How Dai Le’s resilience and persistence helped her win Fowler as an independent

Dai le

Dai Le chats with voters at King Park Public School on Federal Election day, in the seat of Fowler, Sydney, Saturday, May 21, 2022. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

There are numerous stories highlighting the persistence and determination of women coming out of the 2022 federal election, as well as how women have tapped into communities that are sick of being taken for granted.

But there is one that stands above others.

And that is Dai Le, who took the seat of Fowler in south-west Sydney, a seat that had been held by Labor since 1984 and that star candidate Kristina Keneally was hoping to win.

Le is not part of the cohort of female independents supported by Climate 200, who also won big during this election. Le wasn’t fighting off the ranks of Liberal Party men, like what was successfully done by Dr Sophie Scamps, Dr Monique Ryan, Kylea Tink, Allegra Spender, Kate Cheny and Zoe Daniel (although Le has certainly fought Liberal men in the past).

In this case, Le was taking on Keneally, who had been parachuted into the seat in what was expected to be a safe bet to see her successfully move from the Senate to the lower house.

But Keneally was not part of this community, nor did she live anywhere near it, and she faced anger and resentment from those who didn’t feel she was there to represent them — on of Australia’s most multicultural electorates. The retiring local Labor member Chris Hayes had initially supported a different candidate, Vietnamese Australian lawyer Tu Le, for Labor pre-selection in the seat. Seeing Tu Le replaced by a white woman did not go own well with this seat, and with much of the country more broadly, with Tu Le writing for Women’s Agenda about how women of colour are repeatedly sidelined from leadership positions and seen as “trouble-makers” when they bring their diverse viewpoints. She wrote: “Achieving diversity targets means more than just replacing white men with white women.”

Labor made an error. And they should have seen just how strongly the community can and will rally around local members, as well as the campaigning experience, resilience and persistence of an independent candidate like Dai Le.

Le credits her strong ties to the community as being a key to her success, saying the people of Fowler declared in their vote that: “We are going to have our own voice. We are going to stand up. We are going to speak for ourselves.”

She tweeted that she was “overwhelmed and honoured” as the news that she’d officially won the seat came through late on Sunday.

She said she was surprised by the size of the swing against Labor, telling The Guardian this morning that it was “arrogant” for Labor to put an out-of-area candidate in, especially given the great divide between Western Sydney and the Northern Beaches and Eastern suburbs of Sydney during lockdowns.

It’s officially been a 14-year journey since Le first started in politics, and she brings other significant life and community experience to the role as a refugee, mother, breast cancer survivor, business owner and journalist.

After returning from a trip to Malaysia in 2008 where she had reported on a story for Foreign Correspondent, Le decided to reach out to the NSW Liberal Party to ask if she could represent the party in the then very safe Liberal seat of Cabramatta. She was pre-selected for the seat and had three weeks to campaign. She recalls handing out her first brochures at the train stations, and the first articles on her candidacy published on the 29th September 2008. She achieved a massive 21.8% swing to the Liberal Party during that by-election, moving within 7.2% of beating the Labor candidate. She never saw this loss as a “failure”, rather she saw it as a success that she’d come with 1000 votes of winning the seat.

She described her experiences in Liberal Party politics to Women’s Agenda back in 2018 as being “enabling, not empowering”. Enabling, because it’s enabled her to be a strong person who can withstand the “robust and aggressive behaviour and tactics”.

“It has enabled me to take a lead from a different platform and it has enabled me to have a voice,” she wrote.

She wrote about being intimidated and bullied during her time on council, behaviour she says she didn’t report that she felt that — being a woman in politics — she had to “just take on the chin”. She shared how when she did report reporting the bullying to the Office of Local Government, they never responded. When she tried to report it to the NSW Liberal Party, they also didn’t act.

Le was expelled from the Liberal Party in 2016, and ran as an independent for the mayorship for Fairfield City Council.

During a 2020 Women for Election conversationLe urged women interested in politics to “build your armour and get your name out there”.

“Any kind of attack you receive — don’t take personally. Building that resilience takes a few years to develop. I’m lucky I developed that having been a refugee, living in camps, surviving that, learning English, learning the art of storytelling. I failed a lot of times but that is what made me take on criticism and attacks.”

Le wrote about testing positive for COVID-19 in January 2022, and what her community was experiencing as the Omicron wave swept through, particularly the impact on local businesses that were struggling with staff and losing customers, again. She also wrote about the consequences of lockdown on Fairfield, describing no one in the senior ranks of government as “understanding the struggles, the challenges, the long hours of work, the extended families responsibilities, the familial obligations, the community barriers and the hard work that the majority of our city’s residents have to go through to put food on the table, pay bill, and act as translators”.

The community spoke.

A massive swing of 16% against Labor saw Keneally conceding defeat on social media late on Sunday.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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