Malaysia-born Aussie senator Penny Wong wins prize for political leadership

Ida Lim
Wong, who represents South Australia as a senator, was re-elected Opposition Leader in the Senate after the 2016 federal election and is also the Labor party’s shadow minister for Foreign Affairs. — Picture via Twitter

KUALA LUMPUR, March 20 — Australian senator Penny Wong, who was born in Malaysia, has been named 2018 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year in recognition of her political leadership.

The announcement today on the Australian prize’s website said Wong was recognised for her “leadership and advocacy in promoting a more tolerant and inclusive Australia and for shaping Australia’s foreign policy dialogue”.

The McKinnon Prize, the first of its kind in Australia, is a collaboration between the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne through the latter’s Melbourne School of Government. The 2018 prize is the second edition.

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, who was on the 13-member selection panel for this year’s prize, said Wong’s contributions in the last year deserved recognition.

“I think Penny Wong is the perfect recipient for the McKinnon Prize because of her presence, her gravitas, her ability to bring people together and to guide the nation through complex debates including in the past 12 months on foreign policy, trade policy and also what response we should make as a nation when there are racist statements,” Gillard was quoted saying on the McKinnon Prize’s website.

Australian paper Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) said fellow judge University of Melbourne provost Mark Considine described Wong as “quite remarkable”, as it is difficult to be the Opposition in the Australian senate.

“That can be a near death sentence for political relevance — and yet it certainly isn’t in Penny Wong’s case.”

“She’s maintained a high public profile, she’s been able to initiate, innovate and do all sorts of things from that vantage point that would be quite tough by any reckoning.” he was quoted saying by SMH.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott, who was also on the selection panel, was reported by SMH as saying: “Penny’s ability to lead on foreign affairs, stare down critics and bring the community along on major policy issues has been a good thing for Australia’s political debate.”

Wong, who was a lawyer before joining politics, was first elected to Australia’s senate in 2001, before winning re-election in 2007 and 2013.

As a member of the Australian Labor Party that came into power in 2007, she was then appointed the minister for climate change and water, before being appointed the minister for finance and deregulation after the 2010 election.

She was elected in 2013 as Leader of the Government in the Senate, but was then appointed Leader of the Opposition in the Senate after the change of government. She is the first woman to hold both such roles.

Wong, who represents South Australia as a senator, was re-elected Opposition Leader in the Senate after the 2016 federal election and is also the Labor party’s shadow minister for Foreign Affairs.

Wong on her official website today said she was grateful for the McKinnon Prize’s establishment and was honoured to receive it.

In Wong’s press statement, she said democratic principles are under challenge globally, and that democracy must be defended as it enables the protection of rights and the betterment of the community.

Wong also spoke out against hate speech, saying that some in multicultural Australia have too often “sought to use fear to stoke the flames of hate for their own political gain”.

“We cannot allow anyone to be dehumanised. We cannot allow hate and intolerance to be normalised. We must expect better — and we must call out hate speech for what it is.

Hate speech is not the same as freedom of speech and we have seen in Christchurch the terrible consequences of where hatred can lead us,” she said.

“I hope political leaders in Australia also recognise that unity is stronger than division and hope can triumph over fear. All of us can advocate for these values, and demonstrate them in how we conduct our political debates,” she added, noting that such leadership was required to restore faith in democratic institutions.

Among other things, SMH noted that Wong had played a “leading role as an advocate for marriage equality” in Australia’s 2017 nationwide survey on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex marriage.

SMH also said Liberal senator Dean Smith, who won the inaugural 2017 award before Wong, played a key role in the campaign for marriage equality in Australia.

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