Why Tanya Plibersek's appointment matters

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Plibersek is Shorten's deputy

An emotional Tanya Plibersek has been elected Deputy Opposition Leader - setting herself three tasks and recalling her migrant roots.

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Tanya Plibersek, everyone’s favourite political girl crush, has been announced as the deputy Opposition Leader in Canberra today. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Plibersek once or twice. I’ve found her to be warm and engaging, while also in possession of a mind like a steel trap. So obvious are the facts of her integrity, vision and intellect that she enjoys the rare privilege of bipartisan respect. Even some of my LNP voting relatives have expressed admiration for Plibersek - and they live in Queensland.

Oh, no doubt the naysayers will have something to say about her unsuitability for the job. We can look forward to the conservative commentators whinging about quotas, EMILY’s List and the importance of meritocracies. We can screencap and tweet tabloid newspaper letters bemoaning the ‘disastrous’ legacy of Labor’s federal government, noting Plibersek in particular as one of the core enforcers of Labor’s ‘handbag hit squad’. And, regrettably, we will probably witness some of the heinous sexism that reared its ugly head under Gillard’s leadership.

(Indeed, we already have. Let us not forget that Bob Hawke warned against the viability of Plibersek taking on the top job because she is the parent of a three-year-old. So is Shorten - but I guess all this equality we’re supposed to have achieved has failed to make its way to the issues of child rearing and work.)

Newly elected Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek.

Newly elected Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek.

But although Plibersek will have to, as the old adage goes, work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good, there’s no doubt that she’s more than qualified for the job. And while it’s a shame she hasn’t been elected to the leadership proper, I must admit to feeling relieved that she won’t be thrown to the wolves and torn apart before we truly need her to ascend to that position.


Tanya Plibersek might be more than ready to take on the leadership of the Federal Opposition (indeed, the leadership of the Federal Government as well), but Australia has proven time and time again that we’re not ready to treat women in public office with the respect they deserve.

So deeply pervasive is the sexism that informs Australian society that even the mention of electing women into positions of power creates a firestorm of rage. When Abbott announced the sausage fest that was his Cabinet (not to mention the unpopular move of appointing himself as Minister for the Status of Women), protests were treated with derision. “It should be the best people for the job!” formed the typical response. 

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek arrive for a press conference at Parliament ...

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek arrive for a press conference at Parliament House Canberra Monday 14 October 2013 . Photo: Andrew Meares

The reason organisations like EMILY’s List push for quotas of female representation is precisely because we don’t live in a meritocracy. Anyone who thinks that politics is decided based on who’s really the best person for the job isn’t just living in a fantasy world, they’re point blank refusing to accept the reality of things because it doesn’t suit their desire to maintain the status quo. And it isn’t just women whose absence we should be concerned about. There have only ever been three Indigenous members of the Federal Parliament (with two currently serving) with equally poor showings in the state and territory governments (Victoria and SA have never elected an Indigenous MP).

Discussions of meritocracy don’t just ignore the basic obstacles of race, class and gender privilege that prevent marginalised groups from being able to contribute at a political level, they also not-so-subtly present the idea that members of these groups are either not good enough or not trying hard enough. It was a shock to most people that the Prime Minister has appointed himself as Minister for the Status of Women. But it is equally shocking, if not more so, that the role of Minister for Indigenous Affairs has never actually been filled by an Indigenous Australian. 

Yet despite this, we appear to be moving even further backwards, to a time when it was only men of privilege empowered to make all the decisions. And so Plibersek’s appointment to the role of Deputy Leader is more meaningful than it being simply a win for both democratic advancement and for women’s representation.

Sure, it signifies the addition of a woman to a senior hierarchy swimming in testicles. But it also reminds us of what is missing in Australian democracy in the teenage years of the 21st century. Real diversity, for a start, the kind that would mean that Plibersek’s appointment wouldn’t be cause for celebration. Diversity that would reflect a Parliament representative of Australia’s community; where the inclusion of Indigenous Australians, Muslim Australians, Asian Australians, disabled Australians and LGBT Australians were also not cause for celebration because they were considered central to progressive governance instead of token threats to those people with ‘real merit’. A government and society that fosters its talented leaders rather than employing hackneyed old ‘isms to tear them apart and destroy any semblance of positive contribution they might have been able to make to our country.

I welcome Plibersek’s election to the role of Deputy Leader. Heck, I'll weep tears of joy when she becomes Prime Minister. I wait eagerly for the day when Australia might prove itself capable not just of honouring her in the top job, but of demanding greater representation from all of Australia’s diverse cultures and communities. Until then, I’m afraid it just seems like business as usual.