Sally Sitou took her place in federal parliament last night, making her first speech on the 40th anniversary of her parents becoming Australian citizens.
The new Labor MP for Reid described the moment as “surreal, in the best way possible…that one could dare to dream this big.”
“There is a beautiful serendipity about today—that I am now standing in this chamber as a member of parliament,” she said.
Sitou began her speech by describing the adversities her parents overcame to arrive in Australia.
“Being elected into our federal parliament is a big deal, but it’s an even bigger deal for my parents,” she said.
“They fled their homeland, fearful of what might happen to them because of who they were and the values they held.”
“Even after arriving here they continued to carry that fear, not wanting to talk about politics, not wanting to share their views. And here they are, in the public gallery, watching their daughter speak in our federal parliament.”
“My family is of Chinese heritage, but my parents were born and raised in Laos. They fled their homeland and were incredibly lucky Australia gave them refuge.”
“When my parents came here, they had limited formal education and spoke very little English.”
“They worked hard in factories, where they were able to find secure work with good conditions. They gave my brother and me the work and education opportunities they never had, and my family was able to thrive here. I went on to have the most incredible career, working in international development in the Asia-Pacific and then in international education.”
She continued her heart-felt speech by acknowledging the power of “the Australian story.”
“You can imagine what this means for them: how much they’ve come to embrace the best of this country—our freedoms to speak out, to hold a faith and to build the life we want, and our responsibilities to those around us so that we may all prosper together,”she told the chamber.
“I marvel at how much has changed for my family in just one generation. That is the power of the Australian story, because stories like mine are possible only in countries like Australia.”
Sitou described herself as “the daughter of migrants, a proud Chinese-Lao Australian” who “grew up in Cabramatta in south-west Sydney,” and “the product of good public education.”
She also used her speech to confront the refugee and immigration policies that have shaped the country, and more personally, her family’s lives — noting then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s refugee policy in 1977.
“He may have been in a different political party to me, but on this I believe he was on the right side of history,” she said.
“He welcomed refugees fleeing Indochina following the Vietnam War, and one year later, in 1978, he welcomed my parents.”
She went on to speak about the country’s history of leaning towards a White Australia policy instead of “towards multiculturalism.”
“It was a path that said there was no place in this country for people in this country like me, it was a path that denied our First Nations people their identity, land and kin.”
“Those decisions were made based on fear and a failure of immigration.”
“But we were able to fulfil the potential and promise of Australia when leaders in this place were driven not by fear but by hope and compassion. They looked around and saw what was and imagined what could be. They imagined a country not weakened by diversity but strengthened by it.”
She quoted former prime minister Bob Hawke, who ended the White Australia policy in 1973.
“One of the great and rare distinctions of Australian political leadership in the last generation has been its bipartisan rejection of race as a factor in immigration policy,” Hawke had said. “This has been a triumph of compassion over prejudice, of reason over fear, and of statesmanship over politics.”
Sitou insisted that in the past 50 years, the nation has “moved from an embrace of a White Australia policy to a country that is now a majority-migrant nation.”
“But what is more remarkable is how this news was received—not with backlash but with a genuine embrace of modern Australia. And there is no better display of that than in our federal parliament.”
Sitou also addressed racism in her speech, saying: “When I encounter racism and prejudice, I know firsthand how it corrodes our community and holds Australia back from being the best country we can be.”
“And this is a message I’m going to share with all young Australians: you are not defined by your postcode, the school you went to or where your parents came from; in this country, you are defined by the content of your character and what you want to do for others, where the potential and promise of this nation is only limited by our imagination.”
Weeks before the election, Sitou experienced a case of casual racism when her opponent, Liberal candidate for Reid, Fiona Martin accused her of not being able to “run in Fowler” — clearly mistaking her for another Asian Australian politician, Tu Le.
“In high pressure situations like this, people make mistakes,” Sitou tweeted. “All I’m asking Dr Martin to do is admit a mistake and say sorry.”
The 40-year old mother of one dedicated her speech to her maternal grandmother, her Ama, who she described as “the most remarkable woman.”
“Ama was a widower and a single mother of eight. She had to uproot her life twice, first from China to Laos and then from Laos to Australia,” she said.
“I think about her often because so much of her life happened to her. She had very few choices. She didn’t get to choose a career or even where to live.
“The last photo I have with her is on the dance floor at my wedding in Laos. Ama stayed on in Laos after the wedding, choosing to spend her final years there. It was one of the few choices she had an opportunity to make. It’s because of her and the sacrifices she has made that my life was possible, where a world of opportunities has been unlocked for me.”
“I have been able to make choices about what I want to study and what career I want to pursue, and the choice to stand for parliament. While we still have some ways to go before we achieve gender equality, when I think about how different my life is compared to Ama’s, I know we’re on the right path. If my Ama were with us today, I think she would have been astounded but very proud too.”
Sitou joined a number of politicians from non-white backgrounds sworn in this week, including Dai Le (seat of Fowler), Sam Lim (Tangney), Cassandra Fernando (Holt) and Zaneta Mascarenhas (Swan).