When Australia’s prime minister appointed lawyer Penny Ying-Yen Wong as its main envoy on climate issues 12 years ago, the backlash was stinging.
Social conservatives objected to Wong, one of the few openly lesbian political figures in Australia. Some nationalists found fault with Malaysia-born Wong over her immigrant background in a white-majority country not always at ease in its Asian neighborhood.
Now Wong could be poised to become the face of Australian diplomacy on the global stage.
Australia’s Labor Party has a strong lead going into national elections on May 18, many polls show. Riding the wave is Wong, who holds the party’s foreign affairs portfolio and is one of its rising stars in an election that has challenged traditional notions of identity and inclusion.
The election also tests the political patience of Australians, who are seeking some stability after scandals and infighting have brought five prime ministers in the past five years.
A Labor victory would make Wong, 50, a top candidate to become foreign minister and inherit a host of complicated issues, including how to deal with growing Chinese influence and investment in Australia.
Last week, Wong was already looking ahead to her possible role as Australia’s top diplomat under a Labor government led by Bill Shorten, a former union organizer.
“It says something about the diverse, multicultural, confident nation that we are,” Wong told the Lowy Institute, a foreign policy think tank, about her own political success.
“That is important in the region because it goes to our perception in the region. It goes to the narrative about what it means to be Australian, Australian identity and Australia’s place in the world,” she added.
Wong, who moved to Australia when she was 8, has tried to deflect interest in her background. But she has talked about growing up feeling like an outsider in her home city of Adelaide, where she lived with her single mother and won a scholarship to an expensive private school.
When a far-right Australian politician came to prominence in 1996 by opposing immigrants from Asia, Wong’s father called her from Malaysia and asked if she would be forced to leave, she said in a speech last week in Sydney.
Polls show Wong to be one of the most admired politicians in the country.
But in 2007, when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd appointed her to negotiate global climate change agreements, it was seen as a daring move given her ethnicity and sexual orientation.
“Australia in 2007 was still a relatively conservative place,” Rudd said in a telephone interview from Singapore. “A lot of people criticized me over the appointment for conservative social reasons. My attitude was they could take a running jump.”
In a country where very few politicians are openly gay, Wong’s relationship with Sophie Allouache, a public servant, has been credited with helping increase acceptance of homosexuality in public life.
Wong and Allouache have two young daughters, Hannah and Alexandra. Wong opposed same-sex marriage a decade ago, in line with her party’s position. She later changed position and voted for legalization in 2017.
More than 50 percent of Australians say their ancestry is English, Irish or Scottish, according to the most recent census. No Australian of Asian heritage has ever held one of the most senior offices of state, even though people with Chinese ancestry now account for more than 5 percent of the Australian population.
In a country used to rough-and-tumble politics, this election has stood out for its racist undertones.
Last week, a television station broadcast video of Steve Dickson, a leader of the anti-Muslim One Nation Party, at a Washington-area strip club in 2018 stuffing money into a stripper’s underwear while comparing the sexual performance of women by their skin color.
After the video aired, Dickson resigned as his party’s state leader.
Another candidate for the ruling center-right Liberal Party refused to withdraw from the election when media outlets revealed posts from her Facebook account critical of Muslim refugees and pro-Muslim feminists in the United States.
“Round them up Donald,” Jessica Whelan wrote in one post, apparently referring to President Trump.
Whelan initially said the account had been hacked, a claim endorsed by her party leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The following day she admitted some of her controversial posts were genuine and was dumped by her own party. She is now contesting her local district in Tasmania state as an independent.
The Labor Party has had similar problems.
Two weeks ago, it emerged that one of its Senate candidates had posted a video of a notorious British conspiracy theorist, David Icke, who argues that an alien race of giant lizards has secretly taken control of the earth.
Wayne Kurnoth stood aside as a candidate, although his name has already been printed on ballot papers and can’t be removed under the electoral rules.
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