Early in Margaret Simons’ Passion and Principle, there is a long excursion into the history of the Hakka people in Borneo, the “notoriously political” and “rebellious” group from which, on her father’s side, Senator Penny Wong is descended. Simons concludes: “the Hakka are strong, hardworking outsiders … through talent and determination they end up at the centre of history. They initiate change, and refuse to only be victims. In these characteristics … Penny Wong is surely Hakka”.
Putting aside the strikingly old-school linking of ethnicity to character (even in such grand and positive terms), the passage says something about the book in which it’s found.
Passion and Principle is a biography about a largely unwilling subject. There are topics Wong will not broach and questions to which she will only provide curt answers. The book is thus at times padded; tangents are followed, some fairly bland passages from the author’s interviews with Wong are included, and phrases like “it is tempting to conclude” do a lot of heavy lifting.
Simons frequently discusses her own process, veering between genuine insight and seeming indulgence. Too many times, Simons includes long descriptions of the questions and notions she has put to Wong, protracted paragraphs that end with: “she agreed”.
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We follow Wong through early childhood in Malaysia, through bullying and racism at school in Adelaide, via uni politics, the unions and finally the Senate, and her rise through the ranks of the ALP. The book is effusive about her obvious talents as a politician — both as a policy thinker and an “operator” who gets things done, who is close to the right people at the right time, and who frequently benefits from backroom dealing that she manages to avoid being publicly associated with. This is offset by her slight lack of a common touch — no one would be worried about her holding her own with world leaders, but she is not, as one colleague puts it, the “having a beer with the locals” type.
Wong’s approach to politics is that, above all, you have to be “in the room” influencing decision making, rather than impotently protesting outside the door. Crikey columnist Guy Rundle once observed that Malcolm Turnbull’s downfall resulted, in part, from his inability “to look the waste and absurdity of political life in the eye and say, ‘yup, I’ll give myself to that.'” It seems like there’s no such deficiency in Wong. She is relentless in her preparation, her determination to beat the bullies, the racists, the homophobes, by being the smartest and toughest person in the room.
The easiest place to see this in effect is her exacting performances in Senate estimates. See this instance of Wong v Mathias Cormann, where Cormann makes an offhand comment about how Wong likes “channeling Senator [Pauline] Hanson”. Wong, calling on her own history with Hanson’s rhetoric, destroys him.
A heated exchange in #estimates as Mathias Cormann says Penny Wong "likes channeling Pauline Hanson" and then suggests there's some "confected outrage" going on. @politicsabc pic.twitter.com/HJOdFhql5Q
— Henry Belot (@Henry_Belot) May 22, 2018
She’s right, and one does not doubt her sincerity. But one also senses the deliberate, calculating nature — the pauses, allowing Cormann to bluster on a little longer, before ratcheting up the anger and interrupting him once more — of the performance. Simons at one point quotes a piercing observation from Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy: with Wong, flare-ups are “choreography, not impulse”.
The “inside the room” approach also means Wong has had to publicly support policy that she hates, most painfully during the ALP’s opposition to marriage equality.
Thus the power of a small, beautiful revelation towards the end of the book. Wong’s young daughter apparently told her, before 2019, that she didn’t want her mum to win the election, as it would mean even more time apart. It goes to a point that Simons makes explicit later — this book is as much about what politics exacts from people as it is about Wong individually.
The obvious point for this book to end on would be the 2019 election, forcing us to reflect on the sadness of a figure like Wong. What was it all for, the compromise, the endless slogging and preparation, the exacting questions in estimates, taking homophobic and racist abuse on the one hand and being told off for her party’s capitulations to the conservatives on the other? All that, only to be marooned once more in opposition. Wong concedes the election disappointment struck at her very core, at her understanding of the meaning of her life.
So it at first seems odd that the story continues for a chapter after the election, dissecting Wong’s influences and philosophy of foreign affairs. By the end it is clear that, to Simons, Wong — a talented, principled and canny politician, comfortable with competing identities yet not defined by any of them, hit by the peculiar tragedy of Australian politics in the last decade, but not destroyed by it — is far from done.
Penny Wong: Passion and Principle is out now.
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