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.


Max said...

Hear Hear Stuart - Share your belief in Senator Wong's abilities and endorse your comments. It will be a refreshing new view that she brings to the world of water in this country. Max Borchardt

jay said...

HI Stuart,

can you tell what are key project happening on water Recycling in Sydney or in Australia?


Stuart Khan said...

Hi Jay,

This is a pretty big question!

I think you will find lots of information if you spend some time flicking through the archives of this blog. Some of the ‘big’ projects currently under development around Australia include the Western Corridor Water Recycling Project in South East Queensland, the Gnangara Mound recharge trial in Perth and the Replacement Flows project in Sydney.

I hope that is helpful for you.


Sam said...

The portfolio could be broadly split into rivers and urban. I am curious to see how much emphasis Federal Labor place on the urban side of water management and how their policy on desal, etc is implemented.

Stuart Khan said...

Hi Sam,

Yes. You and me both!

They're both urgent issues which will need to be addressed with a limited pool of resources. It will be a challenge to get the balance right.


Stuart Khan said...

Wong Backs Away from Irrigator Loans
John Wiseman, The Australian
December 22, 2007

CLIMATE Change Minister Penny Wong has refused to commit to providing low-interest loans to desperate irrigators in South Australia's Riverland.

But in a visit to Renmark to meet irrigator groups and local government leaders, she said the federal Government would consider all options put to it.

The South Australian senator's appearance in the Riverland, where fruit and winegrowers face water shortages, has buoyed the community.

South Australian Murray Irrigators director Tim Whetstone said: "It's a breath of fresh air within the community and for the irrigators. We've had so little representation up here to look at our needs and the pressure that we're facing.

"The last government announced a water plan and then did nothing about it. They put it on the mantelpiece, and that's where it stayed."

Senator Wong told those she met yesterday her task was to find long-term solutions for the Murray-Darling Basin.

She said her visit five days after the Bali greenhouse conference showed the priority she gave to hearing from the people who were directly affected.

"I wanted to not just speak to the scientists and experts, but hear from the people," she said.

The low-interest loan scheme for irrigators to buy water from upstream farmers was championed by South Australian Premier Mike Rann. He told the Howard government it needed to free up $250million immediately for the scheme.

"We're willing to consider any proposals put to us, but we need to ensure we take an approach that can be delivered nationally and we obviously want to make sure we don't do anything that's simply going to increase the price of water," Senator Wong said.

Mr Whetstone said irrigators sought to make the new Climate Change Minister aware of the strain the drought had placed on growers, families and communities.

"Really, we're under siege at the moment with allocations that are not sustainable," Mr Whetstone said.

"We're trying to highlight with the minister to let permanent plantings die is not only a huge loss to the economy, but it's a huge loss to communities and to the specialist industries that we support."

Anonymous said...

This women seems to be everything but capable or qualified enough to be a Minister.
Instead she exemplifies perfectly Leftist Social Engineers' wet-dreams of affirmative action and positive bigotry to the expense of reason, logic and meritocracy.
For shame- Marx would disapprove you dreadful self-indulgent mincing cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. And I use the latter in the most extreme derogative pejorative possible.


Stuart Khan said...

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis Dixi.

I'd be interested to know what particular qualifications (or political persuasion) you feel should be required for ministers. Could you recommend a suitable candidate?

Post a Comment