Karen Kissane profiles Jenny Macklin and finds a feminist with a fire in her belly for change but a considered approach to achieving it.
JENNY Macklin is cheerful with the people lining up for her autograph until one person mischievously asks her to sign herself “Jenny Macklin, Prime Minister”. The fact that she is the first woman to get within cooee of the title is part of the reason for the queue, but Macklin is quick to cut off this kind of talk, glancing at the reporter behind her. “Don’t say that in front of her,” she says firmly. Is this a sensitive issue, then? “Very sensitive.”
Yesterday Macklin, 47, was elected as the new deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. She is the first woman to hold such a senior position on either side of Australian politics.
She didn’t get there without a firm grasp of the rules, which include “thou shalt not covet thy boss’s job”, and “never count your chickens before they’re hatched”. So, while her deal was stitched up before the book launch at which she was signing autographs last weekend, Macklin was taking no chances in the lead-up to the vote.
Wandering through a north Melbourne community garden during the launch, which was for a collection of life stories by elderly local people, Macklin did not stand on ceremony. She was quick to notice when someone frail needed help easing into a chair; she grabbed a camera and offered to take photos when the authors were gathered together. She was “Jenny” to everyone.
“She’s got a very natural quality,” says Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister and one of Macklin’s old bosses. “She’s not trying to … be something she’s not … And she’s a very good operator at the grassroots level.”
Such warm ways may be winning with the locals, but Macklin called on sterner stuff to cut a swathe through the ALP’s factional bloodiness to leadership. She has been in Parliament only five years but has earned her colleagues’ respect and in some cases their dislike for her tenacity and reputedly masterful grasp of policy.
Macklin is an intelligent, left-wing feminist who has the social-justice fire in the belly of old-time Labor but less of its propensity for headkicking. The acerbic Simon Crean has chosen her for his running mate, one ALP insider says, “because he knows he needs her in terms of the community they’ve got very different skills”.
Shrewd and cautious, Macklin refuses to speculate publicly about her future. “I haven’t even started this [job] yet; let’s see how we go … I want to do well at what I’m putting up my hand for.” She says she wants to avoid hubris because it irritates colleagues and voters alike. “It’s not looked upon kindly in any politician … You can’t afford it, especially with Australians. [They] have got wonderful antennae for bulldust.”
The Labor Left women who make up her Praetorian Guard are more outspoken about their hopes for her. “First female prime minister? I hope so,” says the ACTU president, Sharan Burrow. “She’s a strong woman, she’s tenacious, she’s extremely articulate and her knowledge base is incredible. She’s also courageous in terms of speaking out on what she believes in.”
For some she has not been courageous enough. She publicly sells the party’s decision to support subsidies of private health insurance, even though her views that the money would be better spent directly on the public health system are well known. (She called the Liberals’ introduction of the subsidy “the worst piece of public policy ever seen in this Parliament”.)
One observer who has had dealings with Macklin says she sometimes thinks she knows more than she actually does. Some (anonymous) detractors in her own party have muttered that she is not tough enough, or pragmatic enough, to make hard decisions; others on Labor’s Right have warned that she is a closet radical whose leftie urges would be uncaged if ever she won
power. So are we to expect a wimp or a rabid ideologue?
Neither, laughs Macklin. “I think I’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions …you’ve got to take the decision that’s made and run with it … You’ve got to accept that you’ve got a place to argue it, which is inside the party forums. I’m not elected as an independent. I’m elected as a member of the Labor Party.”
As for being too far to the left: “I have a very strong sense of social justice … and I know that one of our big tasks in the Labor Party is to protect people… But I’ve been in the Labor Party for 20 years and I know that you’ve got to take people with you.”
But for all her team-player talk, Macklin has sometimes dared to go out on a limb. The former Victorian premier Joan Kirner says: “I … will never forget when Howard tried to split the Labor Party conference on the issue of an IVF amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act stopping IVF to lesbians and single women. Many of the blokes were dithering around. Jenny just went straight out to the media and went right to the heart of it; that this was not about IVF but about a proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. She said, `We introduced it and we won’t be amending it.’ And then Kim [Beazley] had to come in behind her, much to our relief, and then people had to back Kim, even though it was pretty hairy. So she won’t be afraid to take leadership.”
Macklin has her critics within the party, most of whom are of a gender and a faction other than her own. She antagonised some colleagues before the 1998 election by successfully resisting efforts to impose an economic rationalist approach on the party’s child-care policies. Others are aggrieved now because she beat them to the deputy’s job. But Macklin is not quite as nerveless with the media as she can be in the party room. Personal publicity makes her uneasy. For this interview in her Heidelberg electorate office she chooses to talk from behind her moat of a desk, arms folded in front of her, pleasant but wary.
Macklin makes a face when asked what strengths she will bring to her new job; self-promotion is really not her bag, she points out, before taking a deep breath and nominating her solid background in policy development and the fact that she is a fresh
face. “I think probably the most important thing is not having been a member of the government,” she says.
Macklin will head the party’s policy review but it is not yet clear whether she will be shadow treasurer. It’s been reported that she was pressed not to take the portfolio, even though it is the traditional entitlement of a deputy opposition leader. MPs Stephen Smith and Bob McMullan are also believed to want the job. Historically, not all deputies have taken treasury, but in Macklin’s case it would be a dilution of the feminist victory.
Macklin denies she is under pressure and says Crean has made it clear the decision is hers. “It’ll be up to me and my view is that I should choose basically where I think I could make the biggest contribution and where I’ll be the most use to the party.”
But there is also the question of whether experience in this senior portfolio would benefit Macklin and her career. “That is definitely an issue,” she acknowledges. “I’m thinking about that. One should never get stuck.”
She will be deputy to a man who the party’s own polling suggests is the most disliked figure in the federal parliamentary party, but Macklin says she has found Crean good to work with. “I’ve seen the other side of him a lot, particularly going back to before he was in the Parliament. He’s actually very inclusive. He’s the sort of person that tries to bring people with him … I think people will see that in a way that they haven’t been able to, particularly over the last three years when he’s really had the tough job [of shadow treasurer].”
What Macklin says about Crean is what others say about her. Rhonda Galbally, founding chief executive of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, watched her chair the national health strategy review. She was inclusive and took people with her because of her consultative style, Galbally says. “People felt as though their voices were being heard and as if they were being taken seriously.”
Professor Stephen Duckett, dean of health sciences at La Trobe University, worked with the Victorian Health Department and attended round-table meetings run by Macklin. He says she took the same approach to conflict: “She would try to understand why there was divergence of views, trying to clarify the conflict and work out what commonality there was.” At the same time, he says, her policies show she is no pushover: “There are a lot of pressures on shadow ministers to wheel things into policy. You’ve got to resist the blandishments of the lobby groups if they don’t fit where you want to go. And she does.”
What is most likely to trip her up? “She’s a woman, and the evidence is that when women stick their head above the mediocrity line, they become targets in the very blokey atmosphere of Parliament House.”
This is another line Macklin does not wish to pursue. “It’s been very tough for the women who’ve put themselves forward; I’d be foolish not to see it. But politics at the most senior level is tough for both men and women.” What keeps her there, she says, is the conviction that she can help drive change: “I’m an absolutely strong believer that you can make a difference.”
JENNY MACKLIN, MP
Born Brisbane, 1953.
Family Partner Ross and three children aged 25, 19 and 13.
Educated Wangaratta High School, then studied for Bachelor of Commerce (Honours), University of Melbourne.
Entered Parliament March 1996 as MP for Jagajaga, Victoria.
Labor Party career Opposition health spokeswoman and ALP senior vice-president.
Lives Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s north-east.
First published in The Age.