Penny Wright was born in 1961 at Red Cliffs, a country town in Victoria. Penny’s family was Protestant (Methodist/Presbyterian) and she went to Sunday school and church until she was 14. Penny believes she gained many of her values from her mother, who brought up her children to “be aware of how lucky we were”. Penny says: “her compassion and sense that every single person has a value irrespective of their wealth, their status, their appearance, their occupation” has been something she tries to emulate. Penny now describes herself as atheist.
Penny is number 6 of 7 children. Her father was a middle level manager in retail, ending up in major shops in Melbourne, where the family moved when Penny was 7. Penny considers herself a country girl even though she left at a young age, because her older brothers and sisters and other family had lived in the country for so long, and she says she was brought up “with a narrative about country values and country ethics”. Penny’s mother was the home manager, looking after her large family.
Penny went to government schools all the way through her education. In year 12 she went to a selective high school, encouraged by her principal who thought she would benefit. “I’ve always been ready for a new challenge, and I enjoyed a new all-girls environment, and the ethos at the school that ‘girls can achieve anything’”. At her mainstream school, it “had taken [Penny] quite a while to be comfortable being a high achiever”, but at the selective school, “there was an ethic about striving for excellence in everything”.
Penny was politicised by her older brothers and sisters who brought feminism, anti-Vietnam War activism and Aboriginal land rights to the family dinner table – where there were “lively discussions and arguments”. Her father was a Menzies Liberal (not politically active) – with very conservative political positions – but did “bring us up to be true to ourselves”, which Penny says made him able to respect different opinions even though he didn’t agree with them.
Penny’s first political actions were participating in anti-nuclear marches when she was in her final year of school. Her older siblings introduced her to environmental thinking and while at University went to the Franklin blockade, where she came to understand “the power of many people standing up for something they believe in”.
Penny finished a BA LLB from Melbourne University and a graduate diploma of environmental studies some years later in Adelaide. She met her long term partner Mark Parnell at University and the couple have 3 children. Penny and Mark lived in different parts of Victoria for 6 years after meeting then they travelled through Europe in a tent. They then returned to Adelaide where their first child was born, when Penny was 29.
Mark himself has had a significant leadership role in the environment movement and is currently a Greens Member of the Legislative Council in the South Australian parliament.
Over the years, Penny has been very active in a range of social justice and environmental causes and projects. Mark and Penny have done a number of joint projects – for example running the Greenpeace group in Hackney, England, when they were travelling overseas – as well as individual projects. Penny says she tended to take on discrete projects that she was passionate about, rather than being a leader.
When Mark and Penny returned to Australia, they found a group of lawyers who were interested in providing a free environmental legal service, and they formed the Environmental Law Community Advisory Service (ELCAS) in South Australia. Penny was the Honorary Coordinator of ELCAS for a number of years (1990-992), juggling her small baby with this work.
In those days I was conscious that I was going to be viewed in a certain way because I was a mother. There was a sense of de-valuing of both aspects of my life.
During her main child-rearing years, Penny was also involved in People for Public Transport, door knocking for The Wilderness Society, and the Women’s Environmental Action Group (great acronym WEnAG) which made some environmental advertisements for community television. Penny’s work at this stage was generally within small groups, rather than part of any of the larger environment groups. However, she also became an ACF Councillor later in the 1990s. Penny had a range of voluntary roles outside the environment movement – including being national spokesperson for Friends of the ABC in 1996 when huge funding cuts were made to the ABC, and President of the Friends of the ABC in South Australia. She’s also helped out with overseas aid organisations and refugee support groups.
As her children grew, Penny took on more paid legal work, including 10 years as a tribunal member of the Residential Tenancies Tribunal, being on the Guardianship Board for 14 years, and on the Social Security Appeals Tribunal for a couple of years. She was also a lecturer in public and environmental health law at Flinders University.
Penny describes her career as “eclectic” and says that this is what she wanted to do, and planned to do, rather than have a more structured lawyer’s life.
I always knew that I really wanted to be a mum – I really love kids, and I knew that having given up full time work to do that, I didn’t want to do too much part time work so that it was the same as full time work anyway. I also really wanted to be part of the school community. I also needed to be active and do other things, because that was good for me, good for them and good for the community. I did work at night a lot …. And I would say that Mark and I worked really well together as a team. We helped each other out. It would have been much harder if he hadn’t taken on that role.
This equal arrangement between Mark and Penny had to end when Mark was elected as a Green to the Upper House of the South Australian parliament in 2006.
This trumped anything that I could be doing. Whereas in the past, when kids were sick he could stay home and look after them if I had to get to a tribunal, that was no longer possible. Luckily the children were much older. And I had a good strong network of female friends who helped out.
Penny lives in an area with a strong community, centred around the primary school, “with a real ethic of looking after everyone”. Penny acknowledges that she could have received more financial recompense as traditional lawyer, but that’s never been very important to her, and her family is able to live quite simply.
Penny has been involved with the SA Greens since its inception – the first meeting was held in her loungeroom. As time went by, she felt than many of the issues she was working on could be better advanced through politics, and putting her energy into the Greens would be a better way of progressing these various environmental and social justice causes.
She did training and facilitation for The Greens, was involved in developing and implementing the grievance processes, was a Convenor of a local branch, and very involved in State Council, although she didn’t take on the more prominent jobs.
Because I had various jobs and responsibility for my growing kids, I was always reluctant to take on one big role like the Convenor, because it would mean I would have to do that to the exclusion of everything else, and I didn’t want to do that. … and I really like variety.
When Mark stood for the preselection for the Upper House election, Penny also considered it, but she felt her children were too young.
But she also became very concerned about the “creeping acceptance of something that was previously thought to be morally abhorrent” that the changes to legislation in relation to refugees portended, or the increase in CEO’s salaries demonstrated. And this led to her putting her name forward for preselection and she was selected in 2009.
In the extract below Penny explains the dilemma she had in relation to how she and Mark handled their relationship in terms of the preselection.
Penny was elected in 2010 and began her work in the Senate on July 2011, and the first weeks were “equal parts exhilarating and terrifying”. “It’s doing a new job, but on stage, where there’s people in the audience who are determined to criticise you, or have you dragged off the stage as soon as possible”.
But I’ve realised that this is a job I’ve got the background to do. All the different aspects of the work I’ve done… I can connect dots and join things up in my thinking.
Penny learned her leadership “on the job” and through her tribunal work
I’ve learned the importance of listening, valuing what people are saying, and I’ve learned the ability to take people with you. You do that in tribunal hearings as well, it’s much more important if you can send people away feeling that they’ve been valued and listened to. In my mental health work, I always wanted to make sure that people didn’t feel worse after the hearing, and if anything, they had more dignity and more sense of being respected than when they’d come in, and they could understand the decision I’d made, which often was a decision they weren’t happy about.
I asked about role models, and although Penny says she’s never had just the one role model:
Joan Kirner was offered an opportunity, that was a bit of a poisoned chalice, but she had the guts to take it on and she always struck me as having integrity and courage, and being supportive of other women. Also Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi– who is so courageous and steadfast. Christine Milne has a real vision, and has real courage in promoting that constantly, and it’s hard to keep that going when people are constantly trying to drag her down. I admire her tenacity, she just keeps going.
Penny also says she’s had some fantastic bosses over the years – including Sue Raymond who was the Chair of the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. “She was very likeable, but she had strong principles, and if there was a difficult case to hear, she was prepared to do it. She’d do the hard things, but she’d also share the benefits of the job. She has strong self discipline, and she was quite inspiring.”
In the extract below, Penny talks about how important it has been at various times for her of someone supporting her and saying she should “go for it”:
Penny says that it took her to a certain stage in her life when she had the necessary confidence to stand for public office, to take risks and sometimes fail – or sticking her head over the parapet. “Attacks on your integrity – usually said in the media – really hurt you, and you have to accept this, and hope that you will get a chance to prove who you are.”
Time is her other challenge at the moment – Penny is aware that she will not be able to keep up with all her friendships over the next 6 years and that her family will have to be prioritised with all the other demands on her time.
I asked Penny whether she could see differences between women and men in leadership.
Women tend to be better at relationships, and perhaps with a female leader you’re likely to have that understanding, but that’s a broad generalisation.
I have found it really valuable to work with other women. For anyone interested in leadership, I would encourage them to band together and support each other in realising how much of the criticism you might receive is personal, and how much isn’t, so you can learn how not to take things too personally. I believe in the strength of relationships and that’s the power of the environment movement. You have people who care passionately about something other than themselves, and that’s such a resource. It’s the thing that really matters.
Read more about Penny at http://greens.org.au/people/penny-wright
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