day later a polite note comes back from her staffer. She doesn't want them contacted.

She and Gillard, two formidable women sharing focus and determination, have between them education, industrial relations, climate and water — four of the most important areas of the Rudd Government. A study in personal contrasts, they are part of the new face of Labor.



Annabel Crabb

Read here full article in Sydney Morning Herald

Some people are born with an innate ability to sing; some to paint, or dribble a basketball. Such is the randomness of creation's miracle.

But what are the odds that Penelope Ying-Yen Wong, born in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on November 5, 1968, would enter this world with a God-given knack for politics?

She was barely 18 when she seized control of the campus Labor club at the University of Adelaide; her methodical destruction of the existing power structure there gave an early glimpse of her freakish powers.

Colleagues now describe her as "relentless", and this word sums up her progress through the federal parliamentary Labor Party, of which she has been a member for just five years.

She is calm, groomed, and virtually unflappable. She has a sharp intellect. She is a forensic Senate operative in the John Faulkner mould. She is a lesbian. She is a practising Christian.

And now she is one of Kevin Rudd's most senior cabinet ministers, charged with driving an international consensus on climate change, and a domestic consensus on water management.

It's a huge ask, by anyone's standards.

Penny Wong did not always intend to be a politician, even if it looks that way in retrospect. Her initial plan was to be a doctor, and to work for Medecins Sans Frontieres; she won a spot in medical school in 1986, deferred it, and then left for an exchange year in Brazil, where she volunteered at a hospital - and quickly changed her career plans.

"There was a bit of a problem with blood," she explains briskly.

This is an important revelation, as it might be the first and last recorded example of squeamishness in Penny Wong.

Arriving at the University of Adelaide in 1987 as a first-year arts student, the politically conscious Wong dabbled with a couple of environmental groups and the left-wing group CISCAC - the Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean. (This group was founded and run, incidentally, by fellow arts student and enthusiastic campus Trotskyist David Penberthy, who has since moved to the beating heart of Australian conspicuous consumption - Sydney - where he edits The Daily Telegraph.)

Pragmatic Wong, however, was never going to be a very committed Trotskyist.

In 1988 she swivelled her gun turrets towards the Labor Club, which had been colonised two or three years earlier by George Karzis, a cheerful right-wing headkicker who has since worked in senior advisory roles for state and federal Labor politicians.

Karzi recalls from his Adelaide legal office:
"I ran it as a non-factional group. That is, there was no other faction than mine.

Penny arrived in 1988. By the following March, she had organised the numbers and there was the largest ever Labor Club meeting - the union theatre was packed to the rafters.

It was an unfortunate display of branch stacking - by both of us. She was trying to take the club over and I was trying to defend it. And she won! I have to concede, I backed the wrong horse."
Wong remembers: "We had these big fights about who would control the Labor Club. I mean - really. Look, I think with the benefit of hindsight we probably got much more wound up in student politics than we really needed to, but isn't that what you do when you're young?"
It's true that in student politics, where practitioners subsist on a rich diet of reality-free political theory and too many standing orders, things can often get out of hand.

What you tend to end up with is a riot of ballot-stuffing, vote-rigging, dirt-digging and amateur character assassination, washed down with endless schooners of beer.

The thing about Penny Wong, however, is that few such tales of outright excess exist.

"To her credit, there are no funny stories involving Penny Wong," is how one alumnus of the vintage puts it.

Another - her former Labor club colleague Amy Barrett, who is now a lawyer in Sydney - says Wong was not given to skulduggery.

"The rest of us would be running around, putting up posters, but she would be talking about serious number-crunching deals, preference flows, stuff that made you think - this is really serious business," she says.

Wong called people "comrade"; she was intensely organised; her attention to detail was rigorous. If a comrade was spending long hours campaigning, Wong might arrange for a set of course notes to materialise in that person's pigeonhole, just so they didn't get too behind.

"She was totally focused on politics, right from when she started," says Kris Hanna, another comrade who ended up in the South Australian Parliament - he now serves as an independent, having defected from Labor several years ago.

"She was methodical, serious and committed - in the left, she was known as 'Penny the Prefect'."

In fact, Wong's generation of Adelaide university student politics produced an aberrantly large crop of professional politicians.

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was a contemporary, as well as Wong's then boyfriend, Jay Weatherill, now a senior minister in Mike Rann's South Australian Government. Other contemporaries include the South Australian Transport Minister, Pat Conlon, the federal Liberals Christopher Pyne and Andrew Southcott, the Labor senator Anne McEwen, the new member for Port Adelaide, Mark Butler, and the South Australian Speaker, Jack Snelling.

Wong worked part-time as an organiser for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union through the concluding stages of her law degree, but still managed to graduate with honours.

She formed a deep alliance with the "Bolkus Left" - a sociable grouping of ambitious youngsters around the then senator Nick Bolkus, who was a mentor to Wong and whom she thanked in her maiden speech in 2002. Conlon, Butler, Weatherill and Wong were the most promising of Bolkus' proteges, and all are still on the rise.

But the group suffered a wrenching split in 2003, on the matter of Bolkus's own future in the Senate. He wanted to stay on, but was defeated by a coalition of friends and foes.

Wong's failure to defend her mentor caused some hard feelings, which persist in South Australia to this day.

"Penny's made a lot of sacrifices to get where she is. Mainly of other people," says one party to that upheaval. Her defenders say this attitude is unfair, and that Wong, already in the Senate, did not advance at Bolkus's expense; Bolkus declined to comment this week.

Certainly, Wong is known widely within the party for her driving ambition, and her lack of squeamishness about the hard and unattractive side of factional business, of which she saw plenty through the Crean/Latham era. "She is very into the politics. But she has a sort of dignity and authority about it," Hanna says.

Like Julia Gillard (a friend), Wong has answered internal critics with the most crushingly effective retort available in politics - performance.

Butler, who remains factionally close, describes her as a cool political operator ideally suited to the task set for her by Rudd. Butler is the former secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in South Australia; he has also served on Labor's national executive committee and is viewed as an exceptional talent federally for Labor (a fact which would no doubt have puzzled his great-grandfather, the 1920s Liberal premier Sir Richard Butler, were he still around).

Wong worked for Butler as a legal officer for three years at the union before she won Senate preselection, and was a barrister and solicitor at the Adelaide firm Duncan and Hannon for three years before that.

Butler says she has a forensic brain and a gift for cross-examination; he describes her appointment as a "brilliant" move on Rudd's part. "Climate change, water, emissions trading - they're all about getting across some really difficult technical detail, then getting into a room and negotiating hard. They are just her major strengths," he says.

Wong's negotiating skills were proven in 2003, when as a new senator she wangled affirmative action rules through the federal party during the infamous "special rules conference" called by Simon Crean.

Conlon, whose relations with Wong are chillier since the split, nevertheless describes her as "intelligent, and focused on her goals", and says he has "no doubt at all that she will be a success in the role".

As a politician, Wong is not naturally gregarious; at least, not to the degree that many of her colleagues are.

She is serious of demeanour and conservative of appearance, given neither to drinking nor excessive frivolity.

A periodic flirtation with cigarettes is about as close as she gets to formal vice.

Mark Latham, who met her in 2000 at Labor's national conference in Hobart, made a spirited attempt to have her referred to thenceforth as "Wongy". It didn't catch on.

But in private she has a warmth and humour which belies her reputation; there is a touch of goofiness, if you can imagine that. There is a hint of it in her smile, which is shy and engaging; she is striking to look at, and photogenic, but hates having her picture taken.

Over the course of last month's election she served as Labor's federal campaign spokeswoman, proving to be articulate and surefooted; on being asked anything about her private life, however, she gets tongue-tied.

She seems genuinely puzzled by the idea that anyone would be interested in the fact that she is Australia's first lesbian cabinet minister, and the first Asian-born cabinet minister, for that matter.

"If it means that we … as a nation … if it shows that we are a nation where people can achieve things just on their abilities, then it is a good thing," she says, with rare hesitance.

Wong brought her mother, Jane Chapman, and her partner, Sophie Allouache - a former University of Adelaide Students' Association president - to Monday's swearing-in ceremony at Yarralumla.

"Is she out?" wondered her old comrade Barrett, with interest, when contacted this week. Technically, Wong was never really "in". She has never sought to disguise or advertise her sexuality, which - after her undergraduate experimentation with the opposite sex - has long been settled in its present orientation.

When Wong won preselection for the Senate before the 2001 election (she replaced the retiring Keating government veteran Rosemary Crowley), the joke went around that she would never have been able to contest a lower house seat, being not only a woman, but Asian and gay to boot.
Wong gently disagrees, but says she never thought of a House of Representatives seat in any event: "I actually think that the house of review is the chamber where more detailed legislative work is done."

Nevertheless, she has made some references in the past to the marginalisation she and her younger brother, Toby, experienced while growing up in Adelaide, and her maiden speech was a passionate denunciation of the politics of racial division.

The two young Wongs moved from Malaysia to Adelaide with their mother when Penny was eight; their father remains overseas, though he and Penny keep in touch.

Toby, a bright and charismatic boy, went on to work as a chef in Adelaide while Penny pursued her political career.

Toby turned 30 on the day his sister was elected to the Senate in 2001, in the middle of the bitterest race election this country had seen in the course of the siblings' lives. Ten days later, he took his own life.

Wong does not discuss the circumstances of this dreadful blow, beside an enigmatic promise to him in her maiden speech: "Your life and death ensure that I shall never forget what it is like for those who are truly marginalised."

She leaned heavily on her faith after her brother's death, and remains a committed worshipper in the Uniting Church, although religion is another subject she is loath to discuss. "It's a very private matter. I suppose I think people have very different ways in which they express their spirituality. I have mine. It's deeply personal, and it has sustained me at difficult times of my life."

On her brother: "The only thing I'd want to say is how much I missed him the day I was sworn in."

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