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Can Dai Le be a new voice in the West?

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Dai Le was elected to Parliament after a decade on Fairfield City Council. Photos: Giovanni Portelli
Dai Le was elected to Parliament after a decade on Fairfield City Council. Photos: Giovanni Portelli

With enough flair to balance tradition and novelty, Dai Le is a different kind of Catholic politician

When analysing the factors that won Dai Le the seat of Fowler in the biggest upset of the 2022 election, few pollsters have considered the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

During her election campaign, a group of Vietnamese Catholics insisted Ms Le go to Bringelly to pray for Mary’s intercession at an “auspicious” statue.

“I remember praying at that statue and saying, ‘If you saved us on the ocean—I’ve run a campaign for over a decade. This is a chance to represent the community. So deliver me!’” Ms Le told The Catholic Weekly.

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She won against her rival, Senator Kristina Keneally, and delivered a punishing 18 per cent swing against Labor in a seat it has held without intermission since its creation in 1984.

“Ms Le attributes her win to a grassroots campaign and deep connection to the local Vietnamese community.”

She later returned to Bringelly to say thanks, laying flowers at Mary’s feet.

“I have no doubt she’s looking over me,” Ms Le said, with a touch of irony: as an independent with a decade of political experience under her belt since her 2012 election to Fairfield City Council, she is quite capable of looking after herself too.

Ms Le attributes her win to a grassroots campaign and deep connection to the local Vietnamese community.

She hopes it’s a sign that Western Sydney is beginning to represent itself, talking back to the major parties and the nation in its own distinctive voice—or voices, given Fowler is among the most diverse electorates in Australia.

But in doing so, Ms Le has to embody all the dynamic contradictions of Sydney’s Western suburbs in one person.

Balancing traditional values with a flair for originality, outspoken Independent Dai Le. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Balancing traditional values with a flair for originality, outspoken Independent Dai Le. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

She called out the harsh and unfair treatment of Western Sydney during the COVID-19 lockdowns in her maiden speech, while wearing an Australian flag, tailored in Cabramatta into a traditional Vietnamese áo dài.

She’s known as the “carpark queen” for her advocacy for new infrastructure, but must climb two sets of broken escalators to reach her own electorate office on the second floor of an arcade on Cabramatta’s Hughes St.

And like many children of migrants, she has one foot in the traditional values and faith of her Vietnamese culture, and another in the way of life of her adopted homeland.

Ms Le was seven when she fled Communist Vietnam by boat with her mother and two younger sisters.

“Conditions were harsh for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, and Ms Le’s mother encouraged her daughter to become a nun to thank God for saving them.”

She lived in a refugee camp in the Philippines for three years before her mother smuggled her girls on to another boat to Hong Kong.

While crossing the South China Sea a storm hit, almost capsizing the boat, and Ms Le’s mother began praying the rosary.

“We were the only Catholics on the boat. The rest were Buddhists,” she said.

“We only found that out during the storm, because they blamed us for the storm. They told my mother to put that thing away!”

Conditions were harsh for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, and Ms Le’s mother encouraged her daughter to become a nun to thank God for saving them on the water, and to get her out of the camp.

Dai Le speaks with a constituent in Cabramatta. Fowler is the most Catholic electorate in Australia, at 25.7 per cent. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dai Le speaks with a constituent in Cabramatta. Fowler is the most Catholic electorate in Australia, at 25.7 per cent. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

After being told they would be resettled in Australia Ms Le’s mother could not face leaving her eldest daughter behind, and a religious vocation instead became a political one.

The family arrived by plane in Australia in 1979, and were bussed to Fairy Meadow in Wollongong, where they were supported by the Society of St Vincent de Paul and were housed in a Church-owned property at St John Vianney’s parish.

Ms Le was educated in Catholic schools, graduating from Cerdon College Merrylands, and like many children of migrants saw her own faith practice change when she reached adulthood.

She still believes in God and prays to the Virgin Mary, but describes herself as no longer practicing. Her grandmother tells her off from her village in Vietnam for not attending Mass.

“That’s where it’s different to the rest of Australia. There’s a high respect for traditional ways of life.”

She is perhaps not the kind of Catholic politician Sydney is used to, but if the traditionally-minded migrant communities of Western Sydney wish to politically represent themselves, rather than relying on the major parties, they might need someone like Ms Le with enough flair to keep tradition and originality in balance.

“Even though we escaped some form of tyrannical regime or dictatorship, the power of authority and the power of the Church, or religious institutions, play a very important role in the lives of individuals and families out here,” Ms Le said.

“That’s where it’s different to the rest of Australia. There’s a high respect for traditional ways of life.

“I respect that, but I also understand some of the younger generations—children of those migrants and refugees who have been born here and educated here—have a different thinking to their parents.

“I straddle between understanding the youth and the older generation.”

Dai Le worked for a decade on Fairfield City Council. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dai Le worked for a decade on Fairfield City Council. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Nearly two decades working in journalism, from the Liverpool City Champion to flagship ABC programs, gave Ms Le the courage to be bolder and more outspoken.

“If I didn’t enter journalism I’d probably still be very much like a lot of young people here: respect authority, do not challenge authority, do not speak up, do not say anything, do not cause problems—you’ll get everyone into trouble, so shoosh!”

Yet if her troublemaker status perhaps puts her at odds with her community, she sees herself as an elected troublemaker on their behalf, holding the government to account.

Since her election and maiden speech she has heard from constituents—many of whom say they are speaking to an MP for the first time—that the unresolved trauma of COVID-19 lockdowns has been made worse by the cost of living crisis.

“It’s still very much about mental health, about survival, about stress, about families,” Ms Le said.

“She would like to see more independents with “genuine connections” to the community take seats across South-Western Sydney to rectify the disconnect …”

Her constituents especially need mental health support and services in their own languages; Cabramatta has only one Vietnamese-speaking psychologist, and a second bilingual support worker at Liverpool Women’s Health Centre is worked to capacity.

“Now that’s just Vietnamese. What about Khmer, what about Assyrian, what about Cambodian?” Ms Le asks.

She would like to see more independents with “genuine connections” to the community take seats across South-Western Sydney to rectify the disconnect between service delivery and the situation on the ground.

“I think being part of a party you can’t speak up for your community’s needs,” she said.

“What I’ve done out here in the Labor Party heartland has had an impact, absolutely. They’re looking at me and thinking, ‘Is she a one-term wonder? Or will she build and grow?’”

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