Marise Payne has long been an enigma. Who is this woman who’s quietly become the highest-ranking woman in the current Australian government and therefore the most powerful female in the nation? And why do we know so little about her?
As Foreign Minister she occupies not only one of the hottest seats in Cabinet, but one of the toughest, with China and Russia looming as ‘problematic’ friends and the US tugging her closer. Perhaps too close?
As for her other portfolio – Minister for Women – well, she’s been not just elusive, but disgruntled rumblings from the women’s sector suggest she has been missing in action.
So why the Ministerial silence? Does she care about the empowerment and progress of women? Does she take her privileged position as a powerful woman in leadership seriously enough to throw down a ladder to other women? And what does she make of an emerging global trend towards a more ‘feminised’ leadership?
“Regardless of where one looks, it is women who bear most to the responsibility for holding societies together.”
A couple of months ago, in mid-May, Minister Payne quietly published an Op Ed in The Strategist which largely escaped media attention. It called on governments around the world to be more responsive to the needs of women who are disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Regardless of where one looks” she said, “it is women who bear most to the responsibility for holding societies together.” She called for greater resources for women working in health and social services who are on the frontline of the battle against the global pandemic.
In a controversial move, that seems to have slipped through the media net, she also called for greater funding for sexual health and reproductive services for women: a policy position that puts her in direct opposition to her American political counterparts, who are defunding and banning reproductive health support.
Those close to Marise Payne say she is just ‘getting on with the job’. But some of her constituents here in Australia, women in particular, are wondering where Minister Payne’s care and concerns really lie.
Politics is a bruising and at times awful business. Recent history has shown how particularly brutal it can be towards women, especially those who don’t court media attention and try to keep their head down while getting on with managing myriad demands and a hefty portfolio of responsibilities.
I wanted to find out more about Marise Payne and what it is that fires her passion and energy for the impossibly long hours she works. Is it ego? Or a girl-scout eagerness to serve? Or, is she just some crazy ‘girly swat’ who is desperate to be top of the class?
Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel both laughingly acknowledge their own obsession with being over researched and over prepared for every meeting, every encounter. They put it down to a female fastidiousness. Does Payne? And what about leadership? Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright called herself an “unlikely leader”. Born the daughter of Czechoslovakian parents who emigrated to the US, Albright says she was “never supposed to be what I became”. What about Marise Payne? Does she think she was always ‘supposed’ to rise to national leadership ranks?
“For me (feminism) is just a fact”
And if leadership has always been her secret ambition, how on earth did she think she could get away with being a committed conservative, yet an avid Republican and a self-declared feminist?
Yes, it may come as a surprise, but ‘feminism’ according to Payne is not about her identity, it’s actually about her DNA. “For me, it’s just a fact” she told me recently, when we sat down to record a long and rambling chat for BroadTalk – our new podcast about women, power, the wayward world and our imperfect lives.
It was the morning after the Foreign Minister had fired a thundering shot over the diplomatic bow with a powerful speech at the ANU’s National Security College, in which she slammed China and Russia for COVID disinformation campaigns. The media headlines were big and bold and no doubt the cables to Moscow and Beijing were pinging full throttle. Yet, despite that backdrop, Marise Payne was not only relaxed, comfortable and ready for a good yak, she was also reflective and refreshingly candid as our BroadTalk turned … personal.
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