Penny Wong: A letter to the time I changed my mind


Penny Wong

Senator Penny Wong.

Senator Penny Wong. Photo: Andrew Meares

This should be two letters: one to encourage, to inspire and to reassure; the other to scream and yell, and to dissuade.

The first letter would tell me it will be all right – more than all right – and that you can make a difference. The second would warn me off, telling me that politics is too hard, the price too high.

The first would lift my spirits. It would remind me that who is in the room matters, and that decisions are better for having had good people make or influence them. It would steel my determination. It would remind me, and you, of how social change comes about – by changing hearts and minds, by deepening understanding, by working with others. Not by sitting on the sidelines. Critique makes for interesting conversation, but little more.

Penny's letter appears in <i>From the Heart: A collection from Women of Letters</i>.

Penny's letter appears in From the Heart: A collection from Women of Letters.

It would urge me to lift my voice, and to speak with strength and dignity. It would tell me that democracy needs many voices and right now there are too few. This is my opportunity to speak, not only to fight for what is right, but also to mark out a space for others. 


And it would calm my fear that this life will destroy me. It would tell me that I can still love and live and nurture and heal. It would tell me that I will not lose myself. That I have not lost me. 

But the second letter would scream, 'Don't do it! Do you know what this country can do to strong women? To those who are pushy and presumptuous enough to stand up? You have no idea of the bile and vitriol coming your way.' 

That letter would tell me that there'll be even more of the garden-variety 'Go back to where you came from, you bloody chink' abuse, and that there'll also be homophobia – from those who can't decide if I hate men or if I want to be a man. Either way, they won't like it. Most of it will be endlessly repetitive. One thing about bigots is they have little imagination.

It would tell me that stronger and more politically savvy women than me will be set upon. That email and Twitter may be the most frequent channels of bigotry, but in many ways the most insidious and persistent prejudice lives in our parliament.

It would tell me that there will be deep loneliness, not only because loved ones will be far away but also because politics is the loneliest team sport.

The first letter would speak to the hopes and dreams of my younger self; the second would be like a freeway sign, red with capital letters: 'Wrong Way, Go Back'.

This should be two letters. But there can be only one, and so this is my letter.


This will be hard – at times, beyond hard – but it will also be rewarding, sometimes extraordinarily so. There will be amazing highs and terrible lows. I could write for hours and still only describe a fraction of what you will learn and experience, of the people you will meet and the things you will see. Take it in, absorb it... but know that it is all ephemeral.

You will succeed and fail. You will make countless decisions, large and small. Many will be right, and some mediocre. Some will be wrong. Forgive yourself for those.

You will see great cruelty and deep compassion. Shield yourself from the first and be warmed by the latter.

There is no perfect way to deal with the bigots, nor with those men who adopt the habit of dismissiveness or contempt. You will be surprised and saddened by its pervasiveness in your work. It will be instantly recognisable, but almost never named.

Hope and inspiration will be rarer than you both expect and wish but, when they come, it will often be from unexpected quarters.

You will come to understand that this notion of being a role model, which sits so uncomfortably with you today, matters not because of you but because it changes how others see themselves. It alters the limits others put on or take off their own aspirations. Because people can't be what they can't see.

Don't worry about being gay. Most people will get over it, and those that don't will never change their mind, regardless of your competence.

Keep your perspective. I repeat, keep your perspective.

Most of all, hold on to the people you love. There is nothing more important. They will be your shelter. They will give you strength and joy. They will comfort you. In them, you will find the purpose that will sometimes elude you elsewhere.

Knowing what I now know, I honestly cannot decide whether to warn you off or be supportive. Life and politics are always shaded by the myriad of counterfactuals, the endless what-ifs, the possibility of another path. I don't know what I'm choosing between.

So instead, here is a reminder of you, of who you are. You are not an artist. You are not a writer. But you do understand the power of imagination. And the nation you imagine, the nation you hope for, is part of you. So, whatever you choose, do something that speaks to that part, to that hope, and you will never lose yourself.


This letter was first read by Penny Wong at a 'Women of Letters' event. It has now been published in From The Heart: A collection from Women of Letters

Penny Wong is Labor Senator for South Australia.