With the retirement of long standing Green’s member for Western Metropolitan Region Colleen Hartland, the time was ripe for some fresh ideas and enthusiasm to represent the west in Victoria’s upper house of Parliament. Enter local activist Huong Truong. She recently spoke to The Westsider.
What was it like growing up in the west?
I didn’t know any different and I love it. It can be a tough place to be. I thought everybody’s school community was full of refuges kids from all over the world. The Vietnamese community settled mainly around Footscray, St Albans and Sunshine – I live in Sunshine now. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand it if they don’t come from there, but for me it’s the place where, if we can make it work here then we can make it work anywhere.
What changes have you witnessed here?
House prices are outrageous! But aside from that the constantly new migrant communities settling in, the place is becoming more consolidated in its services and infrastructure as we see the west growing at an accelerated rate. I’m only 34 but the changes I’ve seen are that acceleration of growth further west.
What have your first few weeks been like?
(Laughs) It’s been a bit odd because I’ve been a public servant for over a decade, and being able to say what I think politically and being able to advocate for people and being able to take it up to the government in Parliament has been terrific.
I’m unused to being a public person, but I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the different organisations out here, I’ve visited Foodbank Victoria, got to see The Dream Factory, got to speak to the police about what they think is going on out here, and lots of younger community leaders, about their experience of what we hear about in the media.
I’m getting a really strong understanding of how universal our experience is in the west, but at the same time the enormous challenges that are not being looked at properly.
Did it feel weird having a giant poster of yourself stuck to the window of your office?
(Laughs) It is quite awkward! I actually have more photos of myself now than I have had in any prior part of my life! It’s been so strange! I have to demonstrate a way of doing things differently, to take Green’s ideas to a place where they haven’t been before, and to give people a chance to rethink how we can make this place better. So yes, it’s an awkward symptom, having your face out there so publicly, but I see it as a really exciting opportunity.
How long has this transition into the role been happening and how did it come about?
Colleen decided late last year that it was costing her health going at 150%. So she thought it through and let the party know and the party immediately had to think about the pre-selection process. It works in that the members in the area that she represented getting a say on who would be the next person – who would be the trustee for the progressive policies and ideas. So yeah, it was a sudden opportunity. It’s been quite strange from being just a local activist to someone who has access to a public and Parliamentary platform. It’s been incredible actually!
The role of member for Western Metropolitan Region comes with responsibility to a range of communities and cultural considerations, how do you approach that?
I try to approach everything I do with “what would a decent human being find appropriate?” We have one in three people in the half a million-odd people in the western region born overseas. And then you’ve got people like myself, whose parents were born overseas. So we’ve got culturally diverse, linguistically diverse and a range of religious and cultural factors as well.
How do I approach that? I think the things that we have in common are the fact that we want to feel connected to our communities, to express ourselves, and live in neighbourhoods that are safe and clean and that we can afford. So I think there’s some universal things, just in terms of equity, and fairness in our suburbs that are shared. There’s also a huge opportunity to look at how our city, our suburbs have developed, and who our neighbours are. We have a really big Sikh community, we have a really big Vietnamese-Australian community, a lot of Chinese people, Maltese people, Greek people. The more we interact – culturally, in the street – the stronger our communities will be.
The representation is really about making sure that everybody gets a chance to speak for themselves, and to look in on how others are living, that’s the key.
I look out at the west, I’ve worked in the communities of Brimbank and it’s very diverse, very challenged in the sense of health indicators and access to services and how much money each household makes – really challenged. We’d like to fall into us being able to interact with other communities and stand with refugees because we’ve been refuges, show ourselves, our common ground and what we want for our cities. For example the big things that are going to impact us, like the growth in the outer suburbs, like the Westgate tunnel that’s being rammed into our suburbs.
There’s a lot to be said about the opportunity for us to flip the story over and say “well, OK, if we don’t want this then what is it that we want? Do we want to be connected door-to-door and have transport that doesn’t take up a third of our household budget? Do we want more open space and less road for single car use? Do we want jobs that are local so that we don’t have to drive to the other side of the city? Do we want public transport that is actually a viable option for us?”
Working in Centrelink you must have seen a lot of hardship, is that an area you hope to make a difference?
Yeah, a lot of the stuff at Centrelink – because Centrelink’s a Federal body – a lot of the issues with it was that decisions were being made in Canberra, they weren’t responsive to the needs of our community, a lot of people have complex needs, complex health needs, mental health needs, a lot of compounded disadvantage, and forcing people into arbitrarily look for work when there’s clearly a lot more going on.
That’s something that’s really close to my heart, just getting the services to be more responsive. But I think if we know anything about disadvantage and social isolation and a lot of people doing it hard, it’s that the more people are connected to a network of people they can trust, that can understand them, that can allow them to work within those types of systems. I – and this is the Greens as well – we do see the whole picture of how systems and structures and institutions reinforce disadvantage and reinforce that intergenerational poverty. That’s how I approach the work we’ll need to do in the western suburbs.
Colleen Hartland did great work here in the West, how do you hope to build on that?
Colleen did an incredible amount and I think that the special thing is that people know what the Greens can do on their behalf now. We can skill them up to fight the fights that they need to have. We can take their voice to the Parliament and hold the government to account, and make them answer to our needs and interests. That’s happened in a very personal and local way. We’re building on the back of the work that Colleen was doing, being able to walk around western metro and witness the things that’s she’s done over the last 11 years, and hearing what she’s meant to people and the work that the Greens have done in the western suburbs, I think there’s a real hunger for that progressive, people-centred change.
What I feel I bring to it is a different set of people that people can relate too. We’ve got a lot of migrant communities but also a lot of established migrant communities, a whole raft of younger people who are going to struggle to find work – a lot of them are feeling like it’s going to be impossible to house themselves, whether that’s renting or buying a home where they’ve grown up. It’s becoming acutely unfair. We looking at the first generation that’s more disadvantaged than advantaged than the previous,
Do you have your own vision for the role?
To bring all that activism and meet that thirst for community and connectedness with some new ideas. Looking at the western suburbs compared to the eastern suburbs in terms of how many hospitals they have, how many health centres, libraries, places of public gathering that isn’t a shopping mall. I think you’d find that we’ve got a pretty spare map in the west, 10kms this way versus 10kms that way. I think if people can feel a sense of agency, feel a sense that there is a point to participating in the decisions that at affect our lives. Our local councils are fantastic for that, local community groups that organise around issues, or even joining a political party. If people feel like they can make a difference, I feel like the participation in civic life is just going to rocket. I think that’s the beginning of making a difference to how the west changes with the projected growth that we’re going to get.
What’s your favourite café or restaurant?
(Laughing) Oh I don’t think I’d be allowed to say that surely! I’m not a coffee drinker but it’s been a bit hectic so I’ve been picking up coffee more often! Well, a shout out to Seven Deadly Sins which is right near the new office, but further out, I went to La Headquarters out in Melton, that was a really lovely vibe, and a really lovely feel down the main street. I’m looking forward to exploring the west more and I’ll have a raft of new cafes for you, but at the same time I’m trying to avoid a caffeine addiction in this busy, busy job! I have children, and my husband works as well, so it’s a lot!
Do you get to many Bulldogs games in the AFL or AFLW?
When the Doggies won I don’t think there was anyone in Melbourne that could have been cross about it, I mean everyone was behind that one. You can’t not be, they’re such a good spirited club. They do a lot for the community too, proper services and connections into community. Like the men’s health program, and linking into VU, so I’m very proud of them.
I have a friend who plays for Melbourne Uni women’s football team and she’s just left me no choice I have to follow her women’s footy team and bring my daughter along as well. But I’m really excited by the fact that it’s taken off so well. My daughter’s sold – she’s a Doggies girl!
You can view Houng’s first speech in Parliament via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDF_D1srbkg