‘We had nothing to lose, no pride, no ego’: Why these 20-somethings became mayors

‘We had nothing to lose, no pride, no ego’: Why these 20-somethings became mayors

It’s 5.20pm on a cold June afternoon, and the six-storey Brimbank Community and Civic Centre in Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, is closing to the public for the day. I walk up the stairs through its silent halls to a large room full of young people, mostly girls aged 13 to 26. Chatty and ethnically diverse, these members of the Brimbank Youth Council are here to meet Jasmine Nguyen, the mayor of Brimbank, who wants to discuss issues related to youth in the area – mental health, employment, leadership roles – with them.

Nguyen bustles in a few minutes later, black robes askew and her big mayoral chain clinking gently. “Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to meet you all!” she exclaims, sitting down at the U-shaped table. “I’m the mayor of Brimbank, but you can call me Jasmine.” The girls giggle, unsure what to make of this small, energetic woman who looks so different from the past mayoral photographs lining the wall.

Nguyen is 25 but looks about 16, and has an intoxicating vibrancy that catches everyone off guard. “Stand up and show us your bling!” a woman at the back calls out. Nguyen duly lifts the gold chain. “It’s real gold, you know!” she says, laughing – 18 carats, in fact. “I’m still waiting to have my initials carved into it.”

She’s about to say something else when she notices the painting of a giant eagle on the window. “Oh my gosh, this is the new Indigenous art that’s just been put up! Wow! It was commissioned by the previous council, but it’s only now been put up. I love it!” (She really does speak in exclamation points.) She turns back around, not missing a beat. “I just want to say how amazing it is that you’re all here, and that I love seeing young people taking such an interest in their community. I want you to know that I support young people, and that I’m always here if you need to ask me anything, if you’d like to come along and see what I do.”

She points to the wall behind her of black and white photographs of previous mayors, a sea of grey hair followed by a single picture of a young Asian woman: Jasmine Nguyen, the 18th mayor of Brimbank. “I want to see many of you up there, too,” she says. “It’s time we got some diversity in leadership.”

Jasmine Nguyen is one of the youngest mayors in the country, pipped by Anthony Tran, who was 22 when elected. Also of Vietnamese heritage, Tran is mayor of the neighbouring Melbourne municipality of Maribyrnong. Their 29-year-old friend Claudia Nguyen, meanwhile, is a councillor on the other side of Melbourne in the City of Yarra. All three secured their positions in council elections held in 2020, and will serve as councillors until the 2024 vote. Jasmine Nguyen’s and Tran’s one-year mayoral terms end next month. All represent communities with a significant portion of Vietnamese people, that have previously been represented by mostly white – and mostly male – mayors.

The trio all ran for office after taking an intensive eight-session course run by the Dual Identity Leadership Program, established by the Victorian chapter of the non-profit Vietnamese Community in Australia to train future leaders. DILP, as it’s known, was founded in 2013 by Vivienne Nguyen, currently chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, after she noticed young Vietnamese-Australians were not rising through the political ranks.

“I looked at what’s called the ‘capacity building’ of any community,” says Vivienne, a former financial services executive. “I wanted to support second-generation Vietnamese-Aussies and help them embrace their cultural identity to become leaders.”

Vietnamese-Australians, who have been here in force since the 1970s, are typically thought of as hard-working, entrepreneurial and academically driven. Yet when it comes to public life, role models have been thin on the ground. “It’s just not been cultivated in our DNA – there needs to be a conscious effort to get us to engage,” Vivienne says. “Having been through this myself, I wanted to give the next generation the information to be able to pick or let go [of their culture], and then go out with confidence and pride.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2021, those born in Vietnam, India, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka made up 8.6 per cent of Australia’s population, and 29.4 per cent of the nation’s overseas-born population – up from 6.1 per cent and about 23 per cent a decade prior. But this diversity has not been reflected in the country’s political leaders, who overwhelmingly still come from Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds. And according to an analysis by Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at the Per Capita think tank, in state and territory governments combined there are only 37 politicians, out of 610 in all, with non-European and non-Indigenous backgrounds.

The May federal election was perhaps a bellwether of what’s to come, though, with lower house MPs from non-European and non-Indigenous backgrounds rising from eight to 12, and senators from two to four. The most high-profile of the new non-Anglo MPs was independent Dai Le, who beat former NSW Labor premier Kristina Keneally in the seat of Fowler in Sydney’s west, which counts nearly 20 per cent of its population as of Vietnamese heritage. In so doing, Le became the first federal MP of Vietnamese-born origin.

Dai Le fled Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a child in 1975 with her mother and siblings, and spent time in refugee camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong before arriving in Australia in 1979. “I promised to fight for the health system, to have the resources at our hospital extended, for better job opportunities for our youth, and for small business, as that’s how a large proportion of the refugees and migrants who live here survive,” she tells me of her campaign, speaking in a politician’s well-practised patter.

When I ask how it feels to be the first Vietnamese-Australian to enter federal parliament, her voice cracks. “Being a refugee, I felt, my god, I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. The day after the election, I just sat there and reflected that I nearly died on that boat escaping, and I thought, ‘Maybe I was meant to live for this moment.’ ”

Marija Taflaga, a politics lecturer at Australian National University, was surprised by how many non-white candidates were elected to Parliament in May. “I was so pleased, I honestly thought it would take a few more cycles,” she says. “We know from other minority groups that they bring different life experiences, which can translate into all sorts of different policy outcomes. Just look at the discussions we’re having over The Voice, a result of the critical mass of Indigenous people elected to Parliament.”

The trajectory of Australia’s two youngest mayors shows just how that could begin.

Jasmine Nguyen was born in Sunshine in December 1996, the second child to driving instructor Minh Nguyen and IT professional turned pharmacy dispenser, Ngoc (Annie) Tran. I discovered her while researching an essay for the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute on how ethnic groups engage with Australia’s political system. I was curious to see how many leaders came from a non-white background, and Nguyen popped up on a search engine, a 25-year-old pocket rocket advocating for one of Victoria’s lowest socio-economic municipalities.

We meet at a burger joint near her office in Sunshine. Nguyen’s just come from a citizenship ceremony, and is dressed for the occasion in a sombre grey suit and a silky green shirt. The only hint of flamboyance is in the long, purple ribbon holding back her long black hair.

“Oh my gosh, hi! How are you?” she says, pumping my hand. She’s all toothy grin when she tells me the patties here are the best in the area – “they won Melbourne’s best burgers in 2016, you know” – as we head inside. Chatting to Nguyen is a bit like being bowled over by soft, sparkly balls. She talks a mile a minute, her tone intermittently deepening.

Her mum and dad met in their late teens on a boat fleeing Vietnam in the wake of the war. They spent time together in a Malaysian refugee camp before being resettled in Australia in 1982, after which Annie travelled north to Sydney, Minh to Melbourne. A few years later Annie joined Minh in Melbourne, and they married.

Nguyen is acutely aware of the relative privilege she and her brother Tan, who is five years older and works at the Australian Tax Office, grew up in. After she and Tan attended a small Catholic primary school in St Albans in Melbourne’s north-west, they went to the independent Overnewton Anglican Community College in Keilor for high school. Her mother had studied at university while working a series of factory jobs.

“I’m very lucky,” she says. “Because Mum had a university degree, it enabled her to put me into a different school to my friends, whose parents were labourers who worked in factories, hotels and hospitality.” In year 9, Nguyen was accepted into the prestigious, selective Mac.Robertson Girls’ High, where she gravitated towards subjects such as creative writing, politics and German.

“When I first told my mum I wanted to study politics instead of chemistry in year 11, we had a whole fight about it,” she laughs. “She said to me, ‘Jasmine, why do you want to study politics? It’s already hard for white people to become politicians, let alone Asians!’ ” Her nod to science was taking psychology: “I just like learning about the human psyche and how to optimise your brain to be better, and also about what makes people tick.” She laughs. “If you change people’s attitudes and their mindsets, right, it leads to action.”

After school, Nguyen enrolled in a commerce degree at Monash University, where she focused on politics, economics and philosophy. While there, she joined a bunch of political clubs, eventually aligning with Labor. Towards the end of her degree, she became Monash University’s first Person of Colour officer. While campaigning for federal Labor MP Tim Watts in the 2016 election, she met fellow Vietnamese-Australian Celia Tran, a founding member of the Victorian Public Service Women of Colour Network. It was Celia who suggested Nguyen consider applying for DILP.

“To my mum’s horror, I thought I was going to become a diplomat,” Nguyen says, laughing. “I didn’t even tell her that I was going for the mayorship. I told her afterwards, and she just said, ‘Oh Jasmine, now even more people will complain to you!’ ”

Anthony Tran lives with his parents and brother Aiden about 15 minutes’ drive from his Maribyrnong Town Hall office. His father Chuong (John) Tran is a medical scientist at the Royal Children’s Hospital, his mother Tram (Nikki) Vu an IT project manager. Their home is across the road from the former migrant hostel where John and Nikki were processed when they first arrived in Australia, having also escaped the war in Vietnam. When this place came up for sale four years ago, they bought it, keen to retain its associated memories of safety and relief.

John welcomes me into their home warmly, and over coffee and tiramisu, Nikki takes up the story of her older son. “Anthony has never been a difficult child,” she says. “He was always very obedient. Whenever I said, ‘Try this or that,’ he would.” She’s quick to clarify that she’s “not one of those tiger mums”, though. “The only things I really insist on is, ‘Keep your faith and be close to your family.’ Family is the most important thing: it doesn’t matter how big you get in society, how successful you are. If you don’t help your family and your community, what’s the point?”

Tall, articulate and serious, Tran tells me he was a “1998 New Year’s Eve baby” who attended the same primary school in Yarraville as his mother. “I had the same teacher in grade 2 that she’d had in grade 6. It was very awkward!” He spent his high school years at the distinguished Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School in Keilor East, where his best subject was maths. “I didn’t love it at first, but it eventually became my favourite subject because I studied it so much.” Legal studies was a close second.

“It was hard for Asians then to be part of the political world, because we had no mentors, no one to direct us.”

His results were good enough to get into law and commerce at La Trobe University, which he’s taking part-time while undertaking his mayoral duties. “Sometimes, if I can’t get to uni for a class because I have to attend a citizenship ceremony or something, I go to the library and attend class via Zoom,” he tells me. “People think it’s my office!”

John and Nikki are proud of their son but never thought he’d go into politics. “For our generation, it was about getting educated, finding work, a house and having a family. And then finally, eventually, it got better,” Nikki says. “It was hard for Asians then to be part of the political world, because we had no mentors, no one to direct us. Anthony, however, is part of the second generation, and he has people like Viv who is able to guide them, able to help them through it.”

Tran and Nguyen were part of the fourth cohort to come through the Dual Identity Leadership Program. It was 2017; Tran was 18 and straight out of school, Nguyen 21 and close to finishing her commerce degree. “Viv is a close friend of my dad’s, and she suggested to my parents that I apply,” Tran explains. “One day I came back after a camping trip and Mum just said, ‘Why don’t you try out?’ ”

He was hesitant: unbridled freedom beckoned after an intense period completing year 12, and a leadership program was the last thing he wanted to do. “In the end I enrolled – I thought I would just do it for a few months, and that would be the end of it.” He laughs. “It’s been a good five years, and I’m still involved.”

Nguyen’s pathway was a little different. Having joined a bunch of political parties at uni, she was tapped by friend and DILP alumna Celia Tran, who’d observed her interest in politics and thought she’d benefit from some training. “Celia had been interested in leadership for a while, and we gravitated towards each other because when you see other Asians in these environments you want to talk to them, to reach out because we’re such a minority,” Nguyen says.

With 28 others, they attended eight two-hour sessions, one per fortnight, learning about their culture, heritage and what it takes to make a good leader in Australia today. “First you have to understand where you come from, the intergenerational trauma and the reason why your parents are like they are, why they left,” Nguyen explains. “It’s only once you’ve got your internal self sorted, once you’ve grappled with your identity, that you can go externally and have impact on others through social impact projects.”

Learning about that trauma hit Tran hard. “DILP has a retreat to Phillip Island every year, and we often take our favourite war veteran – we call him Grandpa Dinh,” he says, a little emotion creeping into his voice. “He’s this sort of Vietnamese royalty, but also just like your local grandpa down the road. He gives everyone insight into what it was like escaping the war: the pirates, the rapes. It really makes you think about what it’s like to leave everything behind, be treated like a traitor by a nation simply because you are on the losing side of a war.”

This attachment to their Vietnamese heritage, combined with their affection for Melbourne’s west, underpins their ambition, but it was COVID-19 and its attendant lockdowns that put it into practice. Together with four other DILP alumni, Nguyen and Tran decided to drop off food to those in need, expanding across the city with help from the state chapter of Vietnamese Community in Australia.

“We would start at like 10am, picking up packages and driving all over Victoria – we obviously had permits – to deliver food and stuff,” Tran says. “We saw there were all these elderly and sick people living by themselves – what were they supposed to do? Or the international students who were trapped here and didn’t understand the system?”

“You have to understand where you come from, the intergenerational trauma and the reason your parents are like they are, why they left.”

This brought them to the attention of prominent Vietnamese community member, lawyer and DILP advisory board member Daniel Nguyen, who’d been Yarra mayor in 2017. The 2021 Victorian council elections were looming, and he thought all six of the DILP volunteers should stand for office. They did, though not as a formal group, promising to help their communities bounce back from the pandemic.

Jasmine Nguyen focused on youth unemployment, Tran on delivering better mental health support to traumatised people. In the end, only Tran, Jasmine Nguyen and Claudia Nguyen were elected, each becoming deputy mayor in their respective areas. In their second year, Tran and Jasmine Nguyen each became mayor following a vote by their fellow councillors.

“We had nothing to lose – no pride, no egos, maybe some funding,” Tran says. “We honestly wanted to set a good example and just give it a shot, you know?”

Although Tran and Nguyen met at DILP, it took a while for them to become friends. “He was very young, I thought,” Nguyen says. “I was like, ‘Wow, good on you for doing the program when you’re only 18!’ ” It wasn’t until they started working on the program’s committees that they became close: now, as fellow mayors, they’re each other’s lifelines.

“We’re both going through the same thing ­– it helps to have someone you know well to go through all the emotions with you,” says Tran.

Being young and leading a council is challenging: Nguyen, who’d been linked with Labor but ran as an independent, in particular hasn’t had an easy time of it. She heads a council of 11 independent, ALP and Liberal members. Tran, on the other hand, who also ran as an independent, leads a council which is left-leaning and largely in sync.

“Unlike Anthony, who is a tall, handsome bloke, Jasmine is a tiny girl – you could mistake her for a kid. That’s a huge perception barrier,” the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s Vivienne Nguyen says. “Also, as I understand it, Jasmine is a party member while Anthony is not. This has led to some challenges in that the ALP didn’t support her as a Labor candidate, so she had to stand as an independent. She tried to negotiate preferences, but there were councillors who didn’t want to support her – she really experienced a tough election.”

“It can be a bit disheartening. I joined to see change for the community, but it’s still a numbers game.”

Nguyen, whose slogan was “bounce Brimbank back”, was called “un-Australian” while handing out pamphlets. “Someone made this comment during my campaign on social media under a picture of me and a person who was wearing a hijab. They were like, ‘Why would we vote for these un-Australians?’ ” How did that make her feel? She laughs awkwardly. “It was just some comment. I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, that’s really silly.’ ” As to what she’s learnt over the past year and a half? She pauses. “It can be a bit disheartening, to be honest,” she says finally. “I joined to see change for the community, but it’s still a numbers game.”

Tran was surprised to learn that his candidacy had offended some older candidates. “In many ethnic communities, there’s a hierarchy in terms of age, and some people felt we [the DILP group of six] were challenging their traditional power status,” he tells me. “They felt we were going against elders who’d been trying for a long time to get into council, and we were asked to sacrifice ourselves and wait our turn.”

He freely admits to making mistakes during his campaign – “I put some pretty naive slogans on the front, like telling people I will help them waive their rates, something you can’t actually do” – but now better understands the rules. “If you’ve never been on council before, you wouldn’t know what the boundaries are. Now that I’m here, I understand the restrictions, it’s really helped govern my judgment.”

While Nguyen has overseen a new grant which financially supports young people with ideas for projects that positively impact youth in Brimbank, Tran has been working to get a youth mental health organisation into the area. “Kids are waiting six to eight months to get a counselling appointment. I don’t want them to wait that long; they deserve that service now.”

To get a better sense of the mayors on the job, I send a flurry of text messages to other councillors in Brimbank and Maribyrnong. While Tran’s colleagues are more than happy to chat, only a couple from Nguyen’s side come back to me. One is Trung Luu, who observed her opening 12 months as councillor closely. “If she’d asked me to elect her as mayor that first year, I wouldn’t have done it,” he tells me. “But after a year I got a sense of her abilities and what she was capable of, and I saw leadership qualities in her. That’s why I voted for her.”

Luu, whose background is in police and the army, has trained future Australian Defence Force leaders for years. There are certain non-negotiable qualities he looks for: being able to take criticism well, and the ability to bring people together. “There may be people with better credentials on paper, but they’re unable to accept constructive feedback,” he says. “Jasmine has taken the time to understand everybody’s point of view, and she’s done things that others on council wouldn’t have, especially in the youth space.”

While Luu admires Nguyen’s passion for helping that demographic – “she’s young herself, it’s understandable” – he warns that leading is about more than fighting for one group. “You can’t just focus on one perspective in the community, so we [the council] try to rein that in. But she has leadership qualities, and just needs to be guided to have that self-drive, the conviction of her abilities and vision to get through to the next stage.”

Tran, too, has a way to grow, according to another councillor, who asks not to be named. “They both need a bit of humility, an understanding the world didn’t start five minutes ago,” says the councillor. “They both need to understand there are those around them who know more, that being a mayor, a leader, is not just a case of knowledge and skill, but also experience.”

I meet Nguyen and Tran again at a Footscray pie shop, Pie Thief. Sitting outside in the sunshine as Nguyen and I eat our pies – Tran passes as he’s nervous about meeting a high-profile CEO later today – their affection for each other is palpable. Tran good-naturedly shakes his head every time Nguyen says something he thinks is outrageous.

What stands out most to them about being mayor? “I am clearly young, and a lot of people question whether I have enough experience to lead a council,” Tran says. “For the first week [of being mayor] I had very bad imposter syndrome, until my deputy mayor told me I had nothing to lose except some pride and ego.” Adds Nguyen: “Yeah, and it surprised me just how much you have to back yourself to put your hand up for leadership like that. I didn’t realise I had it in me until now.”

What does she want to do after her time is up on the council? She can, after all, stand again in 2024. “A lot of people have asked me this – I still need to do more thinking about it,” she says. “Even at this local level, you have to already deal with a lot of politics and sometimes people can resort to personal attacks, even from the [Vietnamese] community.” From her observation, two personality types are drawn to politics. “You have the power-hungry narcissists who have no qualms supporting any policies that will benefit them; and you have people who are well-intentioned and community-minded.” She pauses. “We need more community-minded people who can withstand the game-playing and not burn out.”

Tran nods. “A good example of this game-playing is the Dai Le example: the parties need to understand that no longer can you just parachute in a candidate, no longer can you just pick a white person and plop them from the air, and it will be fine. You will truly have to select candidates who not only understand the area but represent it, maybe not ethnically, but in some capacity.”

Tran has his sights set on a federal political career, but not yet. His mayoral term and law degree both end this year. “I still want to practise law, just because I’ve studied it for so many years. In the grand scheme of things, it will give me a better understanding of what the judicial system looks like.”

With parts of Maribyrnong recently struck by rising floodwaters, Tran has been given a taste of what it’s like to come under the media spotlight, amid criticisms of evacuation warnings coming too late. “The past few weeks have been really stressful,” he says. “We’ve had constantly changing information about how many households and people have been affected. The media have been asking a lot of questions about what should have happened, but I think it needs to be about what should be done now.”

While Tran and his family have not been directly affected by the floods, he’s worried about the mental and physical health of his constituents. “So many residents have lost homes, and many are renters and have nowhere else to go. We’ve set up fully-funded relief centres where we offer counselling and a warm, safe place to stay.” He pauses for a moment. “I just want them to come home healthy.”

Whatever the future holds for Tran and Nguyen, they hope there’ll be more coming through like them: “We need more genuine representation on the biggest stage in Australia,” says Tran. “Australia is a melting pot [of cultures] and if you’re not going to highlight all the great ingredients, it’s going to be a pretty bland place.”

Caroline Zielinski

Brisbane Times 21/10/22