Penny Wong’s journey to becoming the first Asian-born member of an Australian Cabinet began in Malaysia more than three decades ago. The Labor Senate Leader tells SBS about overcoming racism to make political history.
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The nationwide debate over the Racial Discrimination Act has made politics personal for many, but none more so than for Penny Wong.
The Labor Senate Leader, born in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, moved to Australia in 1977 in an experience that inescapably influenced her career.
Though it would be another 24 years before she was elected to the Senate, Ms Wong told SBS that her early migration is an experience that formed the foundations of her political drive.
“The experience of prejudice and racism has no doubt formed my desire to try to make things better,” she says.
“There was always going to be a set of choices I made about how I would try to do that and ultimately I chose politics.”
‘It was difficult to come to a place that I experienced as pretty hostile at times’
It was a tough transition for the eight-year-old Wong, who moved with her mother and brother to Adelaide following a family split.
Not only did she leave behind her father, her new home welcomed the future politician with racism and marginalisation, something she has repeatedly addressed in the Senate since her maiden speech in 2002.
Wong says it was difficult adjusting to life in Australia, which she describes as “pretty hostile at times”, but moving on from her Malaysian upbringing became easier with time.
“Obviously, nothing stays difficult forever,” she says.
“Over time you make more friends, you become more comfortable in your community and your experience of racism or marginalisation becomes less and less. I think I certainly found high school easier than primary school, I found university easier than high school.”
‘It’s a work that all major political parties need to seriously address’
Wong has since made political history as the first Asian-born member of an Australian Cabinet, but it’s a title she eschews.
Like friend and former political ally Julia Gillard, a woman destined to become best known as the country’s first female prime minister, Wong says she wants to be remembered for policy but concedes her achievement has had some impact.
“I think being the first is important because there is a second and a third,” she says.
“Being first is important not actually for you, but for how it influences other people and that it changes the aspirations that others have.”
It was an uphill battle for Wong and one which she addressed coming into Senate.
Australia’s political history of racism and migration was among the issues highlighted by the Senator in her maiden speech, painting a picture of a country plagued by the days of the White Australia Policy and Tampa, of Arthur Calwell and his infamous 1947 comment that “two Wongs don’t make a white”.
“The experience of prejudice and racism has no doubt formed my desire to try to make things better.”
Though progress has been made, Wong says Australia and parliament itself are still lagging when it comes to diversity.
“We’re better than we were, but we’ve still got a way to go,” she says.
“I’m one who believes that you should to have genuine diversity in your institutions because I think they serve the community and they represent better if they reflect that community… It’s a work that all major political parties need to seriously address, whether it’s gender or more culturally diverse representatives.”
‘We still hear homophobic slurs bandied around as if they're acceptable’
Wong has also made history outside parliament, as the first politician to be openly in a same-gender relationship.
She says her migrant background is something that stays strong in her relationship with partner Sophie Allouache and daughter Alexandra, particularly around Chinese New Year.
“The way in which food and family, sharing of meals and making sure you host large family events, is something that I value,” she says.
“As my younger sister said once, it’s the way that my father always showed his love for his children, by feeding them well. I suppose I try to bring that to my life here.”
Her relationship was thrown into the spotlight again last month, when Wong spoke out about homophobia in Australia’s sporting culture during a passionate address to the Senate.
Speaking in defence of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, she told her colleagues that she was angered over the negatives reactions from some sectors of the public.
“We still hear homophobic insults and slurs bandied around as if they're acceptable, harmless just a bit of a laugh,” she said.
“Well it isn't a laugh to a young person growing up working out who they are surrounded by an atmosphere of hostility.”
‘I have seen bigotry face on and it is not a pretty sight’
Wong is no stranger to impassioned speeches to the Senate, which she has addressed numerous times on the previously proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Abbott Government has since dropped the proposed changes, the Prime Minister axing the measures in an attempt to the country on board with “Team Australia”.
The move has been undermined by the promise of a future bill by Family First Senator Bob Day, but voters can be certain Wong will rally against it.
In an earlier speech to the Senate on the proposed changes, Wong said she had “seen bigotry face on and it is not a pretty sight.”
“For those of us who have experienced bigotry, those communities who understand how important a respectful and tolerant society is, this is a debate about what happens in our streets and in our schools and in our community and on our public transport,” she says.
“It’s a debate about what’s said to our children and what’s said to us. It’s a real life debate about real people.”
‘I seek a nation that all Australians can share, regardless of race’
There may be more than a decade between them, but the similarities between these comments and Wong’s maiden speech are irrefutable, echoing her statement on a nation which “all Australians can share, regardless of race.”
It is a reference not only her heritage, but also her brother, who took his life 10 days after Wong was elected in 2001.
In her maiden speech to the Senate, she marked his passing and their shared experiences of what it was like to be feel alone in a foreign land.
“Your life and death ensure that I shall never forget what it is like for those who are truly marginalised.”