Labor MP Sally Sitou has used her maiden speech to recognize a new era where the diversity of elected politicians “truly represent” the multicultural makeup of Australia.
Ms Sitou is the daughter of parents of Chinese background who were born and raised in Laos – fleeing during the Vietnam war to take refuge in Australia.
She became part of a cast of helping make this parliament the most diverse in Australia’s history.
The member for the Western Sydney seat of Reid described the moment as “surreal in the best way possible” following what she called an “improbable candidacy”.
She said the increased representation in the parliament marked important progress towards it becoming a better reflection of Australia.
“As I look around our House of Representatives today, it feels like finally it is starting to live up to its name,” she told parliament.
“A house made up of people who truly represent and reflect their communities.
“That’s why I think it’s important to have someone like me in our parliament, not for diversity sake. But because representatives that embody all of the Australian story make our parliament better and our democracy stronger.”
Ms Sitou reflected on the contrasting experience of her parents who had maintained a fear of “not wanting to talk about politics” even after having arrived in Australia.
“They are in the public gallery, watching their daughter speak in our federal parliament,” she said.
“So you can imagine what this moment means for them, how much they’ve come to embrace the best of this country.”
She also addressed the complex history of immigration to Australia, noting the nation’s transformation from the enforcement of the White Australia policy in 1901 that sought to limit non-British migration to Australia.
“For much of our history, the path on which we walked was not towards multiculturalism but towards a White Australia policy,” she said.
“It was a path that said there was no place in this country for people in this country like me, it was a path that denied our First Nations people their identity, land and kin.
“Those decisions were made based on fear and a failure of immigration.”
Former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam ended the White Australia policy in 1973.
Ms Sitou said Australia had been able to fulfill its “potential and promise” by leaders in parliament not being driven by “fear but by hope and compassion”.
“They looked around and saw what was, and imagined what could be,” she said.
“They imagined a country not weakened by diversity, but strengthened by it.”
Ms Sitou grew up in Cabramatta in southwest Sydney, and she and her brother were the first in the family to attend university.
She quoted former prime minister Bob Hawke, who said the bipartisan rejection of “race as a factor in immigration policy” was a “triumph of compassion over prejudice, of reason over fear”.
The opening day of parliament also saw Western Australian MP Sam Lim become the first person to use Buddhist scripture during his swearing-in ceremony.
The Malaysian-born Mr Lim is a former dolphin trainer and policeman who has earned a reputation for speaking ten languages.
“By going to federal parliament, I think I can help more in a broader spectrum so now here I am,” he told SBS News.
Labor member for Tangney Sam Lim says he joined parliament to get the chance to help more people. Source: AAP / LUKAS CAR
He said he had taken inspiration from the former Labor prime minister who ended the White Australia policy.
“Without him, I think we are still stuck in Malaysia and many others from a multicultural background may not be able to come to Australia,” he said.
The parliament’s diversity also includes the first federal cabinet with two members of Muslim faith – Minister for Resources and Industry Ed Husic and Minister for Early Childhood Education and Youth Anne Aly.
Independent Dai Le also recounted her own voyage on the opening day of the new parliament in an interview with SBS News.
Ms Le was born in Vietnam. She left in 1975 with her mother and two sisters as a child, then spent several years in refugee camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong before arriving in Australia.
“Being a refugee escaping Vietnam and being on a boat, I never imagined that I would be here in Parliament House, so it was a very humbling experience,” she said.
Independent MP Dai Le says has described joining the parliament as a humbling experience. Source: AAP / BIANCA DE MARCHI
This year’s election saw the appointment of several MPs from non-European backgrounds.
This included Ms Le (seat of Fowler), Ms Sitou (Reid), Mr Lim (Tangney), Cassandra Fernando (Holt) and Zaneta Mascarenhas (Swan).
Labor Senator Fatima Payman and United Australia Party Senator Ralph Babet, who is of Mauritian descent, are other newly-elected representatives from a diverse background.
The parliament also welcomes new members of Indigenous heritage, including Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Price, Labor MP Marion Scrymgour, Labor MP Gordon Reid and Labor Senator Kerrynne Liddle.