“To whom much is given, much will be required,” to quote Luke 12:48. So what will be asked of the prodigiously talented Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, who was on public display at Japan’s Quad meeting just twenty-four hours after the election?
In many eyes, she is the ultimate proof Australia has “arrived” as a country moving fast beyond its Anglo-Saxon-Celt roots. If only Lee Kuan Yew were alive to see it. Even he might have suspended his usual scepticism about Australia’s commitment to belonging in its neighbourhood.
Yes, the sight of an Australian foreign minister, of mixed heritage, confidently messaging in Bahasa Indonesian and Malay during her first official South-East Asian visit in June was stunning – prompting delight within Australia and bemused astonishment in the Asian region. How much the imagery influences genuine Asian rethinking of our attitudes is still to be settled. But the “optics” were a circuit-breaker from the past. Even among the usual critics, images like these prompted exuberant pride in the nation’s multicultural achievements. But it also brought big expectations that Wong herself may not exactly welcome.
Late last year, while obviously considering the possibility of government, she told an ANU National Security Conference in Canberra that our region was being reshaped, and that this generation of political leaders bore a big responsibility in the reshaping. “We are in a contest – a race, you might say, for influence.” The question is, where will she (on our behalf) put most of her energies to follow through on this correct assessment? Where will she be tested? Where will she need to take risks? “Surely it’s obvious,” a friend offered instantly in answer to my questions, “it depends on how she handles China.”