Senator Penny Wong: Meet the women at our dinner party.

Senator Penny Wong

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been introducing you to some of the better known women who read Mamamia. We like to refer to them as the women sitting next to you at the dinner party.

So far we’ve had the pleasure to meet Leigh Sales (journalist and presenter of the iconic current affairs program ABC’s 7.30) and Clare Bowditch (singer, story teller and ARIA Award winner).

This week, we’re sitting down with Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Finance and Deregulation.

MM. You’ve been asked time and time again about how your own views on gay marriage contradict the position of your party. That must get tiring after a while. How do you deal with that? Do you regularly lobby your colleagues around the issue?

PW: I made a choice when I stood for Parliament as a Labor Party member that I would argue my opinions internally, rather than publicly, as part of the Caucus process, and I have done so. The Labor Party adopted a new platform last year with regards to marriage equality – we support marriage equality – and the PM has enabled a conscience vote on this legislation in the Parliament. I am very pleased to have progressed this important issue with my Labor colleagues and Rainbow Labor.

MM. You’re Australia’s finance minister but traditionally it has been unusual for women in politics to hold money-related portfolios. Did you find that your gender impacted the way people viewed your appointment to or performance in that role?

PW: Overall, most people deal with me on my merits. I do notice the extent to which some men in parliamentary debate react to and treat women differently.


MM. You and your partner recently had a baby (congratulations!) Were you surprised by the media’s reaction to her birth? 

PW: I suppose I wasn’t surprised by the fact that there was a lot of interest in Alexandra’s birth, but I was very moved by the warmth of the response. We’ve received many kind messages and gifts from people around Australia and even overseas. It’s been very touching.

Senator Penny Wong with partner Sophie Allouache and daughter Alexandra

MM. Who are the Australian women you would want your daughter to aspire to be like? 

PW: I want my daughter to be herself – to be the best of who she can be.

MM. How would you define your kind of feminism?

PW: For me, feminism is about choice; the freedom to be who you want to be.

MM. They say that “You cannot be what you cannot see”. Who do you admire? Who did you look to when growing up?

PW: Growing up, and still today, I admire my mum and her four sisters. They are strong, caring and independent women who were, in many ways, ahead of their time.

My grandmother was very important to me – she was the strongest person I have ever known. Most of her family died during the war and she was left alone to care for my father and his siblings in unspeakable circumstances.In the political context, I think we all admire Nelson Mandela. For me, this is not only for his political achievements, but also the generosity of spirit he showed personally, and the reconciliation he was able to inspire in a nation.


MM. Do we have strong enough female role models on our television screens? Who do you think are bad influences?

PW: We have some way to go when it comes not only to the number of strong female role models, but also the portrayal of women in the media. The persistent focus on a woman’s appearance rather than on her capacity and achievements sends a bad message to our young people. And, regardless of your political views, I think the extent of personal commentary about the Prime Minister sends a negative message. It suggests to girls that even if you reach the highest office in the land, there will always be focus on your appearance rather than your achievements alone.

Senator Penny Wong at the swearing in ceremony for the 43rd Parliament.

MM. With such a significant proportion of Australia’s population having Asian heritage, why are role models of Asian descent not more prominent in public life and on our television screens?

PW: I have always held the view, whether it’s about gender or culture, that the community is best served if the Parliament reflects it the diversity of the community it represents.

MM. What was the most disappointing moment or biggest setback in your career? How did you recover?

PW: The most disappointing moment in my career was probably not getting the CPRS through the Parliament in 2009. But you just have to remember there are things you can change and there are things you can’t and as long as you have done everything you can in your remit, then, really, that’s all you can do.


MM. Australia has a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General and three females High Court justices – do we need feminism any more?

PW: Yes – because there is still more to do and the momentum for change is not automatic. We have witnessed significant advances from my mother’s generation to mine, but it does not mean progress will automatically continue for the next generation. It requires constant effort to not only make progress, but also to ensure that the progress made is not unwound.

Senator Penny Wong shopping in the Adelaide Central Market.

MM. What’s your greatest talent/achievement that you will never be able to put on your resume?

PW: Um … I can cook a lot of meals at once??? Sometimes I’ll have lunch and a couple of dinners for the week on the stove at once because I do try to ensure there’s meals ready-to-go while I’m away.

MM. What do you want Australia to look like it 25 years? What do you think Australia will look like?

PW: I hope that in 25 years, Australia will be more confident about our place in the world and in our diversity.

MM. What’s the biggest challenge facing Australian women?

PW: The misogyny I’ve seen online since I joined the Twitter world has been quite remarkable. While I accept it’s a minority of people, the fact that we still have such attitudes is a challenge for all of us.

Penny was elected into the Senate in 2002 and was appointed Minister for Finance and Deregulation in September 2010. She enjoys strolling on the beaches of the Southern Fleurieu with her family, sampling fresh produce at the Central Market, and the occasional indulgence in a South Australian red. You can find her on twitter here and online here.