Interview with Penny Wong

A few weeks ago The Weekly Review flew photographer Kristoffer Paulsen and me to Adelaide to interview Labor senator Penny Wong. This cover story is the result.

Here’s a link to the story or you can read on, below.

Penny Wong: ‘The country did a great thing and it meant a lot to a lot of people’

At a time when public interest in the private lives of politicians could be at its lowest ebb, it’s a brave or reckless MP who opens up to the media about her family. But for the usually very private Senator Penny Wong, last year’s marriage equality debate gave her no choice. The openly gay mother of two found her personal life taking centre stage in a divisive public discussion that caused distress to many people in the LGBTIQ community.

The record shows that Australians answered emphatically “yes” to same-sex marriage. But now, almost six months after the law was changed, Wong has been reflecting on how the battle affected her family. “It’s a cliche, isn’t it, but children change your life. In very practical ways – a whole new level of sleep deprivation,” she laughs, “but they change your life also in terms of the relative weight you give things. And I got into politics because I wanted to make change and change the world, or the country, for the better. I think having kids gives that a different emotional resonance.”

We are chatting in a spartan meeting room in the Labor senator’s electoral office in central Adelaide. Like climate change, she says, marriage equality is an intergenerational issue. But when elements of the “no” campaign resorted to implying that same-sex couple families were somehow “lesser” because they didn’t contain a mother and a father, it affected her deeply.

“The stakes on that were raised by the way in which the debate proceeded, in that so many of those who were opposed to equality were prepared to use children as collateral damage, as collateral, in what I’ve described as the war against equality. I could accept that there were people who didn’t agree but I found it actually ethically untenable, the way in which they were prepared to use children as the basis on which they ran the argument.”

Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Wong clearly hasn’t forgotten comments made by Joe Hockey on ABC’s Q&A, either. “If people really cared about kids, one would think you’d actually think about what it meant for children to hear persistently in the media that their families were somehow abnormal. Those were the messages. So, [the debate] was very important and it was important because of the principle of equality and because of people’s relationships.

“People should have that choice and a loving relationship shouldn’t be discriminated against in the way that they were. But it was pretty important, I think, because of what it said to all our children about inclusion.”

With her partner Sophie Allouache and their two daughters, Alexandra, 6, and Hannah, 3, Wong lives in an inner-southern suburb of Adelaide. Like most families, the couple juggles parenting and work with Sophie doing “more than the lion’s share” of the former.

As Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the opposition spokeswoman for foreign affairs, Wong’s schedule has her flying regularly to Canberra. To compensate, she tends to fly late on a Sunday and return early on Friday, in order to be home for family breakfast; she cooks when she can (curries and lasagne among her repertoire) and does school drop-offs, when her schedule permits.

“What can you do?,” she says. “I think we still structure work on the [assumption] that there’s someone home doing primary caring responsibilities. I think that’s the reality.”

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

Wong also loves reading to her children – currently she is flipping between the Winnie-the-Pooh collection and a fairy book series with Alexandra and various picture books with Hannah (favourites include There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Cake and A Lion In The Night). “Kids’ books are great – that has been a revelation; they’re so much fun. One of the best things I’ve done as a politician was I got to read at Writers’ Week, and the girls chose what I read.”

As for Mother’s Day, the loose plan so far is to catch up with both her mother and Sophie’s. Meanwhile, Wong remembers dishing up badly made instant coffee and toast in bed as a child for her mum, although pancakes were preferred.

Alexandra and Hannah are still a little young to carry on that tradition, she says. “We just usually have a nice breakfast. It’s usually a bit of a negotiation because Hannah loves pancakes, Xandra doesn’t like pancakes – she must be the only child in the universe who doesn’t like pancakes.”

During the height of the marriage equality debate, says Wong, it was impossible to keep Alexandra oblivious to everything that was happening in the media. “She would ask whether people supported it or not and she wanted to go to shops that had the sign, you know, ‘This small business supports equality’. She’d say, ‘They support equality, mum, let’s go there’.”

When the yes vote was announced on November 15 it brought the family great relief (not to mention Wong to tears – she’s still embarrassed about crying on national television). “[Alexandra] said, ‘We won, Ma,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we did, darling. Isn’t it good?’ And now we just – everyone’s moved on. I think one of the changes is it doesn’t feel as much of a statement any more, does it? Sometimes you used to feel that being in public with Soph and the kids, some people used to regard it as a political statement … but [now] it just feels like life.”

Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Which brings us back to that central question. Why would Senator Wong – known for her methodical and excoriating intellectual take-downs of political rivals – be talking about pancakes and parenting with a journalist? “With all due respect, I didn’t get in to politics to talk about my personal life,” she begins, pausing to find the right words.

“[With] the yes vote, the country did a great thing and it meant a lot to a lot of people. And it meant a lot not just to those of us who are in same-sex relationships but it meant a lot to people in the community for whom this really mattered … And it mattered a lot to parents in families like ours. It mattered a lot to us for our kids. So, I suppose I did want to express that again.”

In past speeches Wong has maintained she fights for the world she wants her children to inherit. And so, whether conscious of it or not, this Mother’s Day at the Wong/Allouache household will be a special one. Because the world has changed.