Penny Wong’s com­po­sure cracked in mo­ment of re­lief too big to be con­tained

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Katharine Mur­phy

For sev­eral ex­cru­ci­at­ing min­utes on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the coolest op­er­a­tor in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics found her­self sus­pended be­tween the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal.

Penny Wong had an obli­ga­tion to ap­pear in pub­lic as the re­sults of the postal sur­vey were re­ported. Pol­i­tics de­manded it. But there was a price to pay for it, and the price was that her pri­vate self would be on dis­play.

For some politi­cians, the nat­u­ral ex­hi­bi­tion­ists, this would present no dis­com­fort. They would de­liver the re­quired prod­uct – sad­ness, ebul­lience, equa­nim­ity – with­out a sec­ond thought, pol­i­tics be­ing a per­form­ing art.

For Wong, this was agony.

La­bor’s Se­nate leader en­ters po­lit­i­cal bat­tle with a suit of ar­mour, al­ways com­posed, al­ways per­fectly pre­pared; she de­ploys a Boudic­ca­like char­ac­ter which is both real and cu­rated pub­lic pro­jec­tion, to de­liver what needs to be de­liv­ered.

If the Wong tem­per flares, if the eye­brow lifts, it’s for a pur­pose, it’s chore­og­ra­phy, not im­pulse. Im­pulse is some­thing that hap­pens be­hind closed doors, never in the pro­fes­sional sphere, which is about rea­son, prepa­ra­tion and cal­cu­la­tion.

But one mo­ment in Aus­tralian his­tory re­quired a pound of her flesh.

The day de­manded that she wear the bru­tal judg­ment of her fel­low Aus­tralians about her life, about her pri­vate de­sires, about the nur­tur­ing, foun­da­tional love at the cen­tre of her life, which had been the sub­ject of a pub­lic ref­er­en­dum.

She had to wear the judg­ment of it in pub­lic, sur­rounded by cam­eras, which were gath­ered piti­lessly, lenses trained on her face, on the face that would de­liver the mo­ment.

This was not safe. It could not be chore­ographed.

As she tried to com­pose her­self in a Se­nate com­mit­tee room while the chief statis­ti­cian droned on earnestly about the pro­cesses of the sur­vey, Wong’s strug­gle was ob­vi­ous.

When the num­ber was re­ported, the 61.6% yes, the po­lit­i­cal brain clocked it – that hap­pened first – then the re­lief, emo­tion too big to be con­tained; a lay­ing on of hands from the col­leagues who had con­veyed her to the room and to the mo­ment, a ges­ture both rev­er­en­tial and cer­e­mo­nial, as the room ex­ploded around her – a roar of tri­umph to raise a roof.

While the joy ric­o­cheted off the walls, Wong was still sus­pended, con­certi­naed in her pri­vate self, as the arms around her raised from steady­ing to en­velop­ing.

Words were be­ing sought from re­porters with dig­i­tal recorders. Wong begged a mo­ment to blow her nose.

There wasn’t a steady­ing mo­ment be­cause she and the coun­try had washed up in an­other mo­ment where gay and les­bian peo­ple were per­mit­ted the same mar­i­tal rights as straight peo­ple, where the cause of civil rights had been ad­vanced.

The Aus­tralian peo­ple had con­veyed us to an­other place, to the place they al­ready in­habit, the place Aus­tralian pol­i­tics, planet un­real, had been re­luc­tant to ac­knowl­edge.

The peo­ple had proven them­selves big­ger than a par­lia­ment ad­dicted to pet­ti­ness, to con­tention, to squab­bling end­lessly over the spoils of de­feat.

The ma­jor­ity had spo­ken and they had ac­cepted Penny Wong, her pri­vate and the pub­lic self. It was all OK.

So what did she have to say about it, the re­lent­less re­porters pressed. Wong balled her tis­sue and squared her shoul­ders. “Thank you, Aus­tralia,” she said.

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Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

Penny Wong breaks down af­ter hear­ing the re­sult of the same-sex mar­riage sur­vey.

Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

Wong wipes her eyes as she takes in the re­sult.

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