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'Cultural Catholic' lives of public service

  • 31 March 2023
Margaret Simons, Tanya Plibersek: On her Own Terms, Black Inc, 2023 This life story of Tanya Plibersek, as told with great sensitivity and empathy by Margaret Simons, is a valuable reflection upon the engagement of a progressive modern woman with two of the great institutions in Australian history: the Labor Party and the Catholic Church. The former accommodation, which has led her to represent the party in federal parliament since she was 28 years old, is the primary theme of this biography. Exploration of the latter theme, which has led her like so many of her generation to describe herself as a cultural Catholic, is secondary. Both themes deserve expansion. Not without some angst, Plibersek committed her life to the party but left the church. 

Some particularly interesting parts of the book are devoted to her husband, Michael Coutts-Trotter, Secretary to the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet under another Catholic, out-going Liberal Premier, Dominic Perrottet. This discussion too, is fascinating and helps illuminate both modern Catholicism and the question of how lives of public service develop.  

St Ignatius Riverview old boy, Coutts-Trotter, a convicted heroin dealer and former addict who rose to become a senior public servant, is a member of the Meaghers, a distinguished Catholic family boasting several prominent Jesuit missionary priests and a former Rector of Riverview among their number. Without diminishing Plibersek at all, this book could easily have been reframed as a dual biography of a Sydney ‘power couple’ who have each made significant contributions to Australian public life. 

Plibersek has held many ministerial and shadow ministerial portfolios over her long career. Simons examines her performance in each of them closely. Currently Minister for Environment and Water, she also served as Minister for Housing and the Status of Women, Minister for Human Services and Social Inclusion, and Minister for Health and Medical Research in the Rudd and Gillard governments. She was also Shadow Minister for Education and Training while Labor was out of office.  

Between 2007 and 2013, after she had served her apprenticeship, she had to navigate the dangerous waters of Labor’s factional infighting during the turbulent Rudd-Gillard period. She was a steadying influence, supporting Rudd but appreciating Gillard, and largely maintained her dignity and reputation.  

While in Opposition she performed well enough to emerge as a popular leadership contender as Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese were battling each other. Deputy Labor Leader from 2013 to 2019,