Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become/run as a politician?
I was born in Adelaide in South Australia, and you know, in colloquial, friendly circles I am known as an ABC– so, an Australian-Born Chinese. It’s always a bit of an amusing thing to me because my dad is actually from Malaysia. My grandparents moved from mainland China to Malaysia before he was born, when my eldest uncle was just a baby, and so my dad was born and grew up in Malaysia, and then he came to Australia and into Adelaide as an international student where he met my mom. And he never went back to Malaysia to live, he stayed in Adelaide for that time. And so, I consider myself to be a Chinese Australian because of my heritage and my connection, but I haven’t always identified that way. I think for a lot of people in my generation, our parents sort of had it in their best intention, had to do what they could to try and help make sure that we fitted into the Australian way of life and sadly, that meant often trying to force people, or making the decision to assimilate so that it would be an easier path. And I think that is always a really, really sad reflection of the time, but also a completely understandable approach given the times that they were living in. My mom is an Anglo Australian, she was born in Victoria, and she sort of grew up in working class Melbourne, around Collingwood.
Where you were before deciding to become a politician?
I worked in Amnesty International as a Global Crisis Campaigner on human rights issues in Hong Kong, London, and Sydney. And before that I was studying at Sydney University. I got involved as an activist and campaigner, and [was] very much connected to politics around the appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the increased racism we saw as a result of the rise of Pauline Hanson and the adaptation of their policies and positions by the Howard Liberal Government at the time. And so, for me, that was my entry in politics, and I became more active then around human rights injustice, inequality, and the need for environmental change. That was what drew me to the Greens and I was a member of the party from the early 2000s.
I guess in talking about your cultural background, how has your cultural background shaped the way you engage with Australian politics?
To me I think it’s a couple of things. The first is to say that for me, I in many ways had a very privileged upbringing, [I] was able to have the luxury of and the privilege of being able to have a supportive family life, to be able to access and engage with education, and to have the ability to be able to be employed in secure work. For me, the entry into politics was a responsibility because it was very clear to me that politics is very much about a certain type of person. When people shut their eyes and imagine a politician, they imagine an older white guy with a suit on. They don’t imagine someone that looks like me or with my background, and so for me, I felt a responsibility then to take that representative role, not just for the people of Newtown, not just for the Greens as a political party, but also representing diverse communities and people who don’t feel represented by, you know, “pale, male, and stale” guys in suits.
Yeah. Yeah. I think this is also the other thing that’s really important. We want to make sure that the diversity of our society is reflected in the diversity of our Parliaments, and that is critical. It’s critical for the decisions that are made, it’s critical to ensure that people feel connected to the people that are making decisions about their lives. But it also is healthier, because a sense of diversity is good for the strength of our democracy, because you have different perspectives, different viewpoints. That may be a shifting change, you know, in terms of how we are making policy, how we are making laws and how those laws are reflecting the different experiences that people have of living in our communities.
Yeah. And I think that’s something that particularly I would say, minorities have a good hand on, is that lived experience that they can bring into politics is often or not, that are, I guess the victims of capitalism or White supremacy happened to be minorities and that we have experienced like racism and discrimination and classism and all these effects. And something that I would say that the older, White majority may have not have a lived experience of, so I definitely agree in the sense that it does increase the diversity of perspectives, because if someone with a lived has lived experience of racism, for example, then the current state of racism in this country would not be where it is.
Absolutely, Recently I sort of, reflected on the fact that, in the first 24 hours of the election, I saw so much focus in talking about “Australia” and “Australians” and what Australians wanted and what Australians needed and what Australians were going to get. It is such an overused focus on a sense of nationalism that does not encapsulate everybody’s lived experience. A lot of people that are here from migrant backgrounds don’t resonate. The concept of talking about things for Australians and only for Australians doesn’t resonate– it excludes, and particularly for people that have family and loved ones and others that need access to healthcare, that need access to centre care, that need access to housing, that need support from disability income support or aged-care pensions or other things like that. We need those people to be looked after no matter what their citizenship status. And I think there’s a real… (missing piece of recording, sorry!) “… all Australians want this”, or “all Australians are gonna get this”, actually. You know, the use of that phrasing actually excludes a whole lot of people who don’t feel that that represents them.
Michelle: And unfortunately, the White Australia Policy, is something that we like to think of as an archaic thing, but it only happened less than 50 years ago. I guess you’re still seeing the ongoing effects of that. That’s not very young, that’s something that isn’t considered old anymore, like having parents that were born in the 70s and that’s when the White Australia Policy was still around.
And then you look at the long history of this country being founded on invasion and colonisation, then the racist undercurrents are not that far below the surface. They are actually quite overt when it comes to the rights of First Nations people as well.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in/contending to be part of the political scene?
For me, I was very much elected as a local member and the focus on me as a Chinese Australian woman being elected to the Lower House came almost after I had won the election, or in the very late stages of the campaign. I was running because of my passion and care for the Greens’ vision and for the community that I was seeking to represent. You know, I have a long-held connection with the suburbs and the area and the communities that make up the Newtown Electric. And I had long, passionate connections with the Greens as a political party that I think represented the vision for the future that we needed to address environmental injustice, but as well racial justice, social injustice, and inequality. And so, for me, those things all aligned with the opportunity to be able to be pre-selected and then running a hotly tested election to win the seat of Newtown. It was actually much later, it was very close to the election that there was a bit more focus put on my Chinese Australian background and the fact that this was quite a rarity within the people that were writing as candidate, but also within elected politicians. It wasn’t until I had been elected that it seems to be (as far as I’m aware) that I was the first Chinese Australian woman elected to any Lower House at a State or Federal level in this country. That then felt like it added an extra responsibility, but I wasn’t campaigning with that in mind– that was something that came upon me as an additional representative role as the campaign neared an end and then as I was elected.
That’s wonderful to hear because you’re breaking barriers for all of us. So, you said that after the election, you kind of realised that you were the first Chinese Australian woman to be elected.
I was told by others. People told me that they thought that I was. I didn’t realise on my own accord, people told me that they thought that I was. I trusted the older generation to give me that information, and I always say whenever it’s mentioned that I always am very happy to be corrected if this is not a correct fact. But sadly, the history of migrants in this country is not well documented. And as a lot of what we know is not captured in a way that would be useful.
Michelle: I think that’s a big problem, especially when we talk about Australian History, but going back to when people have told you that you were the first Chinese Australian woman to be elected, how did that make you feel? Do you think that there was a bit of pressure on your shoulders?
Yeah, but just to be clear– so, there had been other Chinese Australian women elected to the Upper Houses before and multimember electorates. So, the difference is that usually you see more diversity in the Upper House and the Senate and stayed in a federal level because they are multimember electorates. So, you are electing more than one person at a time, and there tends to be less diversity in our Lower Houses as Parliaments because they are single-member electorates. And so, from that perspective it was the first elected in a single-member electorate rather than ever. There were others that have gone before me on that path. If people are making what I consider to be offensive remarks, what they might consider to be jokes or quips, then I feel the responsibility to highlight that.
And overtime, you know, that has shifted the debates in the Chamber as a result of me being present. Because now, if there’s someone that will make an offensive comment, others know that it’s not actually a joke and that it is an offensive comment. The eyeballs will turn towards me. People look to see what I’m gonna react to. And in that, I think there’s an education process going on. Once upon a time, they would’ve just laughed. Now they might smirk a little bit, but kind of look sideways to check whether or not that crossed the line. Now, obviously the preference that someone doesn’t make those racist comments in the first place. Sometimes you know, making people aware that actually these things that everyone else thinks is funny is actually causing harm to other people, is a good way to educate people to stop being racist.
I can imagine that there must be a bit of pressure to actually take that ownership of having to call out racism because it’s not every minority’s responsibility to do that. It’s also the job of the majority, wider, broader Australian population to call out racism too. But I guess the interesting thing that you talked about was the less diversity in the Lower House just because of the single-member electorate. So, that kind of goes into my second question of – How would you explain the lack of Asian representation in Parliament at both the State and Federal level?
Look, it is a cause of serious concern, and it’s actually interesting to see that we haven’t seen an increase in Chinese Australian candidates, but we do seem to be seeing an increase in Asian Australian candidates more generally. And I think that that is absolutely directly linked to the anti-Chinese sentiment that we’re currently seeing in West sadly. Conservative press, political commentators, and right-wing political representatives, some of them actually would claim to be on the progressive side of politics, are actually whipping up fear about China and are imposing additional pressures on Chinese Australians living here as a result of this kind of whipping up of fear around the Chinese Communist Party’s potential “invasion”, “infiltration”, “foreign interference”.
The use of the term “foreign interference” is only ever used when it’s in relation to China. You know, you see that all the media articles about foreign interference use the Chinese flag. They don’t talk about the interference of the U.S. They don’t talk about the U.S. military involvement and connection in spaces in Australia. They don’t talk about the massive amounts of U.S. money coming into our university system. When we’re talking, we know that “foreign interference” is code for “Chinese interference” and we know that there is very, very deliberate slippage between the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese authorities, China, and Chinese people more generally, which in its worst state was Donald Trump calling it the “China Virus”. And in its more subtle state, is just an endless picturing of Chinese people whenever they mention Coronavirus in newspaper articles. I think there was a fear and a scrutiny amongst Chinese Australians about how much they want to raise their voices. There is also a level of scrutiny put on Chinese Australians that I think demonstrates the hypocrisy because of the sense of anti-Asian, anti-Chinese sentiments that is whipped up by people that want to stay in power.
Yeah, we can definitely see that in the last two years with COVID. Like Covid-related racism in the United States, but also, I would say less in Australia, but still existing here. And I definitely agree with you with on that, and especially considering that it’s a whole diaspora community that is probably one of the biggest (I would say in the world). To just say that they’re all communist is a very harmful stereotype– Chinese people have been in Australia since the late 19th century. It’s hard, because of that fear that is perpetuated by the media, but people don’t really understand that we’re human, too, and we have our own lives to live. It’s not just what the media have said. But it’s great to see that there is actually an increase in Asian and particularly South Asian representation in this country. The next question is – Were there any particular barriers that you’ve had to face coming into politics?
I mean, I think people face big barriers all the time before entering into politics. Part of it is just because it’s such an elite part of our society. We need to what we can to break that down as the barriers to entry, to being a political representative are high, and there is often an intersection of race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability and disability. But also, I think there is a risk around the idea of taking on a role and who is responsible for stepping up into a leadership role. And I think that that is always a challenge because generally, women, women of colour, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are slotted into a certain type of box in society. And that box is usually wanting to place that person as being compliant. It’s about being a good migrant, if you like, sitting in, being polite, being liked, being nice, being softly spoken. And all of those traits are sadly not traits that are given any attention in the land of politics. And so, I think there is a challenge around 1) trying to break the stereotype or box that people are trying to shove you into, and 2) then not wanting to be seen as the alternative to that, and like a bad version of who you are, and the kind of communities you’re representing.
Look, everyone’s vote matters. And it’s pretty cool that everyone enrols to vote. Depending on when your article comes out (it might be too late for that), but it’s critical that everyone votes. It’s critical that everybody recognises that just because the Parliament that we look at now doesn’t reflect the diversity of the Community, doesn’t mean that that can’t change. You know, I walk through the halls of the New South Wales Parliament and I see pictures of old, white men lining the corridors because, historically, that’s who was in our Chambers. And then you look now and there are a lot more women in there, and hopefully, what we will see is a lot more diversity in there. And that will only change by people voting for diversity in their communities, but also by voting for parties that stand up to the idea of maintaining the status quo. I think this is a really important thing that we have to remember, that voting just on the grounds of diversity is not enough, because what we need also to be voting for, are parties that are committed to having a vision for the future that sees more diverse participation in our democracy, and that doesn’t just pay lip service to multicultural communities because they help donate large amounts of money during election campaigns. But instead, work directly with communities to be anti-racist in what they do and to commit to seeing a participation of community that is real and genuine in the decisions that affect them. Not Just sort of romping in, doing a photo opp, and then leaving again. And so, I think that there’s lots of considerations for Chinese Australian communities right now. The other one is to look at the fact that the impact on so many people around racism has come from the horrific Foreign Interference Laws and has come from the appalling whipping up of anti- Chinese sentiment. And we need community representatives and leaders in our Parliaments that will not stand for that behaviour and recognise the fact that being an ally means not allowing the ability for people to use racism to entrench their own power at any cost.
What advice would you give to those who want to make a change in their community, and not necessarily in a political aspect?
Look, I think the most crucial one is to work with each other to collaborate and to not try and battle out one group over another, or one idea over another, but actually work to collaborate and connect. We are powerful when we connect together and work collectively. And, I think the number one bit of advice I’ve had for anyone that wants to engage in any kind of change, is that you’re not gonna do it by yourself. You’re only going to do it if you find others that care and feel passionate about what you’re trying to advance as an issue, and bringing people together, connecting them, doing your power, organising your community are the ways that those things happen.
“Politics” is a little bit of a dirty word in Asian communities–we don’t really see ourselves as political. I think we have to depoliticise politics. Just making sure that everything you do will end up being political anyways. I think that there’s a misunderstanding that you have to get into politics to make a change, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true and I think that’s something that the Asian Australian community has to work on, I think. I think that most Asian Australians don’t think of themselves as political.
There’s a difference between Party Politics and engaging in community politics and community change, and I think that it’s really critical to make that distinction. But also, I think it’s really important to recognise that there is a role for a healthy democracy to have party politics. The bit that is sadly a real negative that happens is that so often party politics, when it comes to connection with diverse multicultural communities, is about using those communities to mobilise people, to stack branches, to donate big money– they’re the stories of party politics that we hear. Part of this kind of general, negative media perception of people from diverse backgrounds try to somehow influence or effect our democratic system (our Western democratic system). Like, that’s not about those migrant communities, that’s not about those diverse communities. That’s about a really bad electoral system that allows big money, big donations to influence the way that our politics work. That is a reflection of our democracy and the major parties that are trying to hold on to power, that’s not a reflection of migrant communities. And I think we need to break that down to actually say that we actually want people to respect the diversity of people from diverse backgrounds that actually care about climate change, they care about education, they care about healthcare and hospitals and transport and being able to get where they need to go. They want to see climate action and coal mines shut. They want to see, you know, young people being able to be listened to. They want to see the income support rate raised, they want refuges and asylum seekers treated fairly. They don’t want to just hear: “Oh, this is what we’re doing for X community, Y community, so now you need to vote for us, because we committed to this one lob of commitment around multiculturalism”. We need to see and respect the diversity of people’s opinions.
What can do as an Asian Australian community to actually get our parties to represent us and what we want in our communities, especially at the local or the federal election?
I think part of it is that people need to be more politically active, like joining a party. In the Greens, the way it works is that the people that preselect the candidates are the local members. I can’t say anything for the preselections of the other parties, which usually are a top-down, “captain’s call” model. But not us, in terms of how we choose our candidates in the Greens. But I think that means that we need to have a diverse membership, because our membership selects the candidates, but also the candidates are chosen from our membership. So, for our party, the challenge is very much about trying to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to join our party, so that we can actually then have people that are making decisions based on that diversity when they’re voting at preselections, but also, have the potential to support diverse membership to then stand for preselection to be candidates to then be elected as MPs.
If you had to introduce one aspect of Chinese Malaysian culture to the broader non-Asian community, what would it be?
I think for me it’s something that I really like wish that I had and I don’t have– and that is language. I feel like there’s a sense of discovering the loss that I have because I don’t share a language with some of my older relatives, and so the opportunity to have been able to directly interact with my grandmother and have some conversations with her. So, I think the thing that I would say is the power of language and the importance of teaching young people that language, and creating space for young people to learn their languages and to maintain them, and for that to be given a priority in our community is really critical. It’s something that I would say I’m discovering now that I’m older. I would say that’s one thing.
I think the other thing that I always had instilled in me was the idea of having a sense of sharing as connection to community, which, hilariously aligns very much with my Greens politics, but comes very much from a cultural tradition of sitting down collectively, discussing things, and sharing meals together. And I think that to me, there is an intersection between my current Greens politics and my family, cultural heritage, and upbringing.