Flat White

Plibersek: lady in waiting

6 June 2022

12:00 PM

6 June 2022

12:00 PM

Remember Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong having to sit, teeth clenched, on the ABC’s 2019 election night special as results came in, realising it was not going to be a Shorten victory? In 2022, Shadow Education Minister and Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek was recruited to take Wong’s place on the panel. 

There are a lot of ironies here; Plibersek and her leader, Prime Minister Albanese, both come from low-income, European heritage.

Albanese is the result of his Australian mother’s shipboard romance with an Italian steward, Carlo Albanese, after which he was brought by his single mother in a council dwelling in Sydney, a fact he has not let us forget.

Plibersek’s family are migrants from Slovenia with arguably equally modest beginnings in Australia. Tanya eventually went on to study journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney and gained an MA in Public Policy (along the way she applied for, and turned down for a cadet-ship with the ABC).

Both have are exemplary examples of how, in Australia – with the right leg-ups, lucky breaks, and mentors – the pinnacles of power may be reached by anyone. 

So why the (not so very carefully concealed) hesitation between the now Prime Minister and Plibersek, who was reportedly not invited to the official Labor launch? (She diplomatically told the media that her job had kept her away.) A recent media report spoke of Plibersek’s ‘demotion’ while Gallery coffee-break gossip hints of coolness between the Prime Minister’s office and Plibersek’s people. 

The elephant in the caucus room – again, unspoken, but sensed by many – is that Plibersek looks too much like a leader for Albanese’s comfort, particularly after the stumbles and gaffes that marked the early days of his campaign. 

In Labor’s Byzantine hierarchies, you wait your turn and serve your time, but you wait much longer and serve more time if you’re female. 

After the Shorten downfall of 2019, Plibersek, like then-leader Bill Shorten from the Left, was expected to challenge for the leadership. She withdrew, claiming it wasn’t her time. The top job went to Albanese who brought her in as Shadow Minister for Education and Training then later, as Minister for Women. 

Albanese and Plibersek are both Sydney locals, but Plibersek has actually had the broader, deeper range of political knowledge and experience, including Health, Housing and Foreign Affairs along with International Development. 

According to her glowingly described Wikipedia listing:

‘When Plibersek was Minister for Health, Australia achieved the best 5-year cancer survival rates in the world. Plibersek also delivered 1,300 more hospital beds and 60,000 additional doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. She also oversaw the funding, construction and/or opening of a number of new facilities, including the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Cancer Centre, the Kinghorn Cancer Centre, the Launceston Multi-Purpose Health Centre, and a new medical and dental school as well as new facilities for the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) in Adelaide’

The Lighthouse Bus is a familiar sight to all Sydney commuters using Central station. If it was thanks to Plibersek’s initiative, those thanks are certainly due to her. 

Also interesting is that while she kept a discreetly low profile throughout the Labor campaign, Plibersek was out and about in Sydney with her flyers carrying the message ‘Protecting the ABC’ focus on ‘delivering a greater level of financial stability and certainty’ to ‘protect against arbitrary ideological cuts and political interference’. 

Plibersek also promised to ‘reverse Scott Morrison’s cut of $83.7 million to the ABC’ and ‘provide certainty for the ABC and SBS by providing them with five-year funding terms’ (the current term is three years). ‘Protecting the ABC’ plays very well to the same strata of voters that the Teals went after – mostly women, as well as older, more staid, Friends of the ABC. 

The watching media caught on quickly that Plibersek, while never actually out of favour, was not promoted as heartily as other women in Labor’s camp. But why?

There is a reason and it may be more cultural than political. Penny Wong ticks several of the Woke virtue boxes and has always been a valiant champion of her Party, but many Labor insiders privately acknowledge that the majority of Australians are not yet ready for a national leader of Wong’s heritage. 

Unfair? Unjust, certainly, especially as Penny Wong has shown herself to be adept at seeing off China’s envoy in the South Pacific (a bountiful promise of Australian development aid helped along the process as well). But is Wong seen as Albanese’s natural successor? 

‘Maybe eventually, not yet,’ was the comment of one Labor insider, adding, as a helpful afterthought. ‘You’re Eurasian, you should understand this.’

He was right on both counts. In the great migrant waves of the late 50s and early 60s, Australia’s population numbers were boosted by European migrants, but there were others, including my own family, that had to prove they were of 80 per cent European descent, needed to look European, and ‘behave in ways acceptable to the community’. 

That was the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy, thankfully now long dead, buried, and forgotten. It was a Labor policy designed to bring working class British families to Australia. Do vestiges of this remain in the dinosaur political brains or is this a subject that is to be tiptoed around, fingers in ears? 

Relevant, also, to remember that almost every Teal challenger, the platinum progressives, was well-funded, well-educated, and white. Dai Le, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees to Australia, won her stunning victory over the parachuted-in Labor high-flyer Kristina Kenneally – there’s a lesson to be learned there by both major parties. 

So ironically, sadly, and unluckily for Australia’s national politics, two able women are caught in a mesh of outdated hierarchy that will, in the end, serve neither. 

The Coalition can take lessons here. 

Peter Dutton, as John Howard before him, may be well served by the times we face, but there are many Liberal women of unswerving valour, one of whose number, Sussan Ley, has been chosen Dutton’s deputy. 

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