Tanya Plibersek rules out running for the Labor party leadership

Why Tanya Plibersek doesn’t owe it to women lead the Labor party

Tanya Plibersek
The blows keep coming. On Monday afternoon the deputy leader of the Labor party, Tanya Plibersek, announced she would not run for the party’s top leadership position vacated by Bill Shorten after the party’s shock defeat.

Plibersek had the backing of Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard and the Victorian right for a tilt and had indicated on Sunday that she’d stand. But on Monday she released a statement explaining why she wouldn’t.

“I cannot reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities of the Labor leadership,” she said. “I know some people will be disappointed with this decision.”

The fact her explanation was authentic and relatable did nothing to ease the devastation.

Selfishly, it is disappointing, yes. Having an experienced and personally popular female opposition leader who is committed to advancing equity and a compassionate agenda is certainly appealing.

But no politician “owes” us their service, certainly not at the expense of their own family and Plibersek has done more to advance the causes she’s passionate about than most Australians.

Her decision not to stand cannot be cast as indelible proof of what is not possible: it is not the final nail in the coffin for women seeking leadership positions in politics.

She has balanced her young family with various responsibilities as an MP, a minister, a shadow minister and deputy of the party for nearly two decades.

The fact she has decided ‘this’ is not her time cannot be divorced from the circumstances of ‘this’ point in time.

Taking on the leadership of the Labor party as it seeks to recover from the shock of losing the “un-loseable” election might not appeal. There is never a perfect time to lead but there are certainly more and less perfect times – for the organisation or institution and the individual. In ten more years, when Plibersek’s children are older, perhaps this chance would appeal.

Of course the opportunity might not present itself for her in ten years and it may not ever arise again. But it would sell Plibersek’s intelligence and judgement short to pretend she doesn’t realise that. She obviously realises that and has decided it isn’t her time regardless.

As has been said, it is hard to imagine a male in her shoes making the same decision, and of course it raises the issues of gender roles and families. But just because a man might not make the same decision doesn’t mean it’s a choice a woman has to make.

Tanya Plibersek’s career in politics is not a picture of what cannot be: it remains persuasive about what is possible.

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