Senator the Hon Penny Wong opens Alliance conference

Article by Senator the Hon Penny Wong
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate / 05 May 2018

Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Labour Senator for South Australia opened the Alliance’s Biennial Educators Conference, Fearless Girls Strong Women on Saturday 5 May 2018.

May I begin by acknowledging the Kaurna people who are the traditional owners of the lands on which we are meeting this evening, and by paying our respects to their elders past and present.

We all know the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for her fearless outspokenness in favour of girls’ education. Malala’s life was hanging by a thread when she was taken to the UK for life-saving surgery. In 2014, she became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with Kailash Satyarthi of India, himself an anti-child slavery and children’s education activist.

Malala’s website is arresting. Blazoned across the opening page is a stark reminder of the entrenched nature of the opposition to girls’ education in so many parts of the world: “I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not – it is the story of many girls”.

What Malala’s story tells us is that too many girls in too many parts of the world live fearful lives. And while we can take heart that educational availability, standards and achievement for girls in Australia and New Zealand is outstanding by any measure – due in no small measure to the efforts of people in this room – we know that girls still experience anxiety as they move through school and contemplate a career.

The findings of the Mission Australia Youth Survey for 2017 make for interesting reading. Young people were asked to rank how concerned they had been about a number of issues in the past year. The responses were consistent with previous years, which may indicate that we have a chronic problem here.

Coping with stress, school or study problems and body image ranked as the top three issues of concern. Over four in ten respondents indicated that they were either extremely concerned or very concerned about coping with stress. Around one third of young people were concerned about school or study problems and body image. Around one in five respondents were either extremely concerned or very concerned about depression.

The proportion of females concerned about each of these issues was much higher than the proportion of males.

I don’t suggest that many girls in our schools are fearful. But the underlying issues of bullying, anxiety, depression and poor self-image do suggest that too many girls are far from ‘fearless’, and that anxiety does impact on their well-being. And, of course, the whole purpose of your conference this weekend is to develop fearless girls and strong women.

I know there are many in this room who are far more expert than I in identifying the symptoms and managing the effects of anxiety and depression in girls.

But the literature and commentary around the causes of anxiety and depression in girls suggests that we are facing a ‘complex’ problem, a problem that, because of its multi-dimensional and multi-factorial character, does not lend itself to a simple or universal solution. As they say, ‘complex’ problems tend to have ‘messy’ solutions.

To frame my remarks to you this afternoon, I thought that I might reflect on just two of the qualities that Malala Yousafzai has brought to the issue of girls’ and women’s education. In the first place, she brings to her advocacy a distinctive and personal voice. And second, she refuses to be defined by the expectations and prejudices of others.

We all know that it is not easy to surmount the anxiety, caution and lack of self-confidence that so many girls and women experience. For each Elizabeth Broderick, Quentin Bryce and Tara Moss – each of them confident women with powerful voices – there are thousands of women who struggle even to be heard, much less have impact.

I’m not talking here about formal training in public speaking and advocacy, important as they are. Rather, I am talking about finding the confidence to speak, to make the leap into saying what we think and standing up for what we believe in.

This is partly a question of talking to girls about how to overcome the fear that many of them have about speaking out. And it is also a question of our modelling exactly that behaviour.

If finding our own voice is difficult, then breaking down the conventional frameworks that so often constrain women’s freedom and opportunity is even more problematic. Too often, women are expected to live in a world where the rules are actually set by men. It is just not good enough that women are expected to be rule takers. Women must be rule makers too.

Men so often define the competition in which women are expected to play, whether it is the professions, business, academia or politics. It is critical that women, too, define the competition and set the rules.

We all know that one’s personal experience is never normative. But sharing personal experience can help us to shape the way we might tackle things. So, against the backdrop of Malala Yousafzai’s courage and personal style, I hope that you might accept some of my own reflections on how to be fearless and strong in the spirit in which they are offered.

I work and live in an intensely competitive environment. It is a world dominated by men. This is not only demonstrated by the continuing gender imbalance, but by the very way that Parliamentary business is conducted.

Politics is by its very nature a form of combat (happily unarmed in Australia’s way of playing it), where coming second is usually coming last. It is a winner-take-all business, and for that reason alone it can be bruising and hurtful. As Don Russell, who was until very recently head of the Premier’s Department here in Adelaide, is wont to say, “In politics, nothing ends well”.

As a student attending a fine school in Adelaide, I never dreamt of politics as a career. Like many of my high-performing peers, medicine was my goal, until my aversion to the sight of blood took me to the law and . . . well, here we are. But school, and it goes without saying, my family, did prepare me for the competitive world of my current profession in significant ways.

First, my family and my education helped to instil and reinforce a very strong moral compass, a set of values by which I try to live and act. My schooling reinforced what I hope was an innate conviction that every human being, by virtue of our very humanity, has dignity and value. We enshrine that sense of individual human worth in the rule of law. That inspired me as a litigator when I practised law, and it inspires me as a legislator in the practice of politics.

Second, my secondary education provided me with the platform on which and the tools with which I could begin to find my own voice. It afforded me the intellectual and moral frameworks in which I could begin to develop two critical qualities: I began to learn to be comfortable with and value myself as I was, and to be comfortable with and value others as they were. And given that I had to learn to deal with being different when I first arrived in Australia, that was not so easy, at least at the beginning.

The third thing my education did for me was to encourage me to think of the broader context within which I sought to attain specific goals. I contemplated the possibilities of the entire journey, even as I tackled individual or specific goals.

Perhaps my father’s Chinese heritage was at work here. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tze said that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (千里之行,始於足下). But this sense of proportion has been terribly important to me, especially as I have had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get on with the journey.

For me, at least, this is less about endurance and perseverance than it is about resilience. My family and my education combined to give me a strong sense of purpose, not only a personal sense of purpose but also the broader sense of the purposiveness of common enterprise.

The fourth lesson that I have taken from my education is the value of contestability. I enjoy argument. I enjoy it, not for its own sake, but for the outcomes that argument and contest deliver.

Contestability certainly delivers more comprehensive and more practicable outcomes. And it also delivers a better informed and better rounded individual.

And the final contribution my schooling made to my personal approach to managing competition was to be able to situate myself within a tradition – a history or a social narrative, or whatever one should currently call it. I am not talking here about some fixed system with pre-allocated roles and pre-ordained outcomes. I am talking about the living, evolutionary and dynamic world in which we live, take hope, celebrate our successes and learn from our defeats.

This in precisely what I mean by breaking down the conventional barriers that constrain women, operating instead on the basis of an enabling tradition that encourages and rewards achievement.

Some of my closest friends and some of the people whom I most admire have demonstrated the nobility and grace that comes with discovering their own voice, being happy in their own skin, having a strong moral compass, valuing contestability and valuing others. Julia Gillard, another immigrant to South Australia, is a person of singular strength and dignity.

No doubt she experienced the various anxieties that inevitably attend our way through school and university. Yet she is a woman of indomitable strength whom, irrespective of one’s political persuasion, one can hold up to our young women in our schools as a role model.

Julia once said, “All my life I’ve believed that men and women have equal capacities and talents . . . consequently there should be equality in life’s chances”. This, it seems to me, is what your conference this weekend is really all about. To the extent that you can teach girls to be fearless, to the extent that you can help them to become strong women, to that extent will they achieve the equality that is their right.

I finish on the single proposition which underpins why I do the work I do, and I suspect why you do what you do. I want a world in which our daughters have the same opportunities as our sons. Such a world is worth working for.