Portrait image of Tanya Plibersek in a white shirt and a red blazer.

Margaret Simons
Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms

Biographies of politicians still in the game have a slippery quality, even if – as in Margaret Simons’ solidly researched, cautiously told life of Tanya Plibersek – they wear such limitations on their sleeve. Simons’ Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms is not a historical verdict being rendered on some superannuated figure safely euthanised by time and the voting public. This book is inevitably entangled with the live debates and power struggles of the moment.

Senator Penny Wong did not want her 2019 biography by Simons written. Plibersek says that she felt similarly, though she gave more interview time to the biographer than Wong. Why? Because Plibersek knew that such attention could undermine the hard-won appearance of unity Labor is attempting to project, after years of internecine strife.

Plibersek did her best to shape her side of the story. Her ambivalence about the project is an admission that this biography, simply by existing, carries a message that no amount of narrative intervention on her part can wholly neutralise. The absence of the only major voice rings loudly: Anthony Albanese refused all interview requests.

On Her Own Terms doesn’t set out to be a partisan advertorial for the darling of what used to be known as Labor’s hard left, a woman often mentioned as a potential prime minister. While generally admiring of her subject, Simons – a Walkley Award-winning journalist, regular contributor to The Saturday Paper and author of many books, including that biography of Wong and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs – does an even-handed job here. She has interviewed both friends and “adversaries” – Plibersek doesn’t have enemies, it turns out – and judiciously weighs the airtime given to each group. She also goes back in time to isolate the “human factor” in Plibersek’s development.

We learn of Slovenian parents who escaped war-ravaged Europe for a new life in Australia: migrants who, in their decency, industriousness and determination to make a better life for their children, inculcated in Plibersek and her brothers an outsized sense of fairness and mission.

Simons is also deft in relating the policy wonkishness and activist intent that drove Plibersek’s rise as a political force. She was a Young Labor golden child who became alienated from the party during its neoliberal turn in the 1980s. Her eventual return to the fold, we understand, was part of the politician’s maturation: an awareness that only a sustained, pragmatic accommodation to positions she disagreed with might lead to outcomes she desired.

In areas such as childcare, paid parental leave, domestic violence, housing and health, Plibersek has shone – but incrementally, partially. She was never the grand orator, the headkicker, the pathbreaker. Instead, she built coalitions of smart, like-minded people, reframed debates so that a broad church might be assembled in support of policy and modelled her parliamentary career so that politics never came too much at the expense of her children, partner, family and friends. If this all sounds admirably balanced, it is. For Simons, however, this balance is also a problem. What makes Plibersek an exemplary human also perhaps slowed her political ascent.

In part, this was beyond Plibersek’s control. Having finally won her place in cabinet in 2012, the bitter denouement of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd struggle led to years of impotent opposition. Even before that lost decade, Plibersek, whom most regarded as a superb communicator and safe pair of hands, languished while Gillard and Rudd ploughed through.

But there is also something about Tanya. Simons borrows neatly from Plibersek’s long-stated love for the novels of Jane Austen to explain this split between the passionate feminist and activist – a woman who has stood to the humane left of the official party line on many issues, from asylum seekers to marriage equality to war in the Middle East – and the team player who has shown increasing flexibility on policy issues.

She is, Simons observes, a synthesis between the two heroines of Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood – emotional, passionate, heedlessly plunging forth on the tips of her feelings – and her cool, calm, thoughtful and pragmatic older sister, Elinor. Plibersek may identify with the latter sister but she is a blend of both: a creation of sense and sensibility. Paul Nicolarakis, one of Plibersek’s former staffers, observes in an interview that the politician is really an “aesthete” – one who seeks beauty in her role, via elegant policy solutions that are at once open-heartedly decent and no-nonsense.

Still, as Simons observes in her conclusion, Sydney – the “emerald city” Plibersek regards as her beautiful home town – is also ugly, famously a den of corruption and violence. And so, beneath a polished veneer, is Australian politics writ large. While readers will admire the thoughtfulness and even-handedness of this biography, as well as its willingness to drill down into the minutiae of policy where Plibersek does her best work, they may also feel the tension at its heart.

Political biography is itself a gendered form. Its narrative, from Plutarch to Paul Kelly, demands of subjects a suite of traits – ruthlessness, aggression, obsessive drive – which are inimical to how Plibersek has conducted her career. One way to read On Her Own Terms is to conclude that Plibersek is a talented and able politician who, like Kim Beazley – the greatest prime minister we never had – may lack the ticker for the job.

Another way is to suggest that the very form such biographies take cannot, despite valiant efforts by its author to signal otherwise, adequately capture the radical possibilities of a genuinely female-centric politics – a whole new way of doing business and one at which Plibersek evidently excels.

Black Inc, 320pp, $34.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2023 as "Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms, Margaret Simons".

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