Tanya Plibersek on pancakes, home-grown produce and entertaining politicians at home

Tanya Plibersek: "When you're in a restaurant, people are on their best behaviour."
Tanya Plibersek: "When you're in a restaurant, people are on their best behaviour." Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

The Honorable Tanya Plibersek MP is what you might describe as a bit of a tough nut. The daughter of Slovenian migrants who came to Australia in the 1950s, her work ethic is steely. Dux of the school and a card-carrying member of the Labor Party since she was 15, her gaze is unfaltering and her handshake finger-cripplingly firm.

She cracks a smile when I mention we were both turned down for an ABC cadetship out of uni. "Oh, I know. It's tragic, isn't it? Imagine how different life would have been?"

The opposition education spokeswoman doesn't share the nation's obsession with the post-vote democracy sausage. But homemade lemon cake? That's a different story. "I was very worried about the number of people who voted early [in the May federal election]. I love homemade cakes and it's a tragedy to miss out trying everybody's."

Plibersek is cooking me brunch at her Rosebery home in Sydney. While flipping pancakes and making fresh mint tea from her garden, the former deputy leader tells me how her parents instilled in her a love of food and of growing her own produce. "When you've got a newly arrived community," she says, "you don't find the things that you're used to cooking in shops as readily, so you grow it yourself. And that was the case with my parents. There was no black bread. There was no salami. None of the foods that they were used to."

Flipping through her recipe book – a collection of handwritten notes and print cuttings she's been adding to since she was a teenager – I ask if she could cook for one past Labor prime minister, who would it be and what would she cook?

"I love Paul Keating," she says. "I got on very well with Gough and Margaret [Whitlam] as well. I love them all. Kevin [Rudd] obviously. [But] just for a sit-down meal, Bob [Hawke]. It would be pasta and it would have to be a big bottle of red. We'd open up the doors and let him smoke his cigar."

I love homemade cakes and it's a tragedy to miss out trying everybody's.

Plibersek recalls previous meals with the late Bob Hawke. "He was a good recounter and loved life. The last time I had lunch with him, his health wasn't terrific. He was walking with a stick. He'd sit down – and obviously all the waiters knew him – and say 'bring us that bottle of red that we had last time'."

A natural feeder, Plibersek prefers entertaining at home. "It's a good way of relaxing people. When you're in a restaurant, people are on their best behaviour," she says. "I've had the previous Chinese ambassador and the American ambassador for dinner. And Billy Bragg. My son brought out his guitar. I do get to meet some really terrifically interesting people. And being able to feed them is a nice way of getting to know them a little better."

I ask if Australia is ready for a strong female lead again. "I think there's plenty of exceptional women in public life, in politics, but also in the business community," Plibersek says. "And I think the business community needs to try a little bit harder. They've got a few very high-profile people but the pipeline is not strong enough yet. I think they need to do better in that sense. Have another pancake."