There’s been much scrutiny in recent days about Labor Senator Kristina Keneally’s bid for the Lower House and her unorthodox pathway for getting there.
It followed a surprise endorsement by the right faction of NSW Labor to parachute Keneally into the South Western Sydney seat of Fowler, currently held by popular Labor whip Chris Hayes who will be retiring at the next election.
The decision was slammed as a slap in the face for cultural diversity however, with Hayes aggrieved that his support of Vietnamese-Australian lawyer, Tu Le to take over had been cast aside for Keneally, who currently lives over 40km away in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Hayes’ disappointment would prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, with other party members speaking out about the controversial choice.
Labor MP Dr Anne Aly, who grew up in the electorate of Fowler and was the first Muslim woman elected to the Australian Parliament, blasted the decision as “hypocrisy”.
“Diversity, equality and multiculturalism can’t just be a trope that Labor pulls out and parades while wearing a sari and eating some kung pao chicken to make ourselves look good,” she told the ABC on Saturday.
“For the Labor Party to be in a position where they are pushing aside a community representative from one of the most multicultural electorates is hypocrisy as far as I’m concerned.”
Labor Deputy, Tanya Plibersek also skirted around the question of fairness during her interview on the ABC’s Insiders this weekend, telling the program’s host David Speers she hopes Le “sticks with it”.
“I am proud of the diversity we already exhibit, and I tell you this: we can always do more,” Plibersek said.
While senior Labor frontbencher Tony Burke– a close friend of Hayes– issued a veiled warning to his party, suggesting that “if in these conversations a local community feels taken for granted, you make those decisions at your peril.”
Fowler is one of the ALP’s safest Sydney seats with a 14 percent margin currently held. It’s also an electorate brimming with migrant Australians; with nearly half the electorate born overseas.
These areas of South West Sydney have also been the hardest hit during the pandemic. With case escalations due to high density living and socio-cultural variations, the people living in seats like Fowler and McMahon have born the brunt of ugly, racially charged politics.
Especially now, they deserve a member who uniquely understands and can best protect community interests.
Tu Le spoke out on Facebook this morning for the first time, with a potent message, “power corrupts”.
“What broke the camel’s back was finding out that so called representative leaders in my own community and those I considered friends threw their support behind someone else by belittling me and my contributions to the community,” she wrote.
“I’m calling this out because it is downright WRONG for our leaders to use their positions of power for their own personal gains. Whether it’s in the highest offices of this country or at the community level, we should NEVER accept this behaviour from those who represent us.”
Le went further, criticising some members of parliament for using multiculturalism as a political card expertly played but never truly supported.
“For far too long, political parties have relied on superficial connections to our diverse communities,” she said.
“Some politicians only come to our festivals and events (especially before an election) for photo-ops, while “wearing a sari and eating some Kung Pao chicken to make themselves look good”. (Thanks Anne Aly for your solidarity!). It feels like they seek our support only when looking for fundraising and membership opportunities.”
Allison Ho, a 22-year-old Vietnamese-Australian living in South West Sydney empathises with Tu’s frustration, describing the decision by Labor as a “disrespectful” missed opportunity.
“The Fowler electorate already had a candidate who not only is exceptionally qualified, but is extremely involved in the community. But that was completely overlooked,” she says.
“The attempt to parachute Keneally into a ‘safe’ seat against local demographics is undermining, and to be frank, a little bit disrespectful. It plays into the idea that this region is in need of someone from the Northern Beaches to come and ‘save’ us, when in truth, to select someone who is so far disconnected to the community is the poorest strategy.”
“How the government has handled the pandemic so far in regards to their treatment towards Sydney’s western population in particular, has given communities reason to slowly lose faith in our leadership,” adds Ho, suggesting that the ALP actually has an opportunity to restore this.
“The party has a candidate who understands our needs, and will insert new optimism to strengthen trust in our political institutions again,” she says. “It’s time that political parties start to adopt an intersectional lens when making decisions that will benefit us all.”
Ultimately, what it boils down to is this: Keneally is a brilliant politician and a vital member for the ALP, who the party should work relentlessly to retain. But parachuting her into an electorate in which she can’t personally identify with community needs, is a mistake.
It’s no longer okay for us to sit back and accept that the interests of such a diverse population be represented by a tiny cohort of white, privileged Australians. While the Australian Labor Party sits lightyears ahead of the government on gender inclusivity, multicultural representation is still unacceptably behind.
Right now, non-Indigenous people of colour make up only 4.1% of the federal parliament despite making up 21% of the Australian population. Tu Le epitomises the talent we so desperately need in Australian politics right now, and the ALP should be held to account for so easily squandering it.