A Malaysian-born gay woman could become Australia’s new foreign minister if the opposition Labor Party wins a tightly contested election next week.
Senator Penny Wong would be the third consecutive woman to take on the role, but the first Australian foreign minister of Asian heritage and the highest-ranking gay politician in a parliament typically dominated by conservative white men.
In a recent speech to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Wong said if Labor wins the election on May 18, her elevation to foreign minister would send a broader message to the world about Australia’s values as a multicultural nation.
“What would be significant… is what it says about us. What it says about who we are,” she said. “Narratives matter, as do perceptions. There are times when Australia’s past attitudes on race can be evoked in ways which are neither accurate nor helpful.”
Wong, 50, was born in the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo and moved to the Australian city of Adelaide with her parents in the 1970s when she was eight.
The Australian suburbs were very different from her early years in Borneo. “I remember feeling like I didn’t belong for quite a while,” Wong told CNN affiliate SBS. “I remember my first day at school. That was a bit hard, actually,” she said.
“I was probably the first Asian a lot of those kids had ever seen, and I remember things being said as we walked in to go to enroll. I remember people making comments about my race, and me realizing, that was the first time I actually realized, race was a factor.”
Her early political ambition was obvious when she took over the Labor Club at the University of Adelaide before graduating with an arts-law degree. Wong spent time with a trade union representing workers in the furniture industry before practicing law and becoming a ministerial adviser. She was elected to the Senate, the upper house of parliament, in 2001.
When Labor won power in 2007, Wong was appointed Climate Change and Water Minister and took part in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali. She was Minister for Finance and Deregulation from 2010 until voters pushed Labor back into opposition at the 2013 election.
Wong was the first woman elected as Leader of the Government in the Senate. The 2013 election loss meant she became Leader of the Opposition in the Senate within the same year – it was the first time a woman had filled either role. Her six-year term in the Senate expires in 2022, when she can run for re-election.
As part of Labor’s election campaign, Wong – the shadow minister for foreign affairs – has been deployed to areas of the country where the party fears losing seats. They are also places where Wong is considered to have high personal appeal – electorates with high migrant, and especially Asian migrant, populations.
“I think she’s a role model for many people in Australia society who want to see a different face to our public life and our public institutions,” said former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane.
A Human Rights Commission survey released in 2018 found that 76% of Australia’s business and political leaders were Anglo-Celtic.
The figure was marginally higher inside parliament, where 78% of ministers and senators were of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origin compared to 58% of the broader population.
Only 4% of parliamentarians had a non-European background, compared to around 21% of the population, according to the report, “Leading for Change.”
“The default of leadership in Australian life remains largely a white, Anglo-Celtic and male one and it’s going to require more people like Penny Wong to set an example for others so that people don’t accept that default as being the only possibility in Australian life,” said Soutphommasane, who commissioned the report.
Wong is also firmly in the minority as a gay politician. In 2017, she campaigned for the law to be changed to allow same-sex marriage, a move backed by 62% of Australians in a nationwide postal survey. Wong and her partner, Sophie Allouache, have two children.
After the vote, Wong said, “I hope that everyone in this parliament has heard the resounding voice of the Australian people today, a mandate for change, a mandate for equality.”
Dealing with China
The same-sex marriage debate may have focused attention on Wong’s family, but she’s known to be protective of her personal life and doesn’t actively seek media attention outside her work.
Wong’s foreign policy portfolio hasn’t featured highly in the upcoming election campaign, as voters focus on domestic issues such as taxes, wages and spending. However, if Labor wins, Wong would become Australia’s face to the world.
That face would be more focused on Asia as part of Labor’s FutureAsia policy, which seeks to deepen regional ties, establish new diplomatic missions and increase aid to poorer countries in the region. Wong said that if elected, her first trips would be to Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Southeast Asian nations are seen as increasingly important to Australia for trade, security and tourism – both to the current Coalition government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the opposition Labor party, led by prospective prime minister, Bill Shorten.
In Asia, Australia’s main focus is on its relationship with its leading trading partner, China. Relations have been strained in recent years by allegations of foreign interference, which the Australian government has addressed with new laws restricting foreign political donations.
“The new government, whether it’ll be the Morrison government or the Shorten government, will have to decide the kind of temperament they have with China and the pros and cons of being upfront and blunt and the pros and cons of being quieter,” said John Lee, a China expert from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
But he played down the idea that Wong’s Asian origins could help improve relations in the region.
“I don’t think countries think too much about the backgrounds or identity of Australian politicians. They look at the government’s policies,” said Lee, who was a senior adviser to former Liberal foreign minister Julie Bishop from 2016 to 2018.
“If Penny Wong becomes foreign minister, I don’t see it signaling that it would lead to a vastly different department that what it has been currently,” he added.
Wong herself said a Labor government would reframe its relationship with China so the country wasn’t pre-emptively seen “only as a threat.” Labor would also bring a “more considered, disciplined and consistent approach” to its dealings with Beijing, she said.
Wong said the United States would continue to be a “pillar” of Australian foreign policy, though some have pointed out that Shorten’s previous description of President Donald Trump as “barking mad” could present some difficulties. Shorten answered those queries Monday by saying he’d approach Trump “professionally and politely.”
“With Mr Trump and with Xi Jinping and Theresa May and Mr Macron and Mr Trudeau and all the other leaders, and my friend Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, I’ll be professional,” he said. “But what I’ll also do is never compromise our national interests. My foreign policy will be independently minded and it will speak with an Australian accent.”
As most foreigners know, the Australian accent is hard to master.
If she is elected, Wong will be striving to hit the right tone between the Australia of the past and the truly multicultural nation it will inevitably be in the future.