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Penny Wong. Photo: AAP

UniMelb-helmed panel names Australia’s political leader of the year

As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is receiving global praise and respect for her action and dialogue following the terror attack on mosques in Christchurch, questions about the quality of Australia’s leadership deepen.

Comparisons between Ardern and local political leaders have been made on social media and in some leading newspapers, but the University of Melbourne and Susan McKinnon Foundation have suggested there are some homegrown leaders also worth noting.

Senators Penny Wong and Jordon Steele-John have been named the political leaders of the year for their work in 2018.

University of Melbourne Provost Mark Considine, who chaired the prize’s selection panel, said the awards recognise politicians who have successfully tackled vital issues of public policy, overcome adversity and achieved real change for the public good.

“The winners of the 2018 McKinnon Prize for Political Leadership are leaders who have not only achieved important results, but who have carried themselves with great dignity and balance,” Considine said.

Wong nabbed the title of 2018 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year for her work promoting a more tolerant and inclusive Australia and for shaping the country’s foreign policy dialogue.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who formed part of the selection panel along with fellow former PM John Howard and business, political, education and sporting leaders, noted Wong’s “presence” and “gravitas”.

“I think Penny Wong is the perfect recipient for the McKinnon Prize because of her… ability to bring people together and to guide the nation through complex debates including in the past 12 months on foreign policy, trade policy and also what response we should make as a nation when there are racist statements,” Gillard said.

Accepting her award, Wong said many Australians have lost faith in their representatives.

“Around the world democratic principles are being challenged,” she said. “But it is democracy which enables the betterment of our community and the protection of rights. So we must step forward to defend it, in principle and in action, at home and internationally. That is why I am grateful for the establishment of the McKinnon Prize, and honoured to receive it.”

Steele-John – who was named the McKinnon Emerging Political Leader of the Year, which is handed out to politicians who have spent fewer than five years in office, for his leadership on disability advocacy – said it’s time to acknowledge that Australia’s political system is made up largely of people whose lives and experiences look nothing like those of the community they are supposed to serve.

“I accept this award not as a Senator but as a proud disabled man and youth rights activist who now has the honour of bringing the voices and demands of our movement to the heart of the Australian democracy,” Steele-John said.

“To tackle the very real challenges of our time – from climate change to economic inequality to political corruption – diversity and equality must be at the heart of our politics.”

Gillard pinpointed Steele-John’s political campaigning for a royal commission on disability.

“I think he has brought to the Australian Senate his personal story, his personal convictions and his ability to then turn them into public policy that makes a difference, and I think the nation will learn a lot about ourselves and what we need to do next through a royal commission on disability,” Gillard said.

Howard said both winners were very worthy and had made a great contribution to the country.

“It’s a prize well worth honouring and I hope in future years it continues to attract a wide range of nominees,” he said.

Both winners will deliver a keynote speech at the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership Oration on Friday, 29 March.

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