Caught up in expectations: A comment on substantive representation and Penny Wong


Anne Phillips considered in her iconic text The Politics of Presence (1995) that greater diversity of representation has a limited relevance in empowering or mobilising diverse communities and community groups. The need for greater proportionality in diverse representation, if properly understood, is much more about the strength of democracy and democratic process. Implicit in the notion of democratic citizenship are the social ties that membership of a single polity generates, ties that create a community of political citizens.

Diverse representation is thus a measure for the quality of Australian citizenship, and a measure of broader social inclusion. In assessing the relative diversity of political representation it would not be unfair to ask: what are the chances for ordinary kinds of social, cultural and economic inclusion in a nation where elected office is disproportionately dominated by white Australians?

Recent elections have provided important changes to the political landscape, including in terms of representational diversity. There has been the election of the first Muslim Australian to Federal Parliament, the ALP member for Chifley, Ed Husic. Likewise the 2010 Tasmanian state election saw the election of its first Indian Australian representative Lisa Singh.

For Chinese Australian community leaders, changes in the electoral landscape have prompted much soul searching, especially in NSW. Henry Tsang’s maligned departure in 2009 – following retirements by Helen Sham-Ho (2003) and Peter Wong (2007) – have seen the number of Chinese Australian NSW state representatives drop from three to zero. Michael Johnson’s recent exit from the national scene was another incident filled with controversy. Minister Penny Wong remains the only stable ‘shining light’ for Asian Australians in the national arena, and under the portfolio of Finance she represents the most powerful Asian Australian ever to hold office.

A lot can be speculated about Wong’s performance in the preceding Rudd government. Water and Climate Change were more than the greatest challenges Wong had faced in her mercurial political career. They were the greatest policy challenges for the Rudd government (bar none) – areas of policy reform demanding both commanding and nuanced powers of conciliation and public persuasion.

Many have commented about Wong’s performance in these portfolios. In spite of the Coalition’s role in reneging on the carbon tax, some suggest she failed in both. Those criticisms have sometimes been writ upon Wong’s own personality. She has been described as a hardened and skilled negotiator, but not the expansive communicator necessary to sell a ‘great big new tax’. Other criticisms have been against the politics of creating the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) – Labor playing to the centre and seeking Coalition agreement, when a deal could have more productively been struck with the Greens.

We should keep in mind the relative impact of these events upon Wong’s career. Her seniority in the Gillard government was confirmed by her move to Finance, where she replaced the formidable Lindsay Tanner, and where she now gains a key voice across the scope of the Gillard reform agenda.

From an Asian Australian perspective, there is perhaps another dimension to add in terms of the constraints on Wong’s performance on the national stage. This is a dimension which sees public discourse as a critical aspect of how political decisions are reached, how political outcomes are achieved (often reflected in major party preoccupations with focus group polling).  In other words the social dispositions that are shared between members of a polity – values, expectations and prejudices – have an important inadvertent influence on the potential political outcomes that are available. According to the likes of Steven Lukes this is a real and powerful constraint upon political decision-making. From an Asian Australian perspective we might add that the racial identities of political actors themselves represent a constraint infrequently considered by mainstream political commentators.

This is not to say that Wong’s skin colour is only a liability, those on the left and inside the party have celebrated her minority status. However, her visibility has different implications in relation to a broader national audience. It becomes an important dimension impacting on the trajectory of her career and her effectiveness in particular roles –it also represents an important dimension she has relatively little control over.

Certainly for the general public as well as for groups within the broader community there is an expectation that minority representatives substantively represent views held by members of that minority community.  This presumption for instance is often made by Chinese Australians where numerous community leaders look to Wong as a ‘light of the community’ and extend the expectation that she is capable of representing Chinese Australian views.

Another good example of this tendency is demonstrated in some of the attacks against Wong in relation to her position on same sex marriage. The most bitter criticisms have been directed not at the wisdom of her position but at her alleged betrayal of progressive, multicultural identity movements.

If we were to deconstruct Wong’s identity politics based upon her advocacy and legislative record we might arrive at a different assessment. Wong has previously stated that being gay has had little impact upon her politics. Her most publicised personal concerns have focused predominantly on the impacts of racism and her commitment to gender equality. Notably then, earlier in her parliamentary career Wong cemented her reputation by securing agreement across the party to lift female parliamentary representation to 40% by 2012.

The political reality is that for every minority issue Wong takes a stand on (that is, the more political capital she burns), she counters the primacy of Caucus decision-making and pushes her public image further to the margins of the mainstream.

The nature of the criticisms against Wong, the sometimes highly personalised attacks against her, indicates how far Australia still has to go in creating recognition for greater tolerance around race, gender and sexuality. This is a concern not only with the nature of the attacks, but also with a sloppy logic that suggests diversity of views should not extend to people of the same minority ‘background’. Such a position in many ways can also be counter-productive to members of that group, defining the group as a tribe rather than an arbitrary and more complex category.

If we do not demand of white heterosexual middle-class males a duty to reflect racist, sexist, homophobic values, why should we presume substantive representation of activist minority views from minority representatives?

A shared minority status does not imply a shared value system.

In terms of strengthening the depth and durability of progressive politics, to my mind we should focus upon convincing representatives of the arguments we make, and direct our anger at the expectations they raise through either the things they say or the things they claim to believe.

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In recent days Wong has modified her public position on same sex marriage, a position she will now take to National Conference to advocate for change in the party’s platform. In making this change, Wong has said, ‘There has been some commentary which has confused my position of not commenting publicly on this issue with my position on the issue itself.’

Cynics probably should criticise this as flip-flopping, as policy ‘courage’ guided by low-risk public opinion. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that Wong’s change of heart comes after Mark Arbib’s statements on the issue, statements which caught the NSW right’s factional brawler a great deal of flak for thumbing his nose at the Prime Minister, who has refused to allow a conscience vote on the issue. Keep in mind that part of the concern is how these expressions are made. Gillard, Albanese and Rudd have all restated that the proper forum for this debate is National Conference. Gillard’s desire to delay a position is largely motivated by the need to protect the ALP brand from public brawling on this issue, an event which will likely reinforce the Greens claim to progressive leadership, while haemorrhaging votes to the Coalition.

Wong’s change of heart is not mere political opportunism. It is clear that she is serious about the issue, that she is willing to exert her influence within the party to achieve this reform, and that she is willing to take heat from both the right inside the party AND the conservative mainstream (where she has more to lose) along the way.

Jen Tsen Kwok blogs at

Jen Tsen Kwok

Author: Jen Tsen Kwok

Jen Tsen Kwok has been a member of the AASRN since it was formed and drawn inspiration from the organisation throughout the completion of his doctorate in political sociology at University of Queensland. He works for the NTEU. He is also a member and co-founder of the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC).

3 thoughts on “Caught up in expectations: A comment on substantive representation and Penny Wong”

  1. I think you are right that, as the only Asian in Federal Labor, she can’t be seen to support too many ‘minority’ issues, or she will be seen as “the Asian/minority senator” (and somewhat marginalised) as opposed to a Senator who happens to be Asian (or half Asian).

    Runs on the board will assist her in her attempts at reform and change – and would also be helped with more Asian representation in Federal parliament (or even state). Currently the % of Asians in government at state and federal level is pathetic. I guess at local level it’s better, but the ‘trickle up’ has been very slow.

    There is a target for a minimum % of female Labor members of parliament (40% IIRC), but I wonder if there is a case for a minimum % of non Europeans? Though that would never happen.

    Perhaps there should at least be a clause in the Labor (and Liberal) parties constitution (or rules or whatever) that their parliamentarians must closely reflect the diversity of the population? This is especially galling in Sydney and Melbourne, where something like 17% of the population are Asian (though not all are citizens or PRs).

    On a more heartening note, parliaments now seem to be reflective of post WWII European migrants. So in that case, in another 20 or 30 years there might be a more representative parliament… though the population will probably be, proportionally, be more Asian too.

  2. Thanks for your article, Jen. You’re right in pointing that Penny Wong does not necessarily reflect, neither does she stand for, minority representation and rights in “Asian Australia”. This is, I believe (and perhaps this should have been emphasised in your article) largely due to her class orientation as a representative of the ALP leadership, of the State and more generally as a spokeswoman for big businesses, and little to do with her racial or sexual affiliations.

    Finally, one note in passing on your view that, “If we do not demand of white heterosexual middle-class males a duty to reflect racist, sexist, homophobic values, why should we presume substantive representation of activist minority views from minority representatives?” I believe white heterosexual middle-class male views are pervasive regardless, and that in this context minority representation/visibility is a demand we should indeed always presume regardless. Besides, the two are not really comparable, arising from different trajectories.

    Again, the reason why Penny Wong (and people like Obama or even Gillard) cannot be “accountable” in regards to greater cultural, economic, gender or racial equality, and ultimately political equality, is, as you’ve explained, due to the fact that Penny Wong identifies with the ALP first and foremost. The ALP’s parliamentarian, reformist outlook as a bourgeois-worker’s party with roots in the working class via the trade union leadership means that more diversity (although welcomed) amongst political parities is perhaps not the answer.

    Extra-parliamentary grass-root movement is (such as the ongoing push for same-sex marriage from below in Australia, which largely explains Penny Wong’s shift in perspective on the issue, regardless of sexuality). This is not to say either that she’s a mere “token” for opportunism on the part of politicians, for the danger which I believe you’ve outlined in your article would be to fall back into an essentialist, covertly racist and sexist undertone dismissing her progressive role within the ALP as a willy-nilly spokeswoman for the lesbian and Asian-Australian community. However, one needs to question capitalism’s ability to repackage (i.e. domesticate) even its most subaltern elements. In the end, Penny Wong is merely an atomised individual, and one that serves the interests of corporate Australia at that, so that we shouldn’t look too much to her for any substantial or radical social change in the future.

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