Tanya Plibersek exposed to family violence through mother’s friends in childhood – shaping her
Tanya Plibersek’s rise to the top of public life has been shaped by her own encounters with violence towards women throughout her life.
Plibersek, 53, has opened up about her own experiences as a victim of assault on the street as a young woman, including threats she’d be raped as she worked as a women’s officer at university, in a Margaret Simon’s book, Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms.
The minister for environment reveals she can’t remember a time in her life she hasn’t been aware of the ramifications of family violence.
As the women’s officer at the University of Technology in Sydney, Ms Plibersek counselled women through difficult situations and organised for security guards to escort them to their cars because of her own experience of being assaulted on the street.
Plibersek has revealed she was ‘stalked at university’ in the early 1990s and even received a phone call in the middle of the night ‘threatening to rape me’.
Tanya Plibersek’s career has been shaped by her passion for women’s issues and gendered abuse along with a fear she could one day die from sexual violence. Pictured with her husband, Michael Coutts-Trotter, and the couple’s three children
Ms Plibersek first learned of family violence as a child, when her mother would help friends through traumatic experiences
She was also coaching young women through their own struggles on campus, with many feeling pressured into having sex ‘sometimes with members of the teaching staff’.
Plibersek reveals in the biography she was much younger when she realised ‘not all homes were as safe and loving as her own’.
The exact details of the memory are a little blurry. She was very young, and it was the middle of the night. She was woken to one of the mother’s friends at the front door.
The woman was distressed and in fear for her life. Her mother, Rose, offered shelter and a shoulder to cry on.
It was the moment Ms Plibersek realised there were women out there who feared their own husbands, and it had a profound impact.
Simons writes Ms Plibersek developed a ‘personal conviction’ in her late teenage years that she would die from sexual violence.
‘I found it really shocking, because my parents had a very loving and equal relationship,’ she said.
Her mother, Rose, offered shelter and a shoulder to cry on to her friends who were experiencing domestic violence
Pictured: Ms Plibersek with baby Anna after returning to work
Sometimes arguments would appear ‘lopsided’ in her household. Her father was the image of composure, while her mother could get heated and emotional.
Regardless, her parents never disrespected one another. She never heard them belittle each other and the arguments were always healthily resolved.
As she grew older, she realised other women would seek help from her mother.
Some of her mother’s friends spoke of violent relationships, alcoholic husbands and struggles to get authorities to believe their plight.
These women spent their days tiptoeing on egg shells and running to keep themselves and their children safe.
Simons writes: ‘In one case, the death of a woman’s husband was acknowledged as a relief for everyone and a liberation for her. In other cases, women’s lives, and those of their children, were blighted by decades of fear, physical abuse and coercive control.’
Her record on women’s issues and domestic violence speaks for itself.
Ms Plibersek is married to Michael Coutts-Trotter, the Secretary of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet for Premier Dominic Perrottet
Some of her mother’s friends spoke of violent relationships, alcoholic husbands and struggles to get authorities to believe their plight
As the Minister for Women in the Rudd and Gillard governments, Ms Plibersek worked tirelessly to keep her portfolios at the heart of all political conversations.
She brought in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children – a plan that 12 years on is now being revised to include matters of prevalence today.
And now her daughter, Anna, is continuing her work.
In the biography, Anna said she was a victim of violent and controlling behaviour, serious sexual assault and financial abuse by her then-boyfriend as a teenager.
Initially, she kept the abuse from her family. She lost weight and withdrew from her loved ones, becoming emotionally distant and struggling to open up to family and friends.
When she did speak up, she pressed charges and took her abuser to court. Ms Plibersek chose not to contest the Labor leadership so she could support her daughter through that process.
‘I am pretty confident that if I had run, I would have won,’ she said. While Anna’s ordeal wasn’t the only reason she chose not to run, it was a crucial part of her decision. She said: ‘I couldn’t imagine saying, ”Sorry, I can’t be with you today. I’ve got to fly somewhere for a conference”.’
Speaking of the trauma, Anna said: ‘I experienced pretty much every kind of abuse you can think of.
‘It was emotional, it was physical. It was even financial, as much as you can be financially abused as a teenager. He tried to stop me talking to my friends. I lost so many friends. I was so manipulated. I wasn’t myself. I lost myself.’
He was convicted of assault and it was revealed he had been convicted for serious crimes against other girls. He has never gone to jail.
Now her daughter, Anna (pictured together), is continuing her work. In 2021, Anna and some friends launched The Survivor Hub – a not-for-profit group which hosts meetings and offers support for survivors
Her record on women’s issues and domestic violence speaks for itself
Ms Plibersek backs the choice she made, refusing to be drawn on what could have been.
The court process was gruelling for all involved. Anna herself spent four days in the witness box – three under cross examination – before her family and friends took the stand.
Ms Plibersek said: ‘Listening to Anna give her victim impact statement to the court was the hardest hour I’ve experienced as a parent – but I was so proud of her too.’
Of her own experience testifying, Ms Plibersek said: ‘It was awful… but I was more upset that she was subjected to all the same kind of questions that I thought we stopped asking victims of crime in the seventies.
‘What were you wearing? What had you been drinking? It enraged me to see up close how broken the system is and how much it adds to the trauma.’
In 2021, Anna and some friends launched The Survivor Hub – a not-for-profit group which hosts meetings and offers support for survivors.
The group has the backing of campaigner Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins. Anna hopes that by sharing her own story, she’ll be able to help others and make a difference.
Ms Plibersek shared her story on her leadership ballot and life in politics in the upcoming biography ‘Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms’, which will be released on March 7.
Author Margaret Simons noted Ms Plibersek did not want the book to be published, nor did she push for its creation. She did agree to participate in several interviews after it was made clear the book would be published regardless of her cooperation.
How Ms Plibersek fostered a close relationship with then-PM Julia Gillard
When campaigning began ahead of the 2010 election, Ms Plibersek found out she was pregnant with her third child. The news came as a ‘happy surprise’, but the timing was difficult.
The announcement and subsequent vitriol she received helped to bring her closer to party leader Julia Gillard, who herself had been subjected to trolling during her time in office.
The women, prior to this moment, had not been close allies politically. Over the coming months, the two female powerhouses of Labor fostered a close relationship.
It became clear that should Ms Gillard win the election, Ms Plibersek would have a role in cabinet should she want it.
Simons writes that while Ms Plibersek desperately wanted to progress her career, she had to acknowledge the timing was not right.
The women had not been close allies politically. Over the coming months, the two female powerhouses of Labor fostered a close relationship
Ms Plibersek expected she would need a caesarean, given she had one with both of her older children, and she was committed to breastfeeding the baby for at least a year.
At 40, she was also nervous about the recovery from the caesarean surgery.
‘During the campaign, she told Gillard that the timing for a promotion wasn’t right. She would welcome a portfolio, but not a cabinet position. But it was understood between them that as soon as Tanya was ready, she would be promoted to cabinet,’ Simons said.
Ms Plibersek said she doesn’t want other women to hear of her decision to postpone a role in cabinet and think it means they can’t also do it all.
‘It just seemed like a tip over the edge of what I could handle at the time or what I wanted to have, but I don’t want the next generation of political women to think you can’t have kids and have a career in parliament. I have done it for more than twenty years and it is manageable, but it is tough at times.
‘To other women, I say, ‘You are not responsible for the life and fate and opportunities of every woman. You need to make the decision that is best for you’… If you’ve got no kids you get criticised for not understanding what families are going through. If you’ve got kids, you get criticised for neglecting them. There’s basically no right answer. And so, what can you do but please yourself? You have to do the thing that’s best for you in your life and for your family.’
It became clear that should Ms Gillard win the election, Ms Plibersek would have a role in cabinet should she want it