Tanya Plibersek: Portrait of a social justice champion


Tanya Plibersek at her desk. Photo: Supplied

The popular incumbent Member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, has been re-elected seven times and looks set to easily notch up another win. The bigger question, however, is how she will add to the groundswell that the polls are predicting will see her party win the election on May 18.

Social justice policies remain her priority and the ordinary people who benefit from them will be some of her most avid supporters. “I think it’s just basic fairness, that the people who have least get more, and the people who are already comfortable contribute a little bit extra,” Ms Plibersek said.

Daughter of Slovenian immigrants

Ms Plibersek’s steady progression through Labor’s ranks, to become one of the most powerful politicians in Australia, had humble beginnings which contributed to her focus on social justice. Her enterprising nature might be inherited from her parents, Joseph and Rose, Slovenian farmers who each migrated alone to Australia where they met for the first time at a dance in Paddington Town Hall, before marrying in 1957.

My parents are “modest, hardworking, generous people who have shown me unqualified love and support,” said Ms Plibersek in her maiden speech.

Born in 1969, she joined older brothers Phillip, 10, and Ray, 12, in the house her father built in the quiet bushland suburb of Oyster Bay, overlooking the Georges River, in southern Sydney. Older brother, Ray Plibersek, remembers his father talking about issues to do with World War II, such as communism, in an environment rich in ideas and discussion. “As Tanya grew up, Phillip and I were constantly talking about political issues and she was exposed to that.”

Tanya Plibersek with her mother Rose. Photo: Facebook

In the seventies and eighties throngs of protesters were marching in city streets to oppose uranium mining. French nuclear testing, that had showered radioactivity on Pacific islands, had spurred many people into action and her brothers, Phillip and Ray, were caught up in debates about the mining industry and nuclear power. “Tanya would listen to this,” said Ray. “That’s what motivated her to join the Labor Party, because there was a big anti-uranium movement within Labor.”

In a family less prone to independent thinking, 15 might be considered too young to join a political party but Ms Plibersek was interested in world affairs to such a degree she originally set her sights on becoming a journalist.

Always hard-working, she was Dux of Jannali Girls High, then graduated with a BA in Communications with honours from the University of Technology, but refocused her career plans and had stints as the women’s officer at UTS and  researcher in the NSW Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women, collecting a Master of Politics and Public Policy from Macquarie University on the way.

The Sydney electorate: “I know them and they know me”

Her electorate of Sydney is peppered with ‘Tanya Plibersek speaks for us’ signs tied to terrace balconies, in shop windows and nailed to poles but in the crucial final weeks of the election, Ms Plibersek’s status as deputy has seen her fly all over Australia with leader Bill Shorten to reinforce Labor’s messages and focus on marginal seats. Luke Pratt, who lives in Chippendale in her electorate, said people don’t see this absence as a problem because she’s a leader and “has a fantastic track record of delivering for the electorate and the country”.

Highly visible in the electorate. Photo: Facebook

“I don’t take my electorate for granted at all,” Ms Plibersek said. “The important thing for me is that I don’t wait until the four weeks of an election campaign to make sure I am available in my electorate. I make sure that I am there throughout the year, talking to my community groups, visiting local schools and visiting local service providers, making sure that I know them and they know me.”

Sydney’s transformation in the 20 years Ms Plibersek has held the seat has included the increasingly multicultural influence of an ever-expanding population. “It just means that it’s a much more densely populated electorate than it once was which, in many respects, I really like. I like the liveliness of seeing people around 24 hours a day. The only real concern I have is that the infrastructure is not keeping up with that.”

She said more investment was needed and there has been a delay providing appropriate services, citing as examples crowded roads and inadequate railways.

Issues that matter

A green issue began Ms Plibersek’s political journey, and in this week’s election a green issue looks set to be a deciding factor in whether her party will win. Climate change is the new uranium with thousands of students striking and holding rallies to press for immediate action on the long-neglected problem. This feeling is shared across voter age groups with a Lowy Institute poll showing that two out of three adults see climate change as Australia’s most serious threat.

Tanya Plibersek at the Glebe forum this month. Photo: Jen Grinham

At Glebe Society’s Meet the Candidates Forum for Sydney held recently Ms Plibersek spoke to an audience that was deeply concerned about climate change. The Adani mine, potentially Australia’s largest coal mine, was a hot topic with many asking for it to be scrapped.

“It would be very easy to tell this room what you want to hear, but I can’t do that,” said Ms Plibersek. “I can tell you that this project has to stack up according to the law and according to the science. I don’t believe in the mine, but Queenslanders who need jobs see it differently.”

She offered investment in infrastructure as a more viable solution. “Adani is part of a nest of issues to do with climate change. It boils down to substantial extra investment in renewable energy. That means we get to 50 per cent renewables and zero net emissions.”

Rising living costs was another issue that struck a raw nerve with many in the audience. According to the Reserve Bank’s May release families are experiencing genuine hardship because incomes have been low for many years which has affected household consumption. Targeting tax cuts at low income earners, Ms Plibersek said, is good for the general population and will help create demand in the economy. “If you don’t have a dollar in your pocket to spend, you’re not going to buy a cup of coffee on your way to work and you’re not going to take the kids out for pizza on a Friday night.”

Maria Court, a Glebe resident at the Forum, said that Plibersek “was very impressive in the way she was able to speak to everyone in the room” and explain complicated ideas. Honest responses to controversial issues made her seem “down to earth” said Ms Court.

Feedback from around the country shows other prominent issues are on people’s lists as well. “Decent schools and hospitals, TAFE, university, proper healthcare – like our cancer care package and our pensioner dental have been very popular,” Ms Plibersek said. “And our industrial relations policies – making sure people get paid decently for the work they do, and reducing job insecurity.”

Proud of “things that I fought for”

In her 20 years in parliament only six have been in government which was a small window of opportunity for Ms Plibersek to instigate reforms. Three activities she instigated, though, hold particular significance for her.

“I am really proud of the kids’ dental program we introduced in government,” she said of the $4 billion package that provided dental care to school-aged children. Another initiative from when she was Health Minister was to protect boys against cancers caused by HPV, a virus spread through intimate contact. The Gardasil vaccination program, that was originally aimed at girls to help prevent cervical cancer, was expanded to boys, in a world first, because it helps with several cancers affecting men.

Turning up for interviews is a regular part of the job. Photo: Facebook

“The other thing I am really proud of is the new homeless services and the new public and community housing we built when I was Housing Minister,” she said. “And I still really like driving past new places we built and thinking that there are people living in Common Ground in Camperdown or Annie Green Court in Redfern, people living there in beautiful accommodation who would otherwise be homeless. It’s a pretty great feeling.

“There are lots of things I am proud of being part of, like the National Apology and the National Disability Insurance Scheme and things that we did together as a government, but those first three are pretty personal for me, things that I fought for as a Minister and achieved.”

It is no surprise that Ms Plibersek, who has been a tireless campaigner for social justice, lists two people with similar agendas when talking about people she finds inspiring. One is Labor minister Jenny Macklin who was instrumental in bringing in reforms, including the apology to the stolen generations and government-funded paid parental leave: “She  made really huge social policy reforms in Australia.”  

The other is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“She has just projected such a wonderful view of a peaceful and cohesive New Zealand to the world after the terrible tragedy of the mass shooting that happened there.”

Stepping up on the world stage

 Australia has a responsibility, not just to its own population, but also to the world but it needs to do better in this role. “Even if foreign policy doesn’t shift a single vote in a single seat in this election,” said Ms Plibersek at the Lowy Institute in 2016. “It deserves to be part of the national conversation.”

This week she again stressed the importance of Australia’s role. “I think Australia has some really important responsibilities,” she said. “We need to have a foreign policy that absolutely puts Australia’s interests at the centre of our foreign policy but also plays the role of a good international citizen – and even though we have a relatively small population, we have had a really critical influence on our region and the world in past years.”

For example, she said, Australia had a leading diplomatic role in the peace settlements in Cambodia.

“We can play that important role of good international citizen through a foreign policy that is ambitious and principled. We absolutely need to restore some of the damage that’s been done to our aid budget and we’ve made commitments about increasing Australian aid. We’ve also made commitments about increasing our humanitarian intake.”

Being a good global citizen is in Australia’s best interests, Ms Plibersek said. “It’s complementary to our national interest because a peaceful and prosperous world allows us to be a peaceful and prosperous nation.”

Behind the public face

Tanya Plibersek at the Mardi Gras parade. Photo: Facebook

With the finish line in sight in this election Ms Plibersek is in the news more than ever, this extensive visibility a reminder that public office is more than a full-time job. Her husband is Michael Coutts-Trotter, a high-profile public servant and head of the NSW Department of Justice, and they have three children: Anna, 18, Joseph, 14, and Louis, 8. The blending of official duties with family life seems to be a comfortable mix leading many to wonder how it is achieved.

“It sometimes feels like managed chaos from the inside,” she said. “I think the main thing really is to plan and be prepared so I try and de-stress my life by planning ahead.”

Organisation plays a large role. “If I know I’ve got an early start, I get my clothes out the night before for the next day so I’m not rushing in the morning. Things like that really help. I cook in large batches and freeze things a lot, too.

“The most important thing though, I think in combining work and family is not to focus too much on perfect housework or, you know, accept that there’s going to be a little bit of chaos and give in to your life and not worry – focus more on relationships than getting the vacuuming done.”

Work and regular family activities do not leave much time left over but when they grab a moment it’s the simple things they love to do. “We like doing things as a family like going to the movies together and having dinner afterwards or sometimes walking the coastal walk,” said Ms Plibersek. “Going for a bike ride in Centennial Park. I like reading a lot, and bush walking.”

“Tanya Plibersek speaks for us”

In an often harsh political environment, in front an uncompromising public gaze, Ms Plibersek has earned respect for her articulate responses and compassion. “I think there’s too much personal attacking in politics today, and Tanya’s very principled,” brother Ray Plibersek said. “People think that politicians run each other down and stuff but she often works cooperatively with politicians on the other side of the house.”

People in crowds warm to her positive personality which is a distinctive part of Ms Plibersek’s appeal, said Labor’s candidate for Hughes, Diedree Steinwall. “She comes across as a genuine person. It comes from the heart and she’s a very strong communicator.”

More than 65 per cent of voters re-elected Plibersek to the seat of Sydney in the last election, in 2016, with a similar runaway win expected tomorrow. Her leadership skills are admired by people outside her electorate as well though, with a Morgan Poll rating her the preferred ALP Leader six times in a row since early 2015.

According to polls like this, in the future it might be Australia, rather than just the Sydney electorate, saying “Tanya Plibersek speaks for us”.

Jen Grinham is a Digital Communication and Culture postgraduate student with a passion for writing human interest, political and environmental stories.