In public, the Australian Labor Party’s Senator Leader Penny Wong is all business. A stern face and a solemn, assertive tone are her stock-in-trade as she dresses down an opponent in the chamber or interrogates a witness at a Senate committee. It’s the Penny Wong voters are accustomed to seeing.
But there’s another side to Senator Wong, one where she allows herself the occasional moment of self-mockery.
It’s the side that comes to the fore when she’s asked how she reacted to learning she’d been awarded the 2018 McKinnon Prize for Political Leadership. Senator Wong, the Opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, says the news was “a little bit disconcerting.”
“I thought ‘you shouldn’t really be given a prize before you become a minister again’, you know what I mean?”
This speaks at least a little to the usual anxiety of politicians as an election approaches – Australians are virtually certain to be going to the polls in May. And Senator Wong knows what it’s like to be a minister; in the Rudd and Gillard governments she held the climate change and finance portfolios.
But it’s in her current role as a member of the Opposition that she’s been judged worthy of the McKinnon Prize. Another senator, also from outside government, the Greens’ Jordon Steele-John, has won the McKinnon Prize for the Emerging Leader of the Year.
Senator Steele-John has played an important role in persuading the Federal Government to set up a royal commission that will look at the abuse, exploitation and neglect of people with disabilities.
The McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership was established in 2017 to recognise outstanding leadership in politicians at all levels of government, and generate a national discussion about our expectations of political leadership while inspiring others to pursue courageous and visionary leadership.
The Prize is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Susan McKinnon Foundation, a philanthropic organisation set up by Melbourne businessman Grant Rule and his wife, Sophie Oh, in 2015.
University of Melbourne Provost Mark Considine chaired the 2018 McKinnon Prize selection panel, which included former Prime Ministers John Howard and Julia Gillard as well as leaders from business, the public service, charities, medicine, the media and sport.
Ms Gillard describes Senator Wong as “the perfect recipient for the McKinnon Prize because of her presence, her gravitas, her ability to bring people together and to guide the nation through complex debates including in the past 12 months on foreign policy, trade policy and also what response we should make as a nation when there are racist statements.”
Senator Wong says she’s honoured to receive the prize and hopes the award’s emphasis on leadership can contribute to healing the rift that exists between segments of the Australian community and their political representatives.
“These are challenging times for democracies, here and around the world,” she says.
“We know that many Australians feel that they don’t have faith in the polity. They don’t feel that Australian democracy is delivering for them and I think that at this time, both domestically and internationally, we need to step forward and advocate for why democracy matters and why leadership in democracy matters and why it’s the way we can deliver the sort of society and economy we want.”
She believes politicians and public figures who see politics as merely a bundle of incrementally-delivered policy offerings and opportunistic, divisive rhetoric undermines the democratic system in the longer term. Conversely, policies that promote equality and inclusion produce a democratic dividend.
“One of the arguments, apart from the ethical arguments, about inequality is that addressing inequality isn’t only about people and not only about fairness, it’s about the health of the democracy.
“I think too many public and political leaders focus on the short-term gains and the power they see in trying to set people apart. Part of the task of contemporary leaders is that we have to bring people together because the democracy is better if there is the sense of all having a stake in it.”
Senator Wong, 50, nominates two political leaders who’ve inspired her: former prime minister Paul Keating and the late South African president Nelson Mandela.
“I’ve always been someone who looked to Keating as someone who understood our place in Asia, the relevance of Australian identity to how we present ourselves to the region, and the narrative he gave us to help us understand who we are – one that was very inclusive. His desire was to use his position in the democracy to help position this nation for the better.
“What has always struck me as remarkable about Mandela’s leadership wasn’t just his courage, but that he chose to bring a nation to reconciliation and forgiveness. This was such an extraordinary act of personal and political leadership after decades of oppression and after people had lost children and family members. It’s the hardest thing in the world to bring people together and to ask people to forgive.”
Senator Wong says she admires her fellow McKinnon Prize recipient Senator Steele-John.
“Jordon shows courage in the work that he does as a senator in being there and the things that he advocates for. He’s so deeply committed to rights for people of disability and advocating for his community, and it is a good thing for the parliament to see that.”
She says she understood what motivated Senator Steele-John to visit the House of Representatives and heckle the Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February when the Government extended Question Time in order not to take a vote on the Green’s motion to establish a royal commission into the treatment of people with disabilities. The Morrison government later supported the motion.
“It reminded me of moments in the marriage equality debate where I’d give a speech in the Senate and I’d really feel that I was advocating on behalf of the LGBTIQ community and my children. It was that very visceral thing of ‘don’t play politics with us and our lives’ and the strength that comes from feeling like you’re advocating for many people.
“The fact that he was willing to do that shows that he knows there are those who don’t have a voice and part of his job as a leader is to speak for them.”
Senator Steele-John’s rise to prominence has been swift. He entered the Senate only in late 2017, aged 23, as a replacement for fellow Western Australian and Greens member Scott Ludlam, who resigned after it was revealed he was still a New Zealand citizen and therefore ineligible for Parliament.
He says he regards himself as a “movement” politician, a part of something much larger than himself, and it’s in that context that he accepts the prize.
“It’s something I receive not as a senator but as a proud disabled man and youth activist. I see this prize as a member of those movements and a sign that those movements are coming into force. In that space, I’m thrilled,” he says.
He says it’s wrong to assert that he was responsible for securing the royal commission because it was the result of five years of work by the disability community.
“There’s endless work that’s gone into it and I’ve been lucky enough to come along and give it a right push at the right moment.”
But he does admit to pushing very hard from his first moments as a senator.
“I didn’t know how I was going to go. But I knew that I was going to fight like hell, I was going to pull every string, I was going to – and I really mean this – break every rule in order to make sure that this was the topic of conversation.
“In a political institution like ours that seems to succumb to self-interested navel-gazing, I wasn’t going to just sit by and go ‘well that seems to be the way things are done now, no point talking about it’.
“That’s ultimately why I felt the anger that I did and why I felt compelled to go into the House of Representatives and heckle the Prime Minister, because it seemed as though that dominant culture of nonsense game-playing was going to smash this thing over the head once again and I couldn’t just sit there and take that silently.”
But in personal terms, the leader who inspires him most is his mother, Tracey.
As a social worker in the child protection field, he says his mother was driven by “a belief in the right of human beings to have their voice heard, to have a sense of themselves, and to do those things that may be considered to be a radical departure from the norm but to do them anyway because it aligns with your values and it’s what works for you. They’re very brave things to do.
“I’m a home educated student. I’ve never set foot in a school in my life. I’ve never completed an exam. I’ve never undergone any sort of formal education at all, except for the time that I spent at university. My mum home-educated both me and my brother and it took a hell of a lot of courage for her to decide to do that, let alone self-belief.”
And the young senator offers this advice to anyone who wants to create political or social change: don’t wait to be anointed formally as a leader.
“The modern political system and the way that it interfaces with the media means that really all you’re signing up for is for more people to come up to you to tell you how many different ways you’re doing a bad job.
“If you want to get out there and lead on an issue, lead on an issue. Don’t wait for somebody to come along and bring you the shiny hat. Do it. Build a movement. Do your thing. Make your case. You don’t have to wait for permission.”
He professes to have great personal respect for Senator Wong.
“To be a woman of colour, a queer woman, to come of age in South Australia, and in the labour movement of South Australia, and not only succeed but take that thing by the scruff of the neck, that is unquestionably the mark of a person of incredible substance.”
Senator Wong says that despite the current political challenges facing democracies, leadership within the broader community is in a healthy state.
“People exercise leadership in many areas. We need good people everywhere and you can exercise leadership as the man in the pub who tells some bloke to settle down because of the way he’s talking about women. That’s an act of leadership.
“I don’t see leadership as purely being positional. Leadership is how you choose to interact with the world and how you engage and how you advocate your principles.
“There are so many wonderful leaders in so many aspects of Australian life, many of whom aren’t honoured necessarily or don’t even really have a title. But they demonstrate leadership in the work that they do and how they behave, and the sorts of ideas and principles they advocate.
“One of the great things about having kids” – Senator Wong and her partner Sophie have two young daughters – “is that it brings you into contact with a whole range of people through the children and you interface with the community in a different way and not as a politician. I really see it.”
Banner image: Nic Walker/Australian Financial Review/Fairfax Syndication