Alumni stars of the Senate

Serving state and country from opposite sides of politics

Senator Simon Birmingham and Senator Penny Wong

Senator Simon Birmingham and Senator Penny Wong address The Senate

For the first time since Australia’s Federal Parliament was established 120 years ago, both Leaders in the Senate for the Government and Opposition are from South Australia – and both are University of Adelaide graduates.

Simon Birmingham and Penny Wong may have taken different paths to becoming Senators for South Australia, but while they sit on opposite sides of the Senate and in different political parties, they also share some things in common: experience of student politics, a love of the University’s Barr Smith Library Reading Room, and a close family member who inspired them to enter into politics.

Senator Simon Birmingham Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Finance
Master of Business Administration (2008)

As a child, Simon Birmingham spent six years living with his grandmother, Madge, a retired school teacher and principal – and without her influence in his life, it’s likely he would never have entered into politics. “We spent lots of time reading the newspapers together, watching the news together and talking about the events that were shaping the world and our nation. Out of that grew a strong interest in public policy and current affairs that carries through to this day,” Senator Birmingham said.

Senator Simon Birmingham

Senator Simon Birmingham

In his later years as a Gawler High student, he crossed paths with State and Federal Members of Parliament and the local mayor. From those encounters he developed a sense of civic duty. “In those days, Gawler still had a strong flavour of country town about it, and the ethos of rural communities, with engagement in local organisations and proximity to local leaders, was significant.” With those seeds being planted from an early age, Birmingham entered into student politics while studying Economics at the University of Adelaide. He was President of the Adelaide University Liberal Club from 1993 to 1994 and became a key member of the Young Liberals in South Australia throughout most of the ’90s.

“I could take that interest in policy, events and politics that had come about from those early years with Nan, and see a practical pathway to give effect to it, by virtue of those who were serving the community in elected roles,” said Senator Birmingham.

The call of political work proved so strong that he left his university studies (later returning to complete an MBA) to become an electorate officer for Senator Robert Hill. After time as a political staffer in both Federal and State politics, and management roles with wine and hotel industry bodies, Birmingham made the transition into politics when he was elected to the Senate in 2007 – becoming the youngest member of the Senate at the time of his appointment. Senator Birmingham has gone on to make major contributions to the nation within the Coalition Government, as Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and now as Minister for Finance.

Simon Birmingham On Dit 1994

“All opportunities to serve are incredible ones, and present enormous honour in representing your state, the party, and being able to make, hopefully, a positive impact and difference,” Among those impacts are many that involve championing important South Australian and national issues, such as managing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, supporting defence industries, school funding and improving educational outcomes, and securing and implementing the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement.

But it’s the current pandemic that brings the connection between policy, events and politics into sharp focus. “None of us would go into politics and the parliament to respond to a global pandemic,” he said. “But it is an event that is thrown at you, and at those times of crisis, if you have a deep conviction to your values, and a sufficiently deep sense of service to your country, then you see it as a responsibility to step up and push through the difficult times and try to do ultimately what you hope is best for the country.”

Senator Penny Wong
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs
Bachelor of Arts (Jurisprudence), Bachelor of Laws (Honours) (1993)

“I think what motivates me today is the same thing that motivated me to stand for pre-selection nearly 20 years ago, which is: you do this job because you want to make the country a better place,” Senator Penny Wong said. “For me, that has been about an Australia that is more inclusive, an Australia that's more equal, an Australia where opportunity is shared.”

A politician for almost two decades with the Australian Labor Party and the only woman to be Leader in the Senate – originally in Government, then in Opposition – Senator Wong is encouraged by the number of women now holding senior roles in parliament.

Penny Wong in the 1988 Union Students' Association Annual Elections Handbook

Penny Wong in the 1988 Union Students' Association Annual Elections Handbook

“I’m very conscious I’m the first woman to hold the position from either side. I'm very grateful also that on the Labor side the three most senior people – the Senate leader, the Deputy and what we call the Manager – are all women: myself, Kristina Keneally and Katy Gallagher. So that makes a real change from when I first went into the Senate, where those positions were generally or had always been held by men,” she said.

At the age of eight, Penny Wong migrated to Australia with her mother – an event that set her on the path to political life. “I think at a deeply personal level, the experience of prejudice and discrimination because of being Asian, when I arrived in this country, certainly was a formative experience. And my mother has always been somebody who sought a decent, just, compassionate society so I think I was imbued with those sorts of values around social justice and equality and inclusion. At a personal level, I always knew I wanted to do something to try to make our community and our world a better place in whatever way I could.”

That influence has resulted in many achievements, such as the affirmative action to boost women’s representation within Labor, legislation to set a renewable energy target of 20% in Australia, and being part of a Government that introduced paid parental leave, dropped the tax-free threshold and increased the pension to benefit disadvantaged people, introduced the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), funded the schooling system through the Gonski reforms, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

Senator Wong played a critical role in the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. “I was really honoured to play my part in that, both in terms of working to the Labor Party’s change in position and also making sure the legislation got through the parliament,” she said.

Story by David Ellis and Elisa Black
Photos by AUSPIC, Michael Masters, Getty Images and University of Adelaide Archive

Tagged in Lumen spring 2021, lumen, alumni profiles