She may not have written a book, and has no intention of writing her memoirs (“I can’t remember what happened last week, let alone years ago”), but the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek’s chat with Matthew Condon was easily the most popular ‘In Conversation With’ talk at Byron Writers Festival on Friday.
The audience that packed out the Southern Cross University marquee was very white, clearly very well heeled, highly educated, and, well, kind of old. Nonetheless this appeared, for the most part, to be a gathering of the party faithful. Plibersek received resounding cheers and clapping when imparting her political stance on safe Labor subjects such as industrial reform to improve wage growth, and more controversial subjects such as her support for the legalisation of abortion in Queensland and NSW.
Plibersek is the youngest daughter of Slovenian refugees; her mother had escaped to Italy and her father to Austria. Her parents migrated to Australia separately, met in 1956 in Sydney, married and settled in Oyster Bay where Plibersek grew up. Her first political memory was when she was sitting on her fathers lap watching Gough Whitlam on TV. She said to her father “That’s Gough Whitlam isn’t it daddy? He’s a good man.” She joined the Labor Party at the age of 15 because the Party in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney where she grew up, was progressive and had strong female role models. She left briefly during the Hawke Government’s years due to its Land Rights legislation, and because it was selling uranium to the French when they were testing bombs in the South Pacific. She rejoined because “I realised it’s pretty useless being on the outside throwing rocks.”
She studied Communications at Sydney University of Technology because she wanted to do a job that helped people. The ABC rejected her application for a cadetship, “the BASTARDS!” she laughs. Condon pondered “Will the ABC be safe when you’re in power?” “Hmmmm” was the pensive answer, and while tongue in cheek, nothing further was offered other than “well it worked out well for them and it worked out well for me.”
Asked about authenticity, Plibersek was candid: “It’s hard to be honest about who you are in an environment where so many people want to tear you to shit. People say they want politicians to be authentic, but if you answer a question minutely wrongly then there’s a pile on for three weeks about the huge incident you caused. It is hard to be spontaneous in that environment…When I hear the Q & A theme song, I wanna vomit. I feel like that because you think ‘tonight could be the night I destroy the chances of the Labor Party’”.
Yet no-one could accuse Plibersek of being inauthentic. Discussing her love of Jane Austen novels, in particular ‘Sense and Sensibility’, she says, “I love Jane Austen’s subtle sense of humour. I like the observation of human character. But with the character of Elinor Dashwood (in Sense and Sensibility) the thing I like the most is the idea that you can feel deeply without having to display that. You can feel deeply without engaging in drama.”
While Plibersek grew up “very Catholic” she says she’s not religious. “I think I’ve taken a lot of good things from being brought up Catholic, but I suppose I’m what you would call ‘lapsed’.” She met her husband Michael in university while arguing the merits of the Niggers with Attitude song ‘Fuck the Police’.
“I thought it was fear speech and he thought it was unreasonable.” She has three children with him and when Condon asks the inevitable question that female politicians, or other prominent females in society who happen to be mothers, get asked about how does she manage to be a parent and do her job, she answers graciously citing advise from Meredith Burgman, former President of the NSW Legislative Council; “She said you’ll never experience another guilt free moment…The other thing she said was ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ Women put so much pressure on themselves (to be perfect). I think that changing your expectations of yourself is a very important part of coming to a peaceful spot. Keep focussing on that kids are happy if you love them and they’re happy if their home environment is peaceful.”
The other inevitable question is around her potential to be the next leader of the Labor Party and leader of the country. When Condon suggests that “someday you may be this nation’s Prime Minister” the audience breaks in to loud applause and cheers. She says “The honest truth is I would rather be a back bencher in a Labor Government than do anything to harm our chances, because in my heart I believe that working people and vulnerable people rely on Labor governments to make their lives better. That’s honestly the most important thing for me” Applause and cheers again.
Condon threw a final word association game at Plibersek with some unsurprising results:
C: “Peter Dutton” (much laughter in the audience)
P: “Cold Hearted” (audience claps)
C: “Bill Shorten”
C: “Oyster Bay”
C: “Kevin Rudd” (more laughter in the audience)
P: “Overseas” (Raucous laughter)
C: “Malcolm Turnbull”
C: “Julie Bishop”
C: “Wayne Swan”
C: “Peter Dutton”
P: “I’ll stick with cold hearted”