It also shows why Wong is not, and was never going to be, prime minister as many people, Wong excluded, hoped, though not for the reasons you may imagine. She is an introvert, in this media-saturated age an insuperable liability in pursuit of the top job.
Wong was born in 1968 in the northern Borneo city of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Her South Australian mother, Jane Chapman, had fallen in love with Colombo Plan University of Adelaide architecture student Francis Wong. Jane and Francis married and, after Francis completed his degree, moved to ‘‘KK’’ where he became a leading architect and Jane had children Penny and Toby.
Staying in Adelaide was not an option, Simons explains. The White Australia policy still existed and in any case Francis faced family obligations requiring his presence back home. Since Francis was Chinese-Malay, the family faced discrimination in Malaysia, too: the constitution gave official preference to ethnic Malays in education and employment.
The Wongs were part of a Christian minority in a largely Muslim nation. Wong experienced her early childhood as a comfortable cultural melange. Her grandmother was Buddhist, her father identified as Catholic and her mother was raised a Methodist. Family friends included Muslims and members of the local indigenous people, the Dayaks, of whom some were Christian, some Muslim, while others practised their original indigenous religion.
It gave Wong a strong sense of a divine force to which there were many paths. Here is the book’s first surprise: Penny Wong is a churchgoer.
Wong first visited Adelaide as a two-year-old on a visit with her mother. Six years later, after an amicable marriage breakdown, Jane, Penny and Toby moved there permanently. The family directly experienced South Australian small-mindedness. The only Asian faces at the local primary school, Penny and Toby were relentlessly bullied and the family home splashed with racist graffiti.
This forged a ‘‘steely resolve’’ in Wong, Simons writes. ‘‘She learned to control her emotions and fiercely protect her thoughts, not to let those outside her family see what was going on inside.’’ It also created a reservoir of inner rage that fuels the terror she can unleash on those who cross her to this day – unfortunate to have but super handy in politics.
A Scotch College scholarship changed Wong’s fortunes and unconsciously reconnected her with her mother’s Adelaide establishment forebears. Here is the book’s second surprise: she is descended from original South Australian settlers.
Wong’s great-great-great-grandparents Samuel and Charlotte Chapman and their baby daughter were at SA’s Proclamation Ceremony in 1836, making Wong more South Australian ‘‘blue blood’’ than Julie Bishop, though the money had run out by Jane’s generation.
The book’s third surprise is Wong’s matter-of-fact segue from a five-year relationship with the then young Labor activist Jay Weatherill – later Premier of SA for seven years – to relationships with women.
First was her seven-year-relationship with Dascia Bennett, in which she was stepmother to Dascia’s two children, and which ended shortly after Wong’s election to the Senate. Bennett had a social ease that smoothed the way in Wong’s preselection campaign, as well as the enthusiasm to overcome Wong’s caution about the bid.
Wong’s present relationship with partner Sophie Allouache, with whom she has two children, is zealously guarded from public view, including from Simons, who wrote the biography initially against Wong’s wishes, eventually replaced with slight support given through gritted teeth.
Simons’ book implicitly shows the inadequacy of an identity approach to understanding Wong and explaining her career while also demonstrating how crucial identity can be as an organising category for righting specific wrongs in particular historical moments.
It provides a fascinating account of Wong’s long campaign inside the Labor tent for marriage equality while still observing the party’s collective strictures. She and fellow campaigners Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek positively contrast with the cynical and self-interested calculus of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard on the issue.
Wong’s mother Jane astutely observed of Gillard to her daughter during Gillard’s prime ministership, ‘‘People would not understand how an atheist and a single woman in a de facto relationship could hold these views’’, adding to the ‘‘idea that she was somehow not authentic’’.
Simons shows Wong, in contrast, as able to operate in the same challenging environment and yet be true to herself and her values. It is a model that bears replicating.
This is a good book with the right balance of personal journey and labour history to show how contemporary politics works – and how it doesn’t work. It takes the passion and principle of the title, along with the ability to persist and bear a lot of pain in pursuit of purposeful goals. We are all in the debt of those like Wong who do so.
Chris Wallace is a political historian at ANU and the biographer of Germaine Greer.