Dai Le knows how differently life could have turned out for her. She could easily have failed in her long-shot bid to snatch one of Labor’s safest seats by defeating star frontbencher Kristina Keneally at the May federal election. She could easily have never made it to Australia as a refugee fleeing communist Vietnam. She could easily not even be alive today.
In 2014, the Fairfield councillor was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, forcing her to undergo aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. “I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got 12 months to live’,” she says. “I thought, ‘I need to live my life with a purpose, I’ve got to work on my mindset’. I didn’t want the disease to take control of me.”
Le’s cancer battle led her to embrace Stoic philosophy by immersing herself in the writings of Seneca, Plato and Marcus Aurelius. She says Stoicism helped her build her inner strength, to be less afraid of failure – a belief system she leant on while campaigning as an independent in the south-western Sydney seat of Fowler. The 54-year-old wasn’t backed by a major party; neither was she supported by the Climate 200 fundraising group like the “teal” independents in wealthy inner-city electorates.
“I had to push through the fear barrier on a daily basis, thinking yes you can do this even when people are saying it’s impossible,” she says. “I was campaigning from 7 in the morning until 8.30 at night. But there was no moment of tiredness, the adrenaline drove me.”
At her home, Le affixed an image of Parliament House on a vision board alongside motivational slogans (“keep on running”, “make the invisible visible”). She knows it may sound a little woo-woo to some, but her vision morphed into reality on election night when she won Fowler. Labor previously held the seat on an ultra-safe 14 per cent margin.
At Le’s request we meet for lunch at Pho 54, an unassuming noodle restaurant in the heart of Cabramatta. The menu is written entirely in Vietnamese, so I ask Le to choose the dishes for us: she orders two bowls of beef noodle pho. It’s the perfect meal for a frosty Sydney day. During our lunch several diners approach Le to offer congratulations on her win, reflecting her celebrity status in the local area.
The weeks after election day have been a hectic blur, Le says. She has travelled to Canberra to be inducted as an MP and is busy recruiting staff for her parliamentary and electorate office. Her diary has been packed with meetings with other crossbenchers, including a long discussion with independent Wentworth MP Allegra Spender. Le is delighted that trailblazer Cathy McGowan has agreed to be her mentor on how to get things done as an independent in Canberra.
Pho 54 sits beside Cabramatta’s Freedom Plaza, a pedestrian mall that celebrates the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to the area following the downfall of the US-backed South Vietnamese government in 1975. A sign on one side of the plaza’s grand gateway proclaims “democracy” while another celebrates “liberty”.
Le fled South Vietnam when she was aged seven alongside her mother and two younger sisters. Hoping to make it to freedom in the United States, they lived in refugee camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong where Le worked in a factory to help the family survive. Resettled in Australia under the Fraser government’s generous refugee policy, they found a home in Bossley Park in Sydney’s west. Le’s father intended to join them, but never made it out of Vietnam.
“We had one suitcase of clothes – nothing more,” Le says. “We literally ran out of our house and ran for our life. It’s hard for people to imagine who haven’t been through it.”
After attending schools in Wollongong and western Sydney, Le tried out science and law at university but felt directionless in life. “I was lost,” she recalls of her early adulthood. That changed when she got talking to a reporter from The Liverpool City Champion, a local newspaper, who encouraged her to apply for a cadetship. “He said, ‘You’ve got this effervescent personality, you like to talk, I think you’d be great at getting people to tell their stories – especially multicultural communities.’”
She won a cadetship and later began working at the ABC as a producer and documentary maker on programs such as Foreign Correspondent, Lateline and The World Today. She was just one of a handful of non-white journalists working as a journalist at the public broadcaster.
At the time, Cabramatta, where Le grew up, was notorious as the “heroin capital of Australia”. The media was full of stories of young children overdosing in the streets. “Our community was so demonised,” she recalls. But she didn’t vocalise her anger. “As a reporter, I was told to gather the facts, not to have an opinion. I didn’t put my feelings, my emotions into the story.”
Le eventually realised she didn’t just want to report on her local community, she wanted to advocate for it. So, she decided to enter politics, running as the Liberal candidate for Cabramatta at a 2008 NSW byelection. The centre-right of politics, she says, seemed the logical place for her. “My understanding growing up here was that the Liberal Party represented individualism, freedom of speech, the right to determine your own future. We escaped communism where we couldn’t express ourselves. I thought that’s what I was about.”
Le slashed Labor’s margin at the byelection and slashed it again at the 2011 state election, turning Cabramatta into a marginal seat. As the Herald’s Alexandra Smith recently reported, efforts by former NSW Premier Mike Baird to preselect her for the state upper house floundered because of factional infighting. In 2016, she was suspended from the party for 10 years for teaming up with Fairfield Mayor Frank Carbone on an independent ticket.
When Labor announced Keneally as its candidate for Fowler in September, Le and Carbone sniffed a political opportunity. Keneally had been living on exclusive Scotland Island, over 50 kilometres away, and locals were angry about having an outsider foisted upon them. The question was: which of them would run – Carbone or Le, his deputy?
Le says she would have happily sat the contest out if Carbone had wanted to go up against Keneally.
“It took Frank a long time to make up his mind. I would have supported him – as long as a local was running for the seat.”
In her only interview since conceding defeat, Keneally, said anger over COVID-19 lockdowns in southwest Sydney was the main factor in her defeat – not the fact she was “parachuted” into the seat from the northern beaches.
“Those harsh lockdowns engendered an understandable sense of parochialism that the community had been left behind by both major political parties,” the former NSW premier told The Sun-Herald.
“And I genuinely believe that whether the Labor Party ran me or anyone else in Fowler, they would have encountered the same set of challenges.”
Le says anger over lockdowns did create a volatile climate in Fowler, but says the parachute backlash was also crucial. “If Kristina or the Labor Party did not see the other factors then they were really blind,” she says. “People had seen me out doing things over the community for the past decade. If you’ve been parachuted in – especially from an area that is so the opposite to a community like Fowler – you would have no understanding of why people voted the way they did.”
In the days following her victory, Le faced questions about her eligibility to sit in parliament under section 44 of the constitution after it was revealed she said she had never been a subject of another country on her candidate declaration form. Le insists she has followed all the necessary steps to ensure she is not a dual citizen but bristles at requests to provide evidence. “I’ve done everything that’s required. I’m just not giving people the paperwork they want. According to my lawyer, I don’t have to.”
Finishing off her final spoonfuls of pho, Le says her big priorities are securing more federal funding for Fairfield hospital and the creation of a rehabilitation centre for her local community.
She’s sure Labor will put in a big effort to win back the seat in three years, and has already told frontbencher Tony Burke that she intends to win another term. “If they want to win the seat back they will have to invest in it.”
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