McKinnon Political Leader of the Year

Senator the Hon Penny Wong

Senator the Hon Penny Wong has been named the 2022 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year for her swift progress in re-setting Australia’s foreign policy agenda and restoring important bilateral relationships in a challenging geopolitical environment. Senator Wong is the only recipient to have been recognised twice, having been named the 2018 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year.

In a matter of months since being returned to Government in May 2022, Senator Wong as Minister for Foreign Affairs singularly shifted the tone of Australian foreign policy. Her “listen first, talk second approach” has been widely praised as a calm and measured approach to diplomacy; her methods a “more ethical foreign policy”.

The Selection Panel collectively acknowledged her foreign policy work and her ability to balance showing respect for other nations’ sovereignty while remaining strong in her role rebuilding and maturing Australia’s status as a middle power. The Panel recognised that in a challenging macro environment she managed to succeed in resetting Australia’s relationships with China and other Asian nations, the Pacific, as well as other global stakeholder countries in an incredibly short space of time. Her numerous international diplomatic trips particularly in the new Government’s first 100 days were commended by the Selection Panel.

The day after winning the Federal Election, Senator Wong joined Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the Quad Summit, in Tokyo, followed by five trips to the Pacific (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands plus a Pacific Islands Forum summit) and three trips to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia twice). Her heightened attention and activity in the Indo-Pacific since becoming Minister reflected chief concerns about China’s rising influence in the Pacific. She also led a bi-partisan delegation to the Pacific in December, widely touted as a success.

In the return of Australian Professor Sean Turnell from detention in Myanmar, Senator Wong demonstrated her capacity for international negotiation and political leadership. She backed reform of the U.N. Security Council to ensure greater permanent representation for Africa, Latin America, and Asia—including India and Japan—and lobbied for Australia to be given a non-permanent seat on the council from 2029 to 2030. Senator Wong has stood strong in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, condemning the Putin regime at the UN and lauding the conviction of those guilty of the MH17 tragedy.

In December 2022, Senator Wong was the first Australian minister to visit China in three years, a trip commended by the Selection Panel. Asked whether she was “looking forward to breaking the ice”, Senator Wong said: “The ice thaws, but slowly.” Senator Wong raised sensitive issues such as human rights, detained citizens and “trade blockages” with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, while declaring that small and medium-sized countries in the region wanted China and the US to responsibly manage their tensions. Following the talks, the pair agreed to further dialogue on trade and economic issues, consular affairs, climate change, defence, and regional and international issues.

Senator Wong is widely seen as one of the Government’s most powerful, successful, and influential Cabinet Ministers and is a trusted advisor and confidante of the Prime Minister. She is also known for her ability to build consensus across party lines and a willingness to work collaboratively to find solutions to complex problems. Senator Wong’s public service has been extensive and distinguished. Since entering the Senate for South Australia in 2002 – the first Asian-born Senator – she has emerged as one of the most respected and influential politicians in Australia, known for her commitment to social justice.

Born in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, in 1968, Senator Wong moved to Australia with her family when she was eight. She grew up in Adelaide and attended the University of Adelaide, studying Law and Arts and was admitted to the South Australian Bar in 1993. At university, Senator Wong was active in student politics and was elected to the Adelaide University Union, in 1988, joining the Australian Labor Party later that year. She was also an active unionist, working with the CFMEU and was on the national executive of the National Union of Students.

She was first elected Leader of the Government in the Senate, in 2013, continuing the position in Opposition. Under the Rudd Government, she served as Minister for Finance and Deregulation (2010-2013) and Minister for Climate Change (2007-2010) as well as reprising her Senate Leader role. Prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister, in 2022, she served in the Shadow Cabinet in the same capacity (2015-2022). Former Australian diplomat and leading foreign policy advisor, Allan Gyngell has described Senator Wong as the best-prepared Foreign Affairs Minister the country has ever had. The Selection Panel for the 2018 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year praised Senator Wong’s coherent, thoughtful and forward-looking foreign policy agenda, impressive for being developed in opposition without the benefit and resources of government.

Senator Wong has been a vocal advocate for a range of progressive causes throughout her career. She has been a leading voice on issues such as climate change, marriage equality and refugee rights. She has been a champion of gender equality and has worked to promote the representation of women in politics and public life. She has remained steadfast in her commitment to her principles and public service, withstanding repeated racist and sexist attacks, and intense scrutiny and criticism from political opponents and the media.

Senator Wong’s leadership and vision have had a profound impact on Australian politics and society. Her advocacy for progressive causes has helped shape public opinion and push the country in a more inclusive and just direction. She has been a role model for women and people of colour, showing it is possible to succeed in public life despite facing discrimination and obstacles. The 2022 Selection Panel concluded Senator Wong should be recognised as the McKinnon Political Leader of the Year for a second time after not only displaying the required personal attributes including leadership and satisfying the selection criteria but pursuing a vision which has benefitted the nation.