The Last Week In Politics Proves Yet Again That No One Gives A Fuck About Western Sydney

Labor's decision to overlook the well-respected local candidate Tu Le in favour of career politician Kristina Keneally is more salt in the wound for Western Sydney.

kristina keneally tu le photo

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During high school, Tu Le radiated the type of exceptional-yet-affable energy that defines the best of us. She was a Prefect, a regular sports carnival champion, an A-Grade student, and among the nicest people in our grade.

Like Roger Federer or Leslie Knope before her, Tu was the type of classmate that would make you incredibly jealous of their skills, if only they weren’t so goddamn likeable.

“I loved high school but I tend to find joy in all my experiences,” Tu told me over email. “My closest girlfriends and I had a girl group name, and no joke, we still call ourselves that now after 13 years since graduation.”

So, it was not only shocking, but affecting, to see Tu in the crossfires of this week’s latest political shitstorm. Over the weekend, news broke that Northern Beaches resident Kristina Keneally was set to run for the local seat of Fowler, in South-West Sydney. The seat, sitting between the LGAs of Fairfield and Liverpool, encompassed some of the most diverse, and most impoverished, suburbs of Sydney. And, crucially, Keneally was pushing aside a local candidate: local lawyer Tu Le.

The move immediately off a debate about the nature of candidate pre-selection, the inner machinations of the Australian political class, and how diversity is often snubbed in favour of more “pragmatic” moves. Everyone from former prime minister Paul Keating to The Betoota Advocate had a take. Meanwhile, Keneally — who was supposedly forced into this position due to a factional rift over the Senate ticket — started collecting endorsements for her move to Fowler like Infinity Stones.

And yet the whole situation, personally, felt strange to me. As a former Greens member, I have seen my fair share of political manoeuvring and factional bullshit. I have seen amazing, wonderful people who would have been an asset to the political world eaten up by quote-unquote “party machinations”. This was meant to be familiar.

Instead, it was the salt atop an old wound of what it means to grow up in Western Sydney.

Canberra Is A Long Way Away

When I asked Tu about why her story has resonated so far, especially among young people, she was direct in her reasoning.

“Everyday people couldn’t care less about internal party infighting. They are too busy hustling and getting by,” she told me. “But what they are seeing now personally affects them because my experience is a common experience of us who have to work twice as hard than others for the same privileges.”

My experiences growing up in Punchbowl and living in Parramatta, while different to Tu’s, are similar in many ways. As a migrant kid in Western Sydney, you’re raised with two competing ideals: that your family and community have sacrificed the world for you, often leaving family and communities overseas behind, to achieve more than they ever could, and that achievement is ultimately limited by powers beyond anyone’s control.

“My experience is a common experience of us who have to work twice as hard than others for the same privileges.”

I’ve seen this play out way too many times, from my classmates from high school and Western Sydney University to my own professional life. The number of times I have been passed over for jobs, while someone with far less skills who lives east of the Red Rooster Line gets the gig is disheartening. Even the most “diverse” and “progressive” organisations and businesses fall victim to this. Some of my friends and colleagues have simply given up, either changing industries or moving out of Sydney altogether.

And yet, even when we somehow overcome all these obstacles, we somehow still find ourselves having to fight against a cavalcade of stigmas, poor decisions, and the results of being a political football. Case in point: the current LGAs of concern include a majority of Western Sydney, including Canterbury-Bankstown, Parramatta, Fairfield, and Liverpool. Meanwhile the City of Sydney and Randwick, despite having case numbers that are comparative to LGAs of concern, aren’t included.

It’s even more frustrating when you see the images of Coogee Beach (which sits within the Randwick’s government area) packed over the past weekend. Meanwhile, local pools in Western Sydney are either closed or, in one case, were knocked down to build a stadium.

The people of Western Sydney are taken for granted, more often used as a political talking point or a block of election-winning votes rather than actual humans. Or as Tu put it, “We are seemingly so unaffected by what happens in Canberra, although in reality, our leaders’ decisions have a huge impact on our lives

“Canberra is just very far removed from the realities of Western Sydney.”

Disillusioned And Ignored

There are two warnings that comes out of the last few weeks. The first is, as has been pointed out by many before me, that many young people of colour, migrants, and Western Sydney residents will feel too disillusioned by what the Labor Party have pulled off to consider joining the ranks of their local political or activist group. The fact that Tu Le can’t even stand for preselection due to a decades-old anti-branch-stacking rule (that, frankly, nobody outside of Sussex Street cares about) is harsh enough to make any future leader reconsider their options.

The second warning is, frankly, worse: that as Labor, the Greens, and other progressive organisations take Western Sydney for granted, these seats will be eventually lost.

Back in 2017, I wrote about how many electorates in Western Sydney, unfortunately, voted against marriage equality in the postal survey. More recently, we’ve seen groups of young adults from these areas stand alongside the people who often demonise them during anti-lockdown protests. Both events reflect the socio-political complexities of the area. There remains a strong working-class backbone in Western Sydney and social justice issues in many key areas such as welfare, health, and education are still major concerns. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities for populist social conservatives to gain traction.

Hypothetically, the Liberals (or any right-wing party, for that matter) could run a socially conservative local candidate in Fowler with connections to the church-going community, the small business community, or any other community group that could be perceived to be “grassroots” while still leaning rightward. Suddenly, Keneally’s experience with the Labor Party is no longer an asset but a hindrance, as she’s seen as a careerist who has parachuted into Fowler, standing against someone who “truly understands” the electorate. This could be replicated not only across Western Sydney but across Australia. To a degree, it’s already begun.

Valuable, But Worthless

I found my old graduation yearbook and found a telling quote by one of my classmates: “We have to work to turn this hole into a mountain”. We were talking about our school, but it could also apply to how we’ve been taught to view Western Sydney as a whole. We’ve been told for years that we’re both politically valuable and socially worthless, an asset to the wider Australian community, and a place nobody would want to visit. A constant dichotomy that makes arguing for our share of the world harder than it has any right to be.

However, it shouldn’t be this way. We should be able to stand on our own two feet without interference, be able to enjoy our lives without the threat of police at every corner and be proud to talk about growing up in an undivided Sydney.

“A lot of young people in the area would probably say they’re not political,” Tu said. “Someone told me that staying silent is a political act in itself. We need to care, and we need to act. Our lives and future depend on it.”

Albert Santos is a writer based in Western Sydney. His biggest, and only, achievement to-date has been winning an episode of game show Mastermind.