'A policy aesthete': a new biography of Tanya Plibersek shows how governments work – and affect people's lives
Days before the publication of a new biography of federal Labor cabinet minister Tanya Plibersek, the Nine newspapers carried an exclusive extract in the Good Weekend magazine, accompanied by a news article leading with Plibersek’s assertion that if she had stood for the party’s leadership after the 2019 election she would have won.
Cue instant leadership threat stories, followed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hosing down speculation about the simmering tension between him and his fellow left faction member, and the obligatory guarded comment from Plibersek.
Review: Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms – Margaret Simons (Black Inc.)
These stories are the journalistic equivalent of instant noodles – just add water and stir. And like instant noodles, the taste is soon forgotten, leaving only doubts about the impact of an instant-noodle diet on your long-term health.
What was forgotten or slid over in the rush to leadership speculation was the reason why Plibersek did not put herself forward in 2019. Her daughter Anna was being physically and sexually abused by her boyfriend. Plibersek put the need to support her daughter during a gruelling court case ahead of her political ambition.
It is easy to be cynical about the cliché of politicians stepping aside to spend more time with their families. Indeed, between them, politicians and journalists have fed this cynicism. Maybe, though, as Sigmund Freud famously remarked, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
Certainly, readers of The Age thought so. Among six published letters to the editor, five supported Plibersek’s decision and one of these, from Fiona White, asked:
How did Tanya Plibersek’s comment out of a sensitive interview about her daughter suddenly become a headline that she and Anthony Albanese have to defend as though there is about to be a leadership spill? Kudos to Plibersek for putting her children first, as one hopes any male politician would do.
It would be naïve to think the news media would ignore a leadership threat story, but how much else is missed in taking such a narrowly framed approach to politics? Equally important, what do we need to know from journalists to make informed decisions about the politicians we vote for?
On this score, Margaret Simons’ biography of Tanya Plibersek offers abundant information and insights. Yes, it covers the twists and turns of Plibersek and Albanese’s fortunes in the Labor Party. But for me, at least, the most illuminating parts of the book were the detailed discussions of Plibersek’s approach to public policy across several portfolios and the real, if unappreciated, impact of her work on the lives of ordinary Australians. This focus resembles American journalist Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk (2018), which showed the path-finding work done by government departments and the risk posed to them by the Trump administration.
Before diving into that, a sketch is needed of what Simons’ biography tells us about Plibersek’s background.
Plibersek is the daughter of Slovenian migrants who exemplify the received picture of Australia’s post-war immigration program: hard-working, happy to adapt to Australian life, loving, and keen to inculcate in their three children, of whom Tanya was the youngest, the value of education. “You don’t need a reason to learn something new,” Josef Plibersek told his daughter as a child, advice she recalled when deciding whether to enrol in a Masters of Politics and Public Policy.
First, Plibersek studied journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney. She completed her honours year, but was unsuccessful in gaining a cadetship at her preferred media outlet, the ABC, so she turned toward politics. She connected with a number of Labor women, such as Meredith Burgmann, and worked on senator Bruce Childs’ staff, before winning the federal seat of Sydney in 1998. She has held the seat ever since and is now the longest serving female member of federal parliament.
At university, alongside later journalistic luminaries like Tim Palmer, Plibersek met her future husband Michael Coutts-Trotter who, as Simons remarks, merits a book of his own. The capsule summary – teenage drug user, jailed for trafficking drugs at 19, reformed, longtime senior public servant in New South Wales – does not do justice to Coutts-Trotter’s remarkable life. I have heard him speak, when he gave the annual Jesuit Social Services Frank Costigan lecture in 2016. His candid, unsparing reflections on his youth were moving and inspiring.
It is clear from the book that he and Plibersek are soulmates, fiercely committed to ideas about how to make the country a better place. Early in their relationship, while out driving, they argued so passionately about electricity privatisation (he was for it, she against) that Plibersek tried pulling the handbrake so she could get out of the car.
Coutts-Trotter says their views have gradually grown closer to each other. She is more centrist; he is less “provocatively doctrinaire”. She is less hard on others, but he believes she is still too hard on herself.
Throughout her life, many people, including many in the Labor party, have assumed that Plibersek – photogenically good-looking and possessed of a mellifluous speaking voice – must come from a well-to-do background, especially when they hear that she travelled overseas from a young age. But her parents were working class. They were only able to afford flights after Josef began working as a plumber for Qantas and was able to avail himself of cheap standby fares for staff.
The family used the opportunity to regularly travel back to Slovenia. Coutts-Trotter accompanied Plibersek on later trips there, recalling:
She’s got the constitution of a Slovenian farmer […] In another time and another place, that would be Tanya, keeping going. Keeping everything together.
He calls her his “beautiful, kind unstoppable wife”. You would expect that from a loving husband, but for years there has been a Tanya Plibersek fan club whose unabashed admiration Simons interrogates at length. Running through the book is a curious tension between the scepticism of the experienced journalist who can’t quite believe all the stories of Plibersek’s kindness, and the scrupulously honest reporter who records them for her readers to decide.
Here’s one of numerous examples Simons provides. In 2013, in the final months of the Labor government, when Plibersek was Minister for Health, a longstanding friend of Coutts-Trotter, who had endured similar difficulties with drugs, phoned one night ahead of entering another period of rehabilitation. Plibersek took the call as Coutts-Trotter was out. The friend recalled:
There was a lot happening in Health, but she got up and came over to my place, driving right across town, and she sat down with her arm around me, telling me how she and Michael loved me, and she stayed with me for hours through that night before I had to go back in. I’ll never forget it. That generosity, that kindness, is how you measure people.
Plibersek has few if any real enemies in politics, according to Simons. At worst, those in politics, whether coalition or Labor, find it hard to concede she can be as good as her fans believe, but none can point to any major scandals, let alone a hint of corruption. One anonymous interviewee tells Simons that Plibersek approaches government more like a public servant than a minister, but lest this be seen as too critical adds: “She understands better than most ministers what a well-functioning public service should look like.”
Politics and programs
Tempting as it is to comment at length on the aptness of this remark in light of the appalling revelations from the robodebt Royal Commission, it is more illuminating to return to Plibersek’s record in government, which occupies the bulk of four meaty chapters in the middle of the biography.
Plibersek’s first ministry came after Labor was elected in 2007. It was Housing, a portfolio for which there had been no dedicated minister in the previous coalition government. John Howard had taken the view that housing should be left to the market.
With little background in the area and having been shadow minister for only a year before the election, Plibersek consulted widely with experts such as Julian Disney, who directed her to a policy idea to deal with what was already becoming an issue – the struggle for people on low to middle incomes who did not need public housing, but did need affordable rental accommodation while they saved to buy a home.
The idea was to offer a subsidy to commercial or non-profit organisations to build housing for rent, on condition that rents were set at least 20 percent below market level for at least ten years […] It was a way of using a comparatively modest amount of taxpayer money to make providing affordable housing attractive to the property industry and financiers – a market-led solution to what had traditionally been seen as a welfare problem.
The National Rental Affordability Scheme, as it became known, was designed to begin modestly and then grow, but it suffered from election promise inflation. Disney tells Simons that the planned 28,000 houses was pumped up to 50,000 “purely because [Labor prime minister] Rudd said 28,000 is not big enough for a major policy announcement”.
This PR-driven method of policy announcement, satirised in the television show Utopia, coupled with a lack of capacity in the Housing department conspired to stymie the scheme’s implementation. From the experience, Plibersek learned lessons.
In late 2008, when the global financial crisis erupted, the Rudd government injected enormous fiscal stimulus into the economy to stave off a recession. In a second tranche of spending, it focussed on infrastructure. Two of these programs became mired in controversy: inexperienced tradespeople died installing pink batts insulation and there were allegations of waste in spending on school buildings.
The third program was run by Plibersek. It centred on a huge $6.4 billion spend on new social housing, as well as revitalising 2,500 run-down public housing houses. It was the largest single investment in social housing in 25 years.
Despite the difficulties governments inevitably face when they roll out large programs quickly amid a crisis, it ran smoothly, created no controversy, and was later praised in a report by management consultants KPMG for its economic efficiency. Very few people outside the housing sector remember this initiative today. “That’s how we value competence,” comments Simons.
Simons fills the gap by recounting several stories of people who told Plibersek they were deeply grateful for the program, including a man in Adelaide who took her to the balcony in his newly provided unit that overlooked the abandoned service station where he had slept every night for the previous seven years.
Read more: Albanese government tackles housing crisis on 3 fronts, but there's still more to do
Making good things happen
The other main policy Plibersek focussed on as minister for Human Services and Social Inclusion was the creation, in 2011, of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. Labor was ousted in 2013 and in opposition for the next nine years, but Plibersek’s achievement was to “move violence against women from the sidelines of public policy to the centre”.
Plibersek is keen to emphasise the importance of people she has worked with, such as the state housing authorities and her Labor colleague Jenny Macklin, who has long been a policy powerhouse on social issues.
She is also, as one of her staff, Paul Nicolarakis, observes, a policy aesthete. “She sees beauty in her policy role when she can kill two birds with one stone and have an elegant solution that saves money and allows spending, that makes good things happen”.
By the time Plibersek became Minister for Health in 2011, the government had a serious budget deficit to rein in. Treasurer Wayne Swan had decreed that any new spending proposals needed to be offset by cuts. Plibersek had seen how a vaccination program for Gardisal that combats cervical cancer had been rolled out for girls. She wanted to extend the program to boys; they could not get cervical cancer, but there was evidence they could transmit the virus that caused it.
Making the vaccine freely available required an offset in the Health budget. Plibersek looked at the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, under which the federal government subsidises many drugs to ensure they remain affordable for the general public. Put simply, there is a delay between when new medicines are approved under the scheme and when the cheaper generic brand becomes available.
In that gap, usually around 18 months, drug companies and chemists game the system. This was costing the budget more than a billion dollars a year. Plibersek worked hard to reduce the gap from 18 to 12 months, which created the offset she needed to fund the Gardasil vaccination program and an expansion in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
Unlike many, both programs survived cuts by the subsequent coalition government. Simons notes they are now “keystones in preventative health”.
Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Tanya Plibersek on parents' role in reducing violence against women
A flourishing garden
All these carefully gathered details are invaluable in showing us how exactly governments work and the impact of their policies. The examples from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government of 2007-2013 also show how complicated and intractable some policy problems are.
Plibersek has learnt the need to fight for visionary policies rather than simply espouse them. At the same time, she has learnt when and how to compromise to achieve an outcome. As Plibersek tells Simons: “Medicare didn’t spring fully formed from the sea like Botticelli’s Venus.”
If this approach sounds crazy – tackling economic issues fiscally as well as through monetary policy, focussing on policy development before the “announceables”, valuing the role of government in helping improve people’s lives – it underscores the extent to which the former coalition government hollowed out the processes of good government and rendered the media and the population profoundly cynical about what governments can and should do for the people who elect them.
A key theme of this book is that strong public policy is not only possible but necessary. Taking a metaphor from one of Simons’ other roles as a gardening columnist, sound policies need to be seeded, planted in good soil, tended to, and where necessary pruned to encourage new growth. It is unspectacular, never-ending work that can be undone by forces outside the gardener’s control. But all this and more is needed for any good garden to flourish and, better still, endure.
Writing a biography of a living person is a tricky enterprise at the best of times; writing a biography of a living politician is trickier still. Any politician as experienced as Tanya Plibersek is expert at managing what to disclose and when. A journalist and author as experienced as Simons is expert in asking hard questions and digging into the gaps and silences in what she has been told.
The engagement between the two is kept largely in the background, surfacing in odd, largely uncontextualised accounts of interviews. This is uncharacteristic of much of Simons’ earlier works, such as Fit to Print (1999) and The Meeting of the Waters (2003), where her personality and reflections on the task at hand are foregrounded to great effect.
Simons and Plibersek don’t appear to have gelled in the way biographers and their subjects sometimes do. Whether that stems from their personalities or from the thickets surrounding the journalist-biographer and politician-subject relationship is hard to discern. That said, this well-researched, finely judged biography makes for richly informative reading.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Matthew Ricketson, Deakin University.
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Margaret Simons and I were cadets together at The Age in 1982.