"The seat is absolutely safe as long as Plibersek’s the member" … federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek has plenty of support in her electorate of Sydney.

"The seat is absolutely safe as long as Plibersek’s the member" … federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek has plenty of support in her electorate of Sydney. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

On the morning of Saturday, October 5, 1997, Ray Plibersek received a phone call from the police. This was not unusual, as he worked for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and often had the police calling him at home needing to get warrants authorised. But this was not such a call.

"We are at your parents' place," he was told. "You need to come here." When he got to their home in Oyster Bay, in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney's south, his parents "were crying like I'd never heard them crying", he tells me. It was his younger brother, Phillip; he had been murdered the night before, stabbed to death in his fourth-floor, supposedly secure, apartment in Port Moresby, as he fought to defend his wife of just a few months from an intruder.

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Seat of power … Tanya Plibersek during Question Time at Parliament House in February.

Seat of power … Tanya Plibersek during Question Time at Parliament House in February. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication.com

Remembering her brother some 15 years later, Tanya Plibersek, now the federal Health Minister, says, "It was Phillip who first said to me that I was smart, and that came with a responsibility to do something useful." Losing Phillip made their tight-knit family even closer, she says, and now that she is a parent of three children herself. "I can appreciate the depth of my parents' sorrow better. It's made me more tender and gentle with them, even when they drive me crazy."

Her brother's murder occurred just a few weeks before the ALP preselectors in the safe federal electorate of Sydney were due to choose their candidate to replace sitting member Peter Baldwin. Plibersek had been a front-runner to replace him but now she was immobilised with grief.

"I didn't think about anything," she tells me. "I didn't think about dropping out, I didn't think about continuing, I didn't think about anything."

The Plibersek family in Parramatta in 1982 – (from left) Rose, Ray, Joseph, Phillip and Tanya.

The Plibersek family in Parramatta in 1982 – (from left) Rose, Ray, Joseph, Phillip and Tanya. Photo: courtesy of Tanya Plibersek

She lost "stacks of weight", says a friend. But there was a deadline: a candidates' forum just three weeks after Phillip's death. She went. "People were very kind to me and I didn't see a point in not doing it," Plibersek tells me with tears in her eyes. "It was just a matter of whether I could, and I found that I could - so I did." People at that meeting remember her saying that her brother would have wanted her to continue.

On December 13, Plibersek won the ballot decisively, and, after the distribution of preferences, winning 57.9 per cent of the final vote. 

Plibersek was born in 1969 and grew up in Oyster Bay, which was then a bush suburb filled with fibro cottages and returned-soldier housing. "The roads were unpaved. Kids played in creeks, catching tadpoles and riding their bikes," Plibersek recalls. "Few families had TV sets or cars until much later. Mum washed by hand, with a scrubbing board. The baker and milkman called daily."

Family first … (from left) Tanya Plibersek, daughter Anna, husband Michael Coutts-Trotter and sons Louis and Joseph.

Family first … (from left) Tanya Plibersek, daughter Anna, husband Michael Coutts-Trotter and sons Louis and Joseph. Photo: Supplied

Her father, Joseph, had built the family's first house himself, returning at weekends from the Snowy Mountains where he was employed on the nation-building hydro-electric scheme. But when Tanya was born, the adored little sister to her older brothers Ray, 12, and Phillip, 10, the family moved to a larger place in the same suburb. Joseph Plibersek spent the rest of his working life as a plumber at Qantas, while his wife, Rose, maintained their home. The family was incredibly close; they spoke Slovenian at home, and the parents could scarcely contain their pride in their clever children.

Both of Tanya's parents had been peasant farmers in Slovenia. Her mother, Rosalija Repic, worked as a farm labourer from the age of 13 after being kicked out of home by an abusive stepmother. Tanya is still overwhelmed by her mother's bravery: she escaped to Italy, applied to emigrate and, in her early 20s, with no English, travelled alone to Australia and worked as a domestic and in factories until, one night at a Slovenian dance at Paddington Town Hall in December 1956, she met Joze Plibersek.

There is a family photo that shows Joze, aged about 10, barefoot, standing beside a bullock hauling a wooden plough steered by his father. Like his future wife, he also escaped - to Austria - and after being detained for some months was accepted as an immigrant to distant Australia. On May 9, 1953, along with other displaced persons, he sailed from Bremerhaven in Germany. On arrival he was sent to work as an indentured labourer on the Broken Hill railway.

Joze and Rosalija became Joseph and Rose; they married in May 1957 and over the next 12 years had three children. When Joseph died, aged 80, he had lived long enough to see his youngest child sworn in as a cabinet minister.

Tanya Plibersek's involvement in politics began when she was 14. She joined the Labor Party when she was 15, encouraged by Hazel Wilson, a Sutherland Shire councillor and Labor Party stalwart who lived near the Pliberseks and who heard a young Tanya present at an International Youth Year event. "We need you," Wilson told the schoolgirl.

Plibersek studied communications at Sydney's University of Technology (UTS), intending to become a journalist, but the ABC knocked her back for a cadetship. She was then elected women's officer at UTS and ran a campaign on women's safety, and when she graduated in 1993, took a research job in the domestic violence unit of the NSW Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women. She stayed less than a year, frustrated with the seeming lack of commitment to the issue by John Fahey's NSW Liberal government. She got a job researching and writing speeches with Senator Bruce Childs, convenor of the ALP's Left faction, during the Keating government's second term.

Plibersek was elected to Federal Parliament on October 3, 1998, along with 15 other women including Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon, Anna Burke, Cheryl Kernot (as a Labor MP) and, on the Liberal side, Julie Bishop. Fourteen years later, despite the encroachment of the Greens into inner-city politics and a rising Liberal vote due to wealthy people settling in places like Balmain, Sydney is still safe for Plibersek. She is so popular in Sydney that, according to a colleague, people who are not party members work for her on election day. "The seat is absolutely safe as long as she's the member," says a federal colleague.

To understand Tanya Plibersek, says her husband, you have to understand her relationship to Jane Austen. To say she is a fan is like saying the sky is blue. Elinor Dashwood, the heroine of Sense and Sensibility, is Plibersek's favourite character: "I admire her ability to carry on despite her sadness and loss," she says. Austen provides "insights, advice and cautions for a young lady legislator", she told the Jane Austen Society of Australia in Sydney in 2007.

"I thank Jane Austen for the merciful release from melodrama she has provided in Elinor: for demonstrating that strong feelings need not be on constant display," she said.

Plibersek is drawn to old-fashioned notions of kindness and gratitude and, she tells me, "a strong sense of responsibility"; the idea of "service" is what drives her. This is the person who left a welcome note on the desk of Queensland Labor Senator Claire Moore on her first day in Canberra in 2002, the person who visits a homeless man who now has a place to live thanks to her reforms. Austen would recognise this person, for whom feelings of sadness and loss are never far away.

The quality people most talk about when describing Plibersek is her calmness. "She doesn't panic when things go wrong," says Lynelle Briggs, the former CEO of Medicare. Plibersek's composure is one reason for her huge popularity on the ABC's Q&A program. "People appreciate that she keeps her cool even when the debate gets heated," says Peter McEvoy, the program's executive producer. "Her responses aren't glib or pre-packaged - when she answers a difficult question you can see she's wrestling with the difficulties."

But Plibersek also provokes extreme reactions in people. Some use words like "adore" and "love" to describe their feelings for her, yet I have also heard her described as "a complete fake", "a show pony", "completely lazy", as having "no personal loyalty" and as "totally nutty - there's nothing she wouldn't do".

"It's like there's two Tanyas," says someone who has watched her closely over the years. A more dispassionate observer tells me it is "dangerous to underrate her because she's such a nice person [and think] that she's not sharp as a razor". And behind the pleasant demeanour there is a steeliness, as a statutory agency head discovered when Plibersek told her to "just suck it up" when she complained about changes to her area.

On their very first date, in 1991, Michael Coutts-Trotter told Pliber­sek that he had served almost three years of a nine-year prison sentence on a drugs charge. He'd done time in maximum-security jails like Long Bay, Bathurst and Parra­matta ("a genuinely bleak place," he calls it) before ending up in Silverwater and work release. After being paroled in 1988, he spent a year at a Salvation Army rehab facility. Three years after this, still on parole, attending Narcotics Anony­mous and not drinking alcohol, he was opening his soul to the woman who would become his wife nine years later.

Plibersek says she never feared that he might revert to his old ways "because he was so honest about it and so disappointed in his life".

But for all his determination to remake his life, Coutts-Trotter would forever have a criminal record. When he graduated with a degree in communications from UTS in 1995, he landed a job in the office of Brian Howe, then Labor deputy PM, but his new career in Canberra was quickly derailed when ASIO denied him a security clearance. A few months later, his record initially meant he was passed over when he applied to be press secretary to Michael Egan, treasurer in the newly elected Carr Labor government in NSW, but someone put in a good word and Egan directed that he at least be given an interview.

Egan tells me that the selection committee thought he was the standout candidate but that there was this problem. Egan had other objections. "I don't like the fact you have a hyphenated name or been educated by the Jesuits," he tells me he said to Coutts-Trotter. "And if I give you the job, your background will come out."

In April 2007, then NSW education minister John Della Bosca appointed Coutts-Trotter director-general of the NSW Department of Education and Training and the whole question of his criminal past blew up again.

It was pointed out that someone with his record could not be employed as a teacher. Coutts-Trotter fronted the media: "Twenty-three years ago I was convicted of a very serious drug offence," he told them. "Luckily and remarkably in life I've been given a second chance." He asked to be able to prove himself. This time, Plibersek tells me, the newspaper stories were "pretty traumatic" as the children were old enough to understand. They had to be told that Daddy had been in prison.

Plibersek says she chose to do it while they were in the car ("It's a good place to have these conversations, less formal than sitting them down ..."). "There's something in the papers," she tells me she said to them. "When he was young, your father did the wrong thing and he was punished."

"I know," said six-year-old Anna.

"The kids at school might talk about it," she told them. "Do you have any questions about it?"

"No."

"They were completely uninterested," Plibersek tells me now. Plibersek was nevertheless worried and over the intervening years has raised it with them, just to check if there is a problem, but "their lived experience of Michael is of a loving, kind father and husband, and his past is just irrelevant to them. They don't imagine my life before children, either."

The cabinet minister and her director-general husband have three children: Anna, 11, Joseph, 7, and Louis, nearly two. Each of the children was born since Plibersek was elected to Parliament and each of them was breastfed for the first year.

"You'd see Tanya in the [Qantas] Chairman's Lounge, breastfeeding the baby, on the phone, going down to Canberra," says Elizabeth Broderick, ex-Sex Discrimination Commissioner. "She makes it look easy when I so know that it's not." Says Lynelle Briggs: "When she first became our minister [for Human Services in September 2010], she gave birth within a month but she was back within a few months. She did not miss a beat."

Plibersek is a model employer, say colleagues and staff. People set their own hours, getting the job done but feeding babies at work or picking up from childcare as well. "You'd walk into Tanya's office [in Parliament House] and there'd be a cradle or a playpen. She made no apology or no attempt to hide them away from lobbyists or other visitors," says Senator Claire Moore. "She shows it can be done."

As does her husband. "Michael schedules most of his meetings in standard work hours - not 7am starts - because we have childcare responsibilities," Plibersek tells me. "That doesn't just benefit him, it makes it easier for his colleagues."

Phillip Plibersek's murderer was never convicted. He escaped from custody, so there was no trial, which meant, says Coutts-Trotter, "there was no possibility of either vengeance or forgiveness" for the Plibersek family. There is "acceptance" of what happened, but no peace.

"There would not be a day and there would seldom be an hour when I didn't think of him," says Tanya Plibersek. "Not in a maudlin way but just, 'Oh, Phillip liked that song, or that motorbike' or something like that."

This is an edited extract of an article from Good Weekend.