Saturday, December 01, 2007

Penny Wong – Minister for Water

In the wash-up of last weekend’s federal election, we have awoken to a very different political landscape in Australia. John Howard’s Coalition Government has been replaced after 11.5 years by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

We have a full suite of new Ministers to get to know, including Penny Wong who is now in charge of the Cabinet portfolio ‘Climate Change and Water’.

There are two things about Penny Wong that journalists never fail to mention when they write about her. One is that she is a woman and the other is that she was born in Malaysia.

Both facts may be significant in that they make her unusual in the Australian Parliament (and did even more so when she was first elected). However, this really tells us more about the Australian Parliament than it does about Penny Wong.

Wong’s mother was Australian and her father Chinese. The family settled back in her mother’s home city of Adelaide in 1977 when Wong was eight years old. She studied Law at Adelaide University and was admitted to the Bar in 1993.

The earliest newspaper reference that I can find to Wong comes from the Adelaide Advertiser in March 1998. She was a lawyer representing a driver for Adelaide’s public train and tram service TransAdelaide in the South Australian Industrial Relations Court.

At the time, TransAdelaide had a growing habit of employing workers in “part-time” positions, but still having them work 38 hours per week or more. Being part-time, these workers were not entitled to full-time pay and conditions, including long-service and sick leave. Wong was quoted referring to the workers as "Clayton's part-timers" and arguing that TransAdelaide “can't have its cake and eat it too".

Wong won the landmark case with the court finding that all TransAdelaide's part-time drivers who worked 38 hours a week or more should be paid as full-time employees. Furthermore, those who worked on Sundays and more than 48 weeks a year were also eligible for full-time pay and conditions.

A few months later in August 1998, the Adelaide Advertiser again referred to Penny Wong, -this time as a rally organizer and representative of the “Celebrating Diversity Coalition”. The rally involved more than 4000 people marching through Adelaide in a candlelit demonstration of solidarity against racism.

Penny Wong - Minister for Climate Change and Water

In the years preceding the 2001 Federal election, Wong was preselected as the No 1 candidate on the ALP Senate ticket in South Australia. Wong was (and remains) a member of the ALP Left faction and her preselection occurred amid the usual factional manoeuvring. She had the numbers and replaced the sitting Senator (and former State secretary of the ALP and Keating minister) Chris Schacht. The dislodging of such sitting members is extremely rare in the ALP.

Both Wong and her No 2 Senate candidate Linda Kirk were established legal professionals (Kirk was a lecturer in Law at Adelaide University). However, a month out from the election, classy newspapers like the Sunday Mail were running such in-depth analyses as the one headlined “Labor's lipstick warriors” (7 Oct, 2001). The first line read “They’re smart, attractive - and Labor's "lipstick weapons" against the popularity of the Democrats' Natasha Stott Despoja”. Hard-hitting Australian journalism at its best.

2001 was the year that The Tampa had sailed in over the horizon spurring John Howard and ALP "leader" Kim Beazley to undertake a refugee kicking contest as an election campaign. Beazley demonstrated that he could kick any refugee just as hard as Howard could, but in the end the election was won by Howard’s solemn pledge that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

An article in The Australian referred to the Senate win by Wong and Linda Kirk as “the sole highlight for Labor” in the election.

Wong was sworn into the Senate in August 2002. The Adelaide Advertiser ran a feature in which Wong listed the environment, salinity and the River Murray among her top policy priorities. "Depending on what study you read, the water in Adelaide will be undrinkable if we don't fix this," she said.

Wong’s Maiden Speech has been well reported and reminisced during the past few months. Much of the speech criticised Prime Minister Howard for inflaming racial division during the election campaign. She observed that “we have a climate in which someone who speaks out about injustice or prejudice or discrimination is dismissed as simply being politically correct. Compassion has been delegitimised – instead it is seen as elitism”.

Referring to Pauline Hanson's warning that Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians”, Wong said "instead I believe we are in danger of being swamped by prejudice."

If such words had been uttered by ALP "leader" Kim Beazley just a few months earlier, perhaps the outcome of the 2001 election may have been different. It certainly would have been easier to watch.

By the end of 2002, the big issue was our apparently unbridled enthusiasm to join the USA in an illegal invasion of Iraq. Wong was quoted in the Sunday Age: "This government speaks of the danger of Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction against his own people. Why waging war against these people is a way of protecting them against such a threat is beyond logic."

From what I can tell, Wong’s introduction to water policy in Australia came with her appointment to a Senate Committee charged with conducting an inquiry into Australia's management of urban water.

The Committee, Chaired by the Democrats' Lyn Allison, produced a high impact report in 2002. The report identified widespread measures that should be taken to improve management of urban water resources throughout Australia. Practically all of the recommendations have since been adopted to some degree and the report became an important foundation document in the establishment of the National Water Initiative. Wong told the Courier Mail that "as the most precious resource in the nation, we say [water] management is deserving of national leadership".

In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, Wong went in to bat for the highly stressed River Murray. The ALP pledged to restore 1500 gigalitres of environmental flows over a 10 year period and Wong unsuccessfully challenged the Government to match this pledge.

Subsequent to the 2004 election, Wong was promoted to the Opposition front bench with the dual portfolios of ‘employment and workforce participation’ and ‘corporate governance and responsibility’. Anthony Albanese took on responsibility for water and thus it is he –not Wong- who has had the most to say on this issue since.

However by 2007, Wong’s role had been broadened somewhat to include ‘public administration and accountability’. This gave her the opportunity to question the Finance Minister Senator Nick Minchin about the Government’s recently announced $10 billion water plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. Upon questioning from Wong, it was revealed that the plan was so hastily cobbled together that it had not been considered by Cabinet or fully costed by finance bureaucrats.

"The Prime Minister really needs to explain how it can be that he can put this solution forward, as a considered solution to our national water crisis, when the matter hasn't gone to Cabinet and when key departments were consulted so close to the announcement," said Wong at the time.

My understanding is that Wong’s public profile really picked up during the recent election campaign by regular television appearances. However, since I don’t own a television, I missed all that and she still seems like a bit of an unknown to me. Nonetheless, doing the research and background reading for this blog post has encouraged me in terms of her commitment to the environment and her ability to win battles and make things happen.

I am optimistically looking forward to great developments for water management in Australia. As Wong would surely be aware, water management is of the greatest fundamental importance for the future of this country. There is scant room for error and there is no time for dithering.

Good luck -and hard work!- Penny Wong.