Australia Parliament does not reflect culturally diverse Australia, says former Fowler hopeful Tu Le

13:16  27 september  2021
13:16  27 september  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Tu Le has been approached by other parties since being overlooked by Labor. (ABC News: Jason Om) © Provided by ABC NEWS Tu Le has been approached by other parties since being overlooked by Labor. (ABC News: Jason Om)

A young Vietnamese Australian lawyer who was overlooked by Labor to run in the federal election says political parties must do more to increase cultural diversity in federal parliament.

Tu Le's aspiration of representing the safe Labor seat of Fowler in Sydney's south-west was dashed after Labor parachuted in star candidate, senator Kristina Keneally.

Senator Keneally would have likely lost her Senate spot because of a factional deal on Labor's Senate ticket.

Labor's decision has led to weeks of internal ructions and raised broader questions about cultural diversity and how the political system treats grassroots members.

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Ms Le, 30, said federal parliament did not reflect the diverse communities she knew.

"We always hear it, 'We could do better,'" Ms Le told 7.30. "That's right, but we need to not just keep saying that. We need to actually do it."

Fowler is a predominantly Asian electorate with a strong Vietnamese community, and is home to Cabramatta, where champion of multiculturalism and former prime minister Gough Whitlam lived.

"We can't keep relying on multiculturalism as this great legacy of the Labor party," Ms Le said.

"I think it's something that needs to be continually worked upon and we can't just sit back and accept things. We're a changing society."

When 7.30 met up with Ms Le in Cabramatta she did not have a PR person and was fielding media calls herself after being thrust into the political spotlight.

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A self-described political nobody and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Ms Le was born in Adelaide and moved to Sydney as a toddler, growing up in suburbs in the south-west. She currently lives in the electorate while Senator Keneally does not.

In 2019 Ms Le worked as an election campaign manager for the retiring incumbent, Chris Hayes.

She is currently a solicitor for the Western Sydney Community Legal Centre and a coordinator at the Marrickville Legal Centre.

She is also a leader in the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, having been involved since she was five years old.

"This community is just part of who I am," Ms Le said. "It's a reflection of who I am. It's a reflection of Australia as well."

Ms Le has been approached by other political parties but she said she had not made a decision on her next steps.

Le inspires other young leaders

Ms Le's story has resonated with young Vietnamese leaders in Victoria, who argue federal politics is failing Vietnamese and other culturally diverse young people when it comes to representation.

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Claudia Nguyen, 28, Anthony Tran, 22, and Jasmine Nguyen, 25, are friends who ran separately as independents in local government elections. All three are now deputy mayors across three different councils.

They have come forward publicly for the first time to ask the question: How many more times must we be told to wait our turn?

"It's really hypocritical for political parties to claim that they champion diversity yet at the first opportunity to do so they parachute an outsider in," Claudia Nguyen, deputy mayor of Yarra City Council, told 7.30.

"We need targets, we need quotas and we need a mandate that preselection processes include a requirement for locals to be encouraged and to be selected."

Deputy mayor of Maribyrnong City Council, Mr Tran, said young people from culturally diverse backgrounds could not see a clear pathway into federal politics.

"The bamboo ceiling is there," he told 7.30. "The diverse youth often feel as if this is not even a career choice. People think that you have to be of a specific demographic."

Deputy mayor of Brimbank City Council Jasmine Nguyen was more blunt.

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"If you're not white, you're going to have a hard time getting preselected," she said.

"The number of Asian faces in Parliament, there's not that many. I could probably count it on my hands."

Few members with Asian heritage in federal Parliament

According to the 2016 census, 3.3 million Australians claim Asian ancestry, or 14.4 per cent of the population.

Of the 227 members in federal Parliament, five have Asian or south-Asian heritage, or 2.2 per cent: Labor's Penny Wong, the Coalition's Gladys Liu, Ian Goodenough, and Dave Sharma, and the Greens' Mehreen Faruqi.

Ms Liu said she had raised the issue of cultural diversity in parliament with the Coalition.

"When you look around the Parliament, we have 95 per cent coming from Anglo-Celtic or European background," she told 7.30.

"I personally would love to see more people from the multicultural background, especially from the Asian Australian background."

Long-serving member Mr Goodenough faced his own Liberal preselection fight in his seat of Moore in Western Australia recently, narrowly fending off his challenger.

Mr Goodenough told 7.30: "People of ethnic origin have to constantly work twice as hard as their colleagues to be accepted and overcome systemic obstacles in their path."

Senator Wong declined 7.30's invitation for an interview.

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Keating backs Keneally as 'executive talent'

Former prime minister Paul Keating has backed Senator Keneally as a "huge executive talent" who can fight for a greater share of the national income for Fowler.

Senator Keneally is currently the opposition's deputy leader in the Senate, home affairs spokesperson and a former NSW premier.

Some community members, such as human rights activist Joanne Nguyen, have been quick to back the senator's campaign.

"I understand the importance of being local and [having] ethnic representation, but I think it's just one factor," she told 7.30.

"What our community needs right now is someone who has a really strong leadership ability to help us, fight for us and serve and represent us, and I think Kristina is the best candidate for that."

Senator Keneally declined to be interviewed and her office referred 7.30 to previous media statements.

Responding to questions about her candidacy, she told 2GB last week: "I think it's fair enough that we have a discussion about the representation of people from a more diverse background. I don't shirk from that. I would say the party led by [Anthony] Albanese and [Senator] Wong has a pretty good record in this area. Is there more we can do? Yes. Should we do more? Of course."

Senator Keneally said she and her husband were seeking to move to Fowler soon.

The retiring Member for Fowler, Mr Hayes, initially endorsed Ms Le as his successor.

He told 7.30 that while he accepted the party's decision to select Senator Keneally, Ms Le had a bright future.

"Tu Le has shown herself to be a tremendous advocate for our local community and I am sure that she will continue to make a major contribution in public life, reflecting the values of our diverse community and that of the Labor Party," Mr Hayes said.

He also rejected anonymous claims that Ms Le was herself a parachute candidate, having moved to the electorate in mid-2020.

"Those who say that, they did not know Tu Le, obviously did not work on the 2019 Fowler Labor election campaign, as Tu Le was my campaign manager, coordinating the activities of branch members and volunteers," he said.

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