Handling this gap between Australia’s commitments and the reality will be the first major challenge of one of Labor’s younger leaders. Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the “rising stars” of Australian politics, Penny Wong turned 39 last month and her newly minted portfolio is likely to be the benchmark test for the incoming administration. Australia’s first Asian-born cabinet minister is leading the Rudd Government team at the Bali negotiations and has been given a tough brief by the Prime Minister to help bridge the gap between the positions of the developed and developing world on future emissions controls.
The nature of the assignment is a sign of Rudd’s confidence in his young new minister. Penelope Ying-Yen Wong was born in 1968 in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Her father is Francis Wong Yit Shing, a Chinese architect. Her mother is from Adelaide and her Australian heritage dates back to 1836. Wong’s parents met when he came to Australia as a Colombo Plan student. The couple then moved back to Sabah. Penny was just eight years old when her parents separated. She moved with her mother and brother to Australia and the family settled in the Adelaide Hills.
Penny Wong was a gifted student at Adelaide’s Coromandel Valley Primary and won a scholarship to Scotch College. Wong went on to the University of Adelaide where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Law Degree (Hons). While still a student, she began working for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and she stayed on with the union after graduating. Wong then moved to NSW where she was employed as a ministerial advisor to the Carr government, concentrating on forest policy. She later returned to Adelaide to practise law.
In her student days in the 1980s, Wong demonstrated against the Hawke Labor government’s plan to introduce HECS fees for university students. She began to realise she would be better off working within the system to effect the change she wanted to see. She became a member of the Labor party and joined EMILY’s List Australia, the network formed to increase the number of women Labor parliamentarians in favour of childcare, equal pay, and pro choice agendas.
Penny Wong is one of only two openly gay people in Australia’s parliament, along with Green’s leader Bob Brown. Wong has properly refused to publicly comment on her sexuality but she did provide a written statement to the gay community newspaper Sydney Star Observer where she wrote:
“It seems that public figures are becoming more prepared to be open about their sexuality. This demonstrates an increased confidence in the community that people can be openly lesbian or gay and still be successful in their chosen field – a credit to years of advocacy by very brave people. That advocacy has enabled many lesbian and gay public figures to focus on their chosen fields, rather than automatically becoming spokespeople on sexuality issues. I believe this reflects maturity, diversity and strength among the lesbian and gay community”.
Penny Wong moved her chosen field from the law to politics and she was elected as a senator for South Australia in the 2001 election. In her maiden speech to parliament Wong spoke about her Chinese roots. Her paternal grandmother Lai Fung Shim (whom she referred to as “Poh Poh” in her native language) was a Chinese woman of the “Hakka” or guest people. Most of the family died during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia and Wong’s grandmother brought up the family alone. Wong described her as barely literate, humble and compassionate, but the strongest person she has ever known.
Lai Fung Shim survived the ravages of the Japanese in the Sandakan on the island of Borneo. Now the second largest city in Sabah, during the war Sandakan was notorious as the site of a Japanese airfield built by the slave labour of POWs and civilians and the starting point of an infamous death march of two thousand Australian and British prisoners. Conditions for the locals was equally awful, but Poh Poh survived with what Wong called "an indomitable spirit".
Penny Wong has clearly inherited the strength and toughness of her grandmother and she was appointed to the shadow ministry after just three years in parliament. She gained a reputation as a tough questioner on Senate estimates committees, and raised high profile issues against the Government, including the use of the Prime Minister’s residence Kirribilli House for a Liberal function.
Wong’s qualities were noted when she was appointed to the role of Labor campaign spokesperson for the 2007 election. The party’s subsequent stunning election victory was due in no small measure to a smooth ‘on message’ execution of their campaign. At a national press club speech yesterday, campaign manager and ALP national secretary Tim Gartrell praised Senator Wong’s contribution saying “she took on some of the toughest guys on the other side and came out on top.”
Penny Wong has now been rewarded with the new and influential ministry of Climate Change and Water (pushing out Peter Garrett – ironically one of the few Labor failures of the otherwise flawless campaign). In this newly minted portfolio, Wong will be responsible for negotiating the international agreement on emissions reductions after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol expires. She is also responsible for implementing a domestic emissions trading regime and harmonising the farrago of state-based energy targets into a national program. Wong will relish the challenge of government. "The problem of being in Opposition,” she said, “is that the things you really want to achieve, you haven't achieved."