Two weeks ago, former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally officially announced that she will nominate herself to be Labor’s candidate for the seat of Fowler in Sydney’s south west at the next federal election. Her announcement effectively ended the political ambitions of a young Vietnamese-Australian lawyer named Tú Lê from Fairfield, who was campaigning to be Labor’s pick for the seat. The news that Kristina Keneally will be Labor’s candidate to represent the people of Cabramatta, Fairfield and Liverpool, has been received with much backlash, not only from young Vietnamese-Australians but also from fellow Australians with culturally and linguistically marginalised backgrounds. A petition calling for Kristina Keneally to stand aside, organised by grassroots racial justice organisation Democracy in Colour, has already gathered thousands of signatures.
Before I continue, I’d like to clarify that I have no blood relation to anyone else bearing the surname Lê mentioned in this article. Us Lê’s happen to share one of the most common Vietnamese surnames, just like there are more than 200,000 Smith’s in Australia. Under a white gaze, it can be easy to mistake a Lê for a Lee or a Li or even a Ly, but part of our growing pains as one of the most multicultural countries on Earth is to embrace the cultural nuances and complexities that come with having Australians who identify with more than 270 ancestries. As a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian from Western Sydney, I felt the same way Tú felt when she heard the news of her political aspirations being crushed by those within her own Party; disappointed and disheartened. What I did not feel, however, was any surprise.
I’ve lived in Western Sydney for thirty years. I have seen Vietnamese-Australians from The Area have their political aspirations blunted by their own Parties across political lines. In 2013, I watched Andrew Nguyển reveal to the Herald allegations of racism and mistreatment by the Liberal Party, which included being barred from speaking to Vietnamese-Australian media and being snubbed by then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his visit to Liverpool. I watched Đài Lê represent the Liberals and command sizeable swings against Nick Lalich, the NSW Member for Cabramatta in the 2008 and 2011 elections. However when Đài turned to local politics in 2016 with sights set on being the Mayor of Fairfield, the Liberal Party suspended her for ten years, punishing her for daring to aim higher than a Councillor position.
I have also seen Vietnamese-Australian leaders successfully advocate on behalf of our communities. In 2001, when I was ten, I watched Fairfield Councillor Thăng Ngô speak fearlessly at the Review of Inquiry into Cabramatta Policing heard in the Legislative Council. Ngô detailed how he received a letter from a Cabramatta child who just wanted their playgrounds and parks to be clean. He spoke directly to my experiences at the time. I was a little girl visiting Cabramatta every week to attend English tutoring classes. I had jeans tucked into my shoes to avoid getting any syringes stuck into my ankles. In a little run-down office space on John Street that did not even have desks for us to sit at, I balanced a flimsy exercise book on my knees and focused on getting my grammar right while tuning out the ambulances who picked up the drug addicts dying at street level. Seeing a young Vietnamese man speak truth to power and make real change made me sign up to my primary school’s debating team. It taught me to hold my head high and speak up.
In 2021, Labor has continued the tradition of Party politics stifling Vietnamese-Australian political aspirations by denying Tú Lê, a young Vietnamese-Australian woman, the opportunity to represent the community she had already been serving through her legal work. While the press has largely chosen to magnify her cultural background, it is crucial that we also understand what she has achieved. Tú works as a Program Director at the Migrant Employment Legal Service, a body which advocates for exploited migrant workers in New South Wales. She also established a state-wide legal service to assist exploited migrant workers and has advocated for affordable and renewable energy for marginalised communities. Tú’s cultural background should be viewed as an important asset to the electorate she seeks to represent but it is not what defines her as a whole person. In her appearances in the media in the past fortnight, Tú has shown us that she is not just another unfeeling politician speaking in strategic standard lines. By speaking from the heart, she is shattering the stereotypes of the archetypal Australian politician.
In June I heard from a Bankstown Viet who had heard from a Cabra Viet that Labor Leader Anthony Albanese was spotted in town, sitting with Tú Lê at a fundraiser. A bunch of young Viets like us thought that actually meant something. While I am from the Blaxland electorate, about a fifteen minute drive down the Hume Highway from Fowler, I felt proud seeing Tú in photos wearing her fabulous blue suit while dining with Albo. It made this Lê imagine that she too had a seat at a table with the Leader of the Opposition.
I live in one of the ‘safest’ Labor electorates. Statistically speaking, it’s likely I’ll vote Labor. My parents are loyal Labor voters and so are most of the Cô, Chú, Bács in Western Sydney – not only because they’ve long assumed that Labor is the Party of the worker but because Labor has been perceived to celebrate multiculturalism, not just ‘tolerate’ it. However, as a young(ish) non-White person in Australia, I find myself at the intersection of two phenomena in contemporary Australia life; as a nation, we are more culturally diverse than ever before; as a nation, political apathy is also on the rise. Seeing people like me pushed around as pawns in a game played between pale, stale and male pollies makes it difficult to feel respected let alone represented. It is surprising to learn that the Coalition has beat Labor in recognising the value of embracing diversity as a political strategy, gaining victory in previously-safe Labor seats in Sydney in recent years. As Osmond Chiu reflects “As Australia becomes more diverse, other seats will be at risk if Labor does not take the growing cultural diversity of the electorate seriously when the Liberals clearly do.” It is confusing that Labor would further jeopardise its reputation among young people in Western Sydney by showing us that we are dispensable if it does not perceive us to be useful.
Politics with a small ‘p’ is what I have kept my ears and eyes open to, and I am not alone. In the past two years, I have witnessed political movements initiated by oppressed and marginalised communities gain worldwide momentum through social media platforms. From Black Lives Matter to Stop Asian Hate, frank and fearless conversations about race and class are empowering young people from marginalised communities to find our voices. If politics with a big ‘P’ continues shutting us out, it risks creating deeper lines of division within Australia. Like many young Vietnamese-Australians in Western Sydney, I stand with Tú Lê. Despite the knock-backs, we Viets know that the only way to stay in the ring is to get back up again.
Shirley Lê is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Western Sydney. She is a Creative Producer at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and holds a BA from Macquarie University. Her short stories and essays have been published in The Guardian, Overland, SBS Voices, The Griffith Review, Meanjin and several Sweatshop anthologies. Shirley is currently working on her debut novel with Affirm Press.