Penny Wong’s composure cracked in moment of relief too big to be contained
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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Penny Wong breaks down after hearing the result of the same-sex marriage survey.
Wong wipes her eyes as she takes in the result.