Inside Story

Jane Austen’s prime minister?

Tanya Plibersek’s biographer makes the case for her “strength of understanding and coolness of judgement”

Jane Goodall Books 14 March 2023 1456 words

Steady ascent: environment minister Tanya Plibersek. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

When Mark Latham took over the leadership of the Labor opposition in late 2003, he gave Tanya Plibersek her first real ministerial responsibilities: a new portfolio in work, family and community. According to former staffers, she had asked him to appoint her as shadow minister for the status of women but drew the response that she should be aiming for something “with more grunt.”

Margaret Simons acknowledges the crude misogyny implicit in such a remark, but also that it was “in line with the views of most political hardheads.” The hardheads are not all misogynists: Julia Gillard and Penny Wong lean in that direction, though they would reject Latham’s terminology. Others, Plibersek a leading voice among them, would argue that bringing issues like childcare, domestic violence, human services and social inclusion to the centre of the policy arena is some of the toughest work around.

Taking this difference in perspective as a central theme, Simons begins her new biography, Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms, by paying her respects to Jane Austen, for whose work she and Plibersek share an enduring love. Given that Austen is not a political novelist, it’s an unlikely starting point. If you read all her works twice over you’d be forgiven for missing any reference to major national crises of the time: the madness of the King, the Highland clearances, the Luddite riots and (aside from the appearance of handsomely dressed soldiers) the Napoleonic wars.

And yet. She is the first English-language novelist to portray social and family relations as a form of politics. Social hierarchies display the dynamics of control and subjugation. Personalities are formed and deformed through ambition. Economic factors determine the composition and management of households, and underlie the all-important negotiations over marriage partners. At the heart of each story is the question of how personal integrity may play out in the midst of all this.

What piques Simons’s interest from the outset is that Plibersek has a special admiration for Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a character remarkable for “strength of understanding and coolness of judgement.” Dashwood’s good sense enables her to steer through thickets of vested interest and covert motivation towards a secure future. “It is rare, in fiction as in politics, for sensibleness to be cast as heroic virtue,” Simons observes, as she embarks on a political narrative that will have little in the way of major intrigues, crises and dramas, because these are not Plibersek’s milieu.

What she presents is an interesting case study in female ambition. Simons cites some stern remarks from Anne Summers on a 2001 interview in which Plibersek responded to a question about her ambitions by saying she was “not desperate to be a minister.” She’s known as a good communicator, never a fiery orator. Colleagues say she lacks “the vision thing.” Her career has been one of steady ascent, slow at times and rather predictable.

The daughter of Slovenian migrants whose skills and hard work brought the family to middle-class prosperity in a single generation, Plibersek grew up in Oyster Bay in Sutherland Shire and graduated as dux of Jannali Girls High School in 1987. Her association with the Labor Party began earlier, at the age of fifteen, and it was then that she first encountered Anthony Albanese as a fellow member of Young Labor.

After completing a degree in communications at the University of Technology Sydney, where she served as women’s officer in her honours year, she became involved in feminist networks that helped frame her enduring priorities. Meredith Burgmann, Wendy Bacon and Ann Symonds were important influences.

Her first big break came early, when it was suggested she run for preselection for the seat of Sydney after sitting member Peter Baldwin’s resignation. In her own words, it was “an audacious move,” and one that introduced her to the nasty business of factional politics. Simons emphasises this aspect of Plibersek’s story as background to the damaging Labor leadership battles that began when Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard replaced Kim Beazley in 2006, and continued through the chaotic alternations of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments.

How do you maintain an ethic of loyalty in an environment riddled with treachery? On a personal level, Plibersek steered a discreet course, never wavering from her loyalty to Beazley but serving the regimes that followed him with consistency and good grace.

Sometimes, though, loyalty to principles conflicts with personal loyalties, and the Tampa crisis of August 2001 was a crucial test in this regard. Beazley’s capitulation to the Howard government’s decision to refuse landing to the Norwegian freighter after it rescued 433 shipwrecked asylum seekers went against everything Plibersek believed in, yet after speaking out in fraught party meetings she, too, capitulated.

“I don’t think I’ve ever found it so hard to walk into the chamber and vote for something in my life,” she told Simons. She was only a backbencher, but perhaps this was, to use one of the metaphors employed in the book, a “sliding doors” moment in her career, as it was in Australian politics.

She had been speaking out on asylum seekers in alliance with Western Australian MP Carmen Lawrence. Suppose she had held the line, displayed some of the oratorical fire Simons finds lacking in her rhetoric, and taken a lead on “the vision thing”? It might have marked her out as a future prime minister. Surely that is what Jacinda Ardern would have done.

Opting instead for good parliamentary behaviour, she identified herself in the party room as someone to be thoroughly trusted with whatever brief she was given. Her ministerial portfolios in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments were in line with her established priorities: housing and the status of women, human services, social inclusion and health.

It was not until 2013, when she became shadow foreign affairs and international development minister, that she stepped outside what some might have termed her comfort zone, though “comfort” would be an ironic word to describe areas of responsibility in which so much human suffering is at issue, and where she has so often taken courageous personal action.

Simons astutely does the work of a Jane Austen, insisting on the centrality of what others might consider incidental matters. There is the account of how she noticed a man in a boarding house whose fingers were gangrenous, and drove him to hospital in time to get life-saving surgery. It’s one of countless incidents in which she intervened immediately to assist someone in a critical situation.

Preparation for a white paper on homelessness involved meetings around the nation in remote communities, homelessness centres and refuges. Plibersek was present whenever she could be. She would read correspondence from constituents, checking official replies to ensure that someone in urgent need was not left without a line of help.

According to staffers, she is not just “as good” as her reputation, but exceeds it. She takes home-cooked food to elderly neighbours and serves cake in the office for those working long hours. If someone brings an infant to work (as she did herself with two of her children), she adapts the office environment to suit their needs.

“She lives with great complexity, and handles it well,” as one colleague puts it. It’s the complexity that’s easy to miss, and that Simons is determined to capture. Demarcation lines between domestic and professional life, personal commitment and political statement, urgent situations and long-term objectives, are constantly being erased. This is unusual in a senior minister, even among women at that level.

There’s much in this book about Plibersek’s family: the challenges faced by her migrant parents, the murder of her dynamic brother Philip in Papua New Guinea, the well-known troubled past of her husband Michael Coutts-Trotter, now a distinguished senior public servant. And towards the end of the book, an exclusive interview reveals how her daughter Anna’s personal crisis led to Plibersek’s decision not to oppose Albanese for the leadership.

The question of whether she will at some stage become prime minister, and if so whether she would be a good one, hovers over the book, and draws with it another, larger question: what do we most need in a national leader?

As geopolitical tensions intensify, economic challenges deepen and ecological catastrophe looms, the main concern is how a prime minister can perform on the world stage, something Plibersek has never had a chance to demonstrate. But revelations from the robodebt inquiry draw the attention back to home ground, and the rot beneath our feet when human principles are discarded. Is Jane Austen’s prime minister the answer? •

Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms
By Margaret Simons | Black Inc. | $34.99 | 320 pages