Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Penny Wong has always been one of the more interesting politicians in the Australian Federal Government. She appears to be a consummate practitioner of her chosen path, holds a very responsible position in the Parliament and can demonstrate an overwhelming intelligence in demolishing her opposition.
But what is she really like? I had hoped that Margaret Simons was going to tell me in the recently-published biography. I felt uneasy when I examined the title. Passion and Principle telegraphs that the biographer has accepted, possibly through persuasion, that her subject is on the side of the angels, and that I was heading for a read, blindly sympathetic to Ms Penny Wong. There’s nothing unsavoury about holding such a view if the evidence supports it. Still, I would not use a cover that leads in the way this one does.
Margaret Simons admits in her first line that Penny Wong did not want this book written. She was vehemently opposed to the project and made her views known. But the book was to go ahead anyway, and a number of reasons are supplied to explain the decision. However, honeyed words cannot excuse the arrogance of that decision. It says volumes about Wong that, while she would not cooperate, she did not interfere with the author’s access to her friends. The arrogance is reinforced when Simons admits, “There are probably no advantages politically for Penny Wong in having a biography written now – and potentially some disadvantages” (xi).
And so the book that was written over Penny Wong’s initial protests, is on the shelves, and I confess to some dismay on reading that Penny Wong’s verdict on the published work was:
It would give a version of her that she would have to deal with and live with and which would be accepted as true – and it would not be how she saw herself (xii).
The first chapter Kindred Offspring begins with Wong’s arrival in Australia in 1976. We are told that she and her brother Toby were enrolled in Coromandel Valley Primary School in 1977. There they were bullied, a fact that is repeated regularly in this biography. By the time the end of page 2 is reached, the interest switches to “the nature of the woman behind the carefully curated image…is the justification for pursuing the book despite her [Wong’s] objections” (3). I can’t see that so-called justification myself. Further, nothing has been presented to suggest a “carefully curated image”. Perhaps that is to come. While I concede that politicians do work at an image, to make the point about Wong specifically, the author is on shaky grounds unless she has evidence supporting her claim. In any event the comment is remarkable.
From page 3 until the last part of page 6 is all politics, concluding with “In summary, Penny Wong is easy to like and demands admiration, but is also easy to fear” (6). I have read no evidence of Wong demanding admiration. Since I’m reading a chapter called Kindred Offspring, I wondered about the presence of so much politics, but noted how knowledgeable Simons is, and how interesting her accounts of political matters were. What is more, the explanation for the use of the chapter title appears in the family history section beginning on page 7 and concluding on page 24. Very compact description will be a challenge for some readers to absorb.
In a chapter called Butterflies and Bullies we read more of the child Penny Wong. There is the story of the magic of butterflies in a tropical setting that enthralled the child, the cultural, religious and ethnic melange that informed her life and developed within Penny Wong the strong sense of God that she retains today. There are excerpts from the life of Penny’s mother that, because they are brief, do not detract from the biography. The living hell that was Australia is brought out in forceful fashion by the description of Coromandel Valley Primary School and most graphically in the voice of a neighbour’s, “Go back to where you came from, you slant-eyed little slut!” The chapter is told well, marred unfortunately by a flash of unrecognised snobbery in a description of the people of Adelaide as besotted by the name of the school that children attended. We’re told Penny Wong had the ‘correct’ answer by winning a scholarship to the exclusive Scotch College, the playground of the wealthy. However, the word ‘correct’ I read as a value judgment the author had no right to make.
It is appropriate that a chapter should be devoted to Wong’s involvement in student politics. I found the detail that makes up the Becoming Labor chapter, except where it reported on Wong’s direct involvement, an irritation. The chapter that follows begins with the romance with Jay Weatherill, toils through descriptions of some of Wong’s political allies and friends, and leads to a statement that speculates Wong had been monitoring the progress of the book but was finally stirred into agreeing to be interviewed when she heard that men might be achieving recognition for actions that she herself had taken. This is a shallow view of Wong which, unfortunately, given her politician status, might well be true.
Into the Woods is mostly heavily swung in the direction of Wong’s involvement with members of the environmental movement, in Tasmania’s forests in particular. I found significance in another quarter, however. This is the difficulty the author discovered in trying to get an address for a certain Gavin Hillier. She states, “Gavin Hillier was difficult to track down in research for the book. The CFMEU under its current leadership was either unable or unwilling to provide contact details” (95). One might read in this statement a reluctance to assist in the writing of a book that its subject just did not want written. Speculation, agreed, and not definitive – but suggestive. Another reading is that to achieve a goal a writer must be persistent and bloody-minded, and in these characteristics Simons appears eligible for the Gold Medal.
The biography continues with exhaustive coverage of the politics that is Penny Wong’s professional life. Interspersed are more personal issues that define the senator – the views she holds on religious issues (105 -06) and racism (114 – 15); her brother’s suicide; her seven year affair with Dascia Bennett, to name just a few. Simons provides detail about the effect on Wong when the affair ended. Her source is not disclosed. In a professional biography, it should be. She does provide a very positive way to signify what the affair meant to all concerned. “When Courtney [one of Dascia Bennett’s children] married in 2016, three people stood up to give her away – her father, her mother, and her stepmother, Penny Wong” (126). That was a nice touch.
Such a pity that immediately afterwards, the author delivers a piece of woman’s-magazine style journalese that sounds nothing like Wong. It’s a speculation based on information Penny Wong is hardly likely to have confided…that in 2002 “the hurt and loneliness must have been uppermost. Penny Wong had achieved political success but was weighed down with grief and the end of a relationship” (126). No evidence supports this insight. When asked more recently about her feelings at that time, Wong’s response was a guarded, “It was a very hard time” (126). On pages 164 – 65 are at least two views of interest. The first is Penny Wong’s promotion within the Parliament and her selection as the Minister to accompany Prime Minister Rudd to sign the Kyoto Protocol in Bali. The second is the tired commentary from the Australian media who could find little more important than Wong’s ethnicity and sexual preference. Simons can be quoted among the journalists in two places on the same page:
Other media noted that Penny Wong was the first ethnic Chinese, and the first lesbian, to be a cabinet minister (165).
The first lesbian? I’d like to see the author produce proof of that!
Now she was carrying two of the most important and challenging portfolios in the new government, loaded with all the symbolic baggage and expectation that her difference – female, lesbian and Asian – brought with it (165).
What is more important I would have thought was not her difference but rather what she shares with the Australian people, namely her nationality. She is one of us.
There is much about the book that I dislike. The emphasis on matters such as the bullying at primary school, the vicious name-calling of a very young girl, the constant harping on Penny Wong’s differences, the overly prurient interest in Wong’s personal life, and the observations presented as self-evident and therefore true, was, to my mind, uncalled for. A point that needs airing in this regard is the assumption that the action of an ignorant woman in pouring abuse on a child over a backyard fence damaged Ms Wong for life. Most children would pass the incident off as ‘just another angry adult’. The senator’s response to similar abuse in later life was simply a shrug. While the action of vilifying a child is never acceptable, Penny Wong appears to be dealing with personal abuse in an adult way. However, the ‘big’ dislike for me is the decision to ignore Penny Wong’s specific advice that she did not want the book written. To write that its publication could be disadvantageous to Wong’s career increases the insensitivity of the author. That Wong subsequently relented, and made herself available for limited interviews, does not weaken the objection.
Margaret Simons reports on a final interview with Penny Wong as the book ends.
Penny Wong is speaking: I know I was pretty hard on you…And in a perfect world I would prefer that this wasn’t being done. But I hope there is something about whatever story you write that has some benefits (317).
Senator Wong does not appear convinced.
By Margaret Simons