Proud to be Asian and gay! Meet Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister

There’s a government change in Australia and after being in Opposition for nine years, the Labor Party has returned to power . Early Monday...

There’s a government change in Australia and after being in Opposition for nine years, the Labor Party has returned to power.

Early Monday morning, before the Quad summit in Tokyo, Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took office in a brief ceremony at Government House, Canberra.

Other members of his team to take office included Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who will join Albanese at the Quad summit, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.

With Wong, Australia gets its first foreign minister to be born overseas. She is the first Asian-born person to hold an Australian cabinet position. She is also Australia’s first openly gay female parliamentarian.

Here’s a quick profile on Penny Wong and her climb in Australian politics.

Who is Penny Wong?

Penelope Ying-Yen ‘Penny’ Wong was born in the Malaysian state of Sabah to an Australian mother and Malaysian father.

After her parents’ divorce, she moved to Australia in 1976, when she was eight years old, and settled in Adelaide.

Wong was educated at Scotch College in Adelaide, and then attended the University of Adelaide, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees. After graduating, she worked for trade unions and took part in campaigns to improve pay and living conditions of the union members.

She was elected to the Senate for the Australian Labor Party in 2001 and has been re-elected twice, in 2007 and 2013.

After the Labor won government in 2007 under Kevin Rudd, she was appointed Minister for Climate Change and Water. In this position, she significantly expanded the Renewable Energy Target, which has driven significant investment in wind and solar power.

In September 2010, she became the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and in February 2013 she was appointed as the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate.

In September 2013, after the Labor Party’s defeat in the federal elections, Penny Wong was appointed the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and became the first woman in Australia to hold this position.

Since 2016, Wong has been the shadow foreign affairs minister. In this role, she has made out the case for Australia’s role as a good international citizen, supporting peace, prosperity and stability through a commitment to the rules-based international order.

Wong, who is the first female openly-LGBTI Australian federal parliamentarian, also played a significant role in the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia in 2017.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) newspaper has described Wong as “tough, cerebral and sometimes self-righteous”.

Australia's new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese poses with his new cabinet ministers, Penny Wong (left) and Richard Marles after the oath taking ceremony at Government House in Canberra. AFP

Wong to bridge ties with China

One of the biggest challenges awaiting Wong is to repair Australia’s damaged relationship with China.

She has previously admitted the task of getting back on Beijing's good side will be ‘difficult’ amid an ongoing trade spat, as well as a whirlwind of threats by diplomats and communist party-run newspapers.

However, she has argued that it is possible for the bitter feud to simmer down if the government stops ‘playing on domestic politics’ with the external issue.

China’s ties with Australia has been on a downhill slide April 2020. It all began with Australian government calling for an international independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID pandemic.

Beijing's militarisation of the South China Sea, crackdowns on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and horrific human rights abuses against minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, have also been sticking points for the two nations.

The AUKUS pact signed in 2021 between Australia, UK and US only worsened ties between the two countries. The security pact under which the US and UK would help Australia with nuclear-powered submarines had left Beijing fuming, calling the alliance, ‘extremely irresponsible’.

Amid frosty ties, Wong has stated that the government wouldn’t bend to China on any of the issues.

"We can't control how they (China) behave," Wong was quoted as saying to Daily Mail. "If China chooses to continue to impose what are clearly coercive economic measures on Australia, then that's going to have a consequence in terms of the relationship."

With inputs from agencies

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