Penny Wong is not normal.
The Labor Senator for South Australia is exceptionally driven, exceptionally smart and exceptionally busy.
She lives in two separate cities, flies weekly between countless others, and juggles the demands of high office with the confidence and conflict resolution skills you’d expect of a former lawyer who has thrived in some of the most turbulent times Australian politics has ever seen.
There’s not a lot that’s “normal” about that.
She tells Holly Wainwright how she does it, here:
But there is one thing that is very “normal” about Senator Penny Wong: she loves her family. She frets about the amount of time she spends away from her kids Alexandra, 5, and Hannah, 11 months, and she loves and appreciates her long-time partner, Sophie Allouache.
When I met the Senator (who, yes, says “call me Penny”), what’s obvious is that the only thing that shatters her infamous cool, that ruffles her impeccably professional persona, is the suggestion that her family is NOT normal.
Like when Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby makes it his business to question whether same-sex couples could ever be a “normal” family, and uses the idea of children being raised “without a mother or a father” as a bludgeon with which whack the marriage equality debate.
“His argument is that we are not normal and that we will harm our children,” Penny says about Shelton’s arguments. “And I object very deeply and personally to the way that he and many others who oppose equality want to use our children as part of their political argument… If you really cared about kids you wouldn’t spend your time on the public airwaves, telling them that their families are not normal.
“I feel like saying, Do you have any idea how boringly normal the rest of our life is? We have a station wagon and a mortgage and we live in the suburbs. Our kids go to child care and kindy around the corner.. We forget the shopping list, we try to run around just like you do to the supermarket… Our lives are not that different. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?”
In person, Senator Wong is warmer and funnier than her formidable reputation suggests. Definitely a little intimidating, and fiercely private, she’s uncomfortable getting too personal about her life in Adelaide with Sophie and their kids, but she’s the kind of parent who can’t help breaking out the phone to show you how cute they are (very) and share her wonder at how parenting, the great leveller, might not have given her any sympathy for detractors, but has certainly softened her against parents dealing with tantrums in public.
“You want to say to them, ‘It happens to us all,'” says Penny. Although, when it happens to a high-profile politician, there’s an extra layer of stress. “‘See!'” she imagines the Lyle Sheltons of the world finger-wagging. “Penny Wong is a really bad parent!”
She certainly is not. But as she reveals in this conversation, she is a time-poor parent who wishes she was around more.
“I think my work life has changed since I had my family… I’m careful about structuring my time away… I try to carve time out and be really clear about what I need to do in terms of evening functions.
Sophie and I are delighted to announce the arrival of Hannah, a sister to Alexandra. Everyone is doing well. pic.twitter.com/7y8Y9Cku2Q
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) 7 April 2015
“For the first day of school I missed actually taking [Alexandra], but I did fly on the Monday morning so I could spend the night before with her. And you know, she had to take her backpack to bed.”
But then to the plane, because there’s work to be done. Back on the topic of marriage equality, Penny says anyone who thinks it’s an inevitable change is wrong.
“I’m in politics because I don’t ever think anything is inevitable… Change only ever happens because people work for it. That is the history of the women’s movement. Nothing happened without women standing up and saying we want the right to vote… That only happened because people worked for it.”
Listen to Penny talk about marriage here:
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