Fiona Martin's denial of racist mistake makes the whole saga worse

Fiona Martin’s denial of racist mistake makes the whole sorry saga infinitely worse

Fiona Martin

There’s not an Asian Australian I know, including myself, who doesn’t feel triggered by the double down from Liberal candidate for Reid, Fiona Martin, after she clearly mistook the identity of her opponent this week.

During a radio interview with 2GB on Wednesday, Martin and her ALP rival Sally Sitou became combative about their allegiance to the electorate they’re both fighting to lead.

“I grew up in Reid,” Martin said. “I went to school at Five Dock and Strathfield.”

Sitou, a Chinese-Australian doctoral researcher living in Homebush, then asked, “Where do you live?”, prompting Martin to say she had “deep roots” in Reid but lives “very close by”– renting in the neighbouring electorate of Bennelong.

Sitou then added that she “didn’t want to raise this but I chose to live in this electorate because I love the community”, to which Martin replied: “You found an opportunity” and “couldn’t run in Fowler”. “Kristina Keneally kicked you out of Fowler too.”

The claim was clearly absurd. Sally Sitou has never attempted to run in the seat of Fowler and her flummoxed face recorded during the interview, said as much.

It was a palpably awkward moment, with a quick dawning of what had just happened: A case of casual racism and mistaken identity.

Because of course, another Asian-Australian, Tu Le, had run in Fowler.

Her candidacy was well documented, when, in September 2021, Labor was controversially accused of parachuting high profile Senator Kristina Keneally into the electorate ahead of Le. Le, a Vietnamese Australian lawyer, was the popular choice amongst the people of Fowler.

Later that day, Sitou took to Twitter to resolve the mistake saying her opponent either had her confused for a different Asian-Australian or was “deliberately misleading people. Either way, she should apologise.”

Sitous also graciously noted that “In high pressure situations like this, people make mistakes. All I’m asking Dr Martin to do is admit a mistake and say sorry.”

But two days on, and no apology has come. Worse still, Fiona Martin has steamed on in her denial of racism, claiming it was a “legitimate comment”.

“Sally grew up in Fowler. Keneally reportedly declined Reid and went for Fowler. I think it makes sense to want to represent the area you grew up in or where you have a long association. Sally’s association with Reid is less than three years total,” she said.

In a press conference in Launceston on Thursday, the Prime Minister also flimsily defended Martin:

“Your colleague Fiona Martin appears to have confused Sally Sitou with another Asian Australian. Is it fair for Asian Australians to be stereotyped or generalised in this way and do you think Sitou deserves an apology?” a reporter queried.

“Dr Martin has already made statements on that issue today and no that wasn’t the case,” Morrison responded.

However Martin’s refusal to concede her obvious error could prove foolish in the high-stakes race for Reid, which she currently holds on a 3.2 per cent margin with countless people coming to Sitou’s defence across social media.

The truth is, Fiona Martin’s mistake isn’t foreign to Asian-Australians. So many of us are used to being typecast and stereotyped in similar ways. That’s not to say that there was direct malice involved with Martin’s original error, but that significant work needs to be done to address this kind of casual racism and bias.

Her double down over the mistake makes the situation all the more egregious. That’s where it all becomes unforgivable.

Why? Because our parliament is painfully culturally homogenous; full of white, middle-aged men and women with cookie cutter backgrounds, educations and social standings.

Indeed, Kristina Keneally’s parachuting into the safe Labor seat of Fowler, Australia’s most multicultural electorate, was a clear reminder of that. For most culturally diverse Australians, it was also maddening beyond measure.

A 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found just 4.1 % of MPs in Australia’s 45th parliament had a non-European background and 1.5% an Indigenous background. In a country where one in four of us come from a non-Anglo background, this simply isn’t good enough.

In our commitment to inclusion, cultural diversity is too often neglected, and women like Tu Le and Sally Sitou are harmed in the process. If Fiona Martin was big enough to admit this, it would make all the difference.

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