Tanya Plibersek: A profile of Labor’s new deputy leader

Bill Shorten says she represents the “Australian story”.

Julia Gillard said in her interview with Anne Summers this month that she could be the next female leader of the federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Others are anointing her as the next female PM.

So who is Tanya Plibersek and how did she become one of the most powerful women in Australian politics by the age of 43?

The meteoric rise through the ranks …

Plibersek became an opposition spokeswoman in 2004 in a range of portfolios before the 2007 election, including childcare, youth, women, human services and housing. She became a minister for Housing and Women in the first Rudd government, then under Gillard she took on the human services and social inclusion portfolios. Following Nicola Roxon’s retirement in 2011 she became minister for health and medical research. She was responsible for the white paper into homelessness in 2008 and more recently for getting abortion drug RU486 on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.

Her family and background …

Bob Hawke controversially said that Plibersek shouldn’t put her hand up for the position of Labor leader?—?despite her “considerable talent”?—? because she has a three-year-old at home. But the member for Sydney has had all three of her children, Anna, Joseph and Louis, since being in Parliament. Her husband Michael Coutts-Trotter is a high-level public servant for the New South Wales government. Plibersek’s parents migrated to Australia from Slovenia in the 1950s and she spoke Slovenian at home with her family as a child. A young Plibersek thought it was great that Britain had a female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher, but her brother Ray told her to look at Thatcher’s policies before making up her mind. She joined the Labor Party at 15.

Mrs Whitlam was on her side …

Plibersek was preselected to the seat of Sydney in December 1997 after former Labor minister Peter Baldwin announced he wouldn’t be contesting the 1998 election. With the support of the likes of Anthony Albanese, Robert Tickner and Tom Uren, she won out over Chrissa Loukas with 128 primary votes to 65. Although Gough Whitlam was calling voters to support Loukas, Margaret Whitlam voted for Plibersek. Plibersek was elected in 1998 at the age of 29 with 51.59% of the primary vote in the safe Labor seat.

Her eclectic influences …

In Plibersek’s maiden speech to Parliament in November 1998, she quoted the poet Ernest Antony’s poem “The Hungry Mile” about Sydney wharfies, former US President Jimmy Carter, 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke and Bruce Springsteen. She lists Jane Austen, the Obamas, Nick Cave and Nelson Mandela as people she’d like to have dinner with.

She almost became a journo …

Plibersek dreamed of becoming a journalist while studying communications at the University of Technology Sydney, before being knocked back for an ABC cadetship. She went on to become the women’s officer at UTS, before working in the domestic violence unit of the NSW Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women. She then went on to work for senator Bruce Childs in the Keating government’s second term.

She’s Left through and through …

Back in 2003, when then-president George W Bush visited Australia and spoke to Parliament, Plibersek approached his national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to hand her a book of Labor MP speeches against the war in Iraq. At the ALP’s national conference in 2011, she was given a standing ovation for her speech in favour of same-sex marriage becoming part of the party’s platform.

A bureaucratic power couple …

As has been reported over the years, Plibersek’s husband Michael Coutts-Trotter served fewer than three years of a nine-year sentence on narcotics offences. Since then he has risen through the NSW public service and is now director-general of the Department of Family and Community Services. One of Plibersek’s first speeches to Parliament in 1999 was an impassioned plea for better heroin rehabilitation policies, where she mentions that she knows people who have overcome their addiction by going cold turkey as Coutts-Trotter did.

This article originally appeared on Crikey.


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