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HomeNewsPoliticsDiverse, safe, vibrant community: An interview with Jenny Leong

Diverse, safe, vibrant community: An interview with Jenny Leong

A passion for the arts brought Ms Leong from Adelaide to the University of Sydney where she pursued a doctorate in performance studies. “At that time I was passionate about the need for a theatre archive in Australia,” she says. The tenor of conservative John Howard-era politics, and inhumane treatment of refugees in particular, drew Ms Leong into activism. She was elected president of the Sydney University Postgraduate Research Association (SUPRA) and became a member of the Greens, impressed and inspired by the principled leadership of Bob Brown. “Student politics taught me the importance of collaboration, finding ways for different parties to work together, identifying common concerns and building consensus.”

Skills honed on campus were valuable over the five ensuing years that saw Ms Leong in various roles with Amnesty International, as a community campaigner in NSW and then in London and Hong Kong as Amnesty’s global campaign coordinator. “Working with Amnesty gave me further experience in community engagement,” she says, “developing grassroots campaigns and networks with a capacity to respond in times of crisis.” Change, Ms Leong believes, comes not so much from formal structures as through networks of local individuals and groups. Key terms include allies, relationships, connection, negotiation.

Ms Leong’s inaugural speech, delivered in the Legislative Assembly of the NSW Parliament on May 5, the “first of the first” speeches from newly elected MPs, bore the hallmarks of her love for life in a big city where good organisation need not mean the standardisation of everything. Gentrification, for instance, shouldn’t mean the loss of diverse cultures, celebrations and venues. A better public transport system should mean increased interaction between people of different backgrounds and interests.

More than 150 members of the local community filled the public galleries. Among the guests were BLF and Green Bans legend Jack Mundey, NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon, and former NSW Senator Kerry Nettle. The speech focused on equality, human rights and the importance of collective action. Ms Leong acknowledged the recently deceased Wiradjuri man Ray Jackson for his contribution to the fight for Koori justice and noted former member for Newtown Frank Burke’s presidency of the Anti-Conscription Council prior to being elected in 1917.

On marriage equality (referring to her life companion of 19 years), Ms Leong said: “We declined to have our wedding recognised in law. One day, when the institution of marriage is no longer tainted by discrimination, we will get legally married …”

On Lillian Fowler, the last member for Newtown: “The electorate of Newtown has a radical past that is still present today. Lillian Fowler … began her inaugural speech to this Chamber in September 1944 by stating: ‘I have always thought that government meant action by elected representatives and the formulation of ideals for the benefit of people. My ideal government would frown on anything not to the ultimate good of all.’ The main issues on her agenda at that time were proposed changes to electricity delivery, local government amalgamations, which she posited were motivated by the government’s desire to seek electoral benefits, along with housing, rents and accessible public transport. It seems that some things will always stay the same.”

On local collective action: “I look forward to working collaboratively with others – in the parliament and on the streets … Our community and our neighbourhoods are no strangers to collective action. We have a long and proud history of standing up against injustice, overdevelopment, evictions from public housing, the sell-off of public assets and cuts to public services.”

On the local area: “The people who live in the electorate of Newtown are welcoming of difference and diversity, so it is perhaps not surprising that many come to Newtown to feel accepted, or to have their diversity celebrated, even if they do not live here. Newtown – and the people I met when I moved there – made me an activist. Or at least if I was an activist before – and I am pretty sure I showed signs of it from an early age – it was the people I met when I moved to Newtown who taught me what an activist was.”

On NSW politics: “It is pretty clear that simply trusting the government of the day to do the right thing is not going to be enough. Slippery words and excuses that continue to allow human rights to be violated are a tacit endorsement of racism, sexism and discrimination.”

On WestConnex, Ms Leong said: “It seems appropriate for me to encourage any potential investors in WestConnex to look closely at the resolve of the good people of Newtown when preparing to borrow or to lend to this unwanted and unwarranted project.”

The full speech is available online: www.jennyleong.org/jenny_makes_inaugural_speech

In late May Ms Leong released a statement in support of Marrickville Council’s call for a halt to the WestConnex tender process, and critical of comments directed at concerned residents by Minister for Roads Duncan Gay. The Minister’s disparaging remarks about latte and chardonnay drinkers drew the following response: “It seems the Minister is attempting to distract attention from the growing opposition to WestConnex and the failure of the project to meet the government’s own requirements in terms of financial accountability, independence and transparency.

“If the Minister really wants to defend WestConnex, why doesn’t he release the business case? If the Minister really wants to justify WestConnex – instead of making light of the effect more roads will have on our air quality – where is the rigorous assessment of the environmental impacts? This isn’t about how people take their coffee or what wine they like to drink. This is about plans to waste billions of dollars on a tollway that will lead to increased pollution and the loss of homes and communities. It will fail to meet Sydney’s transport needs.

“The Greens are committed to seeing public money invested in world-class transport solutions to make it easier and more accessible for people to get around our city. We need real transport solutions, not another dirty tollway,” she said.

Ms Leong is thrilled to be working alongside two fellow Greens parliamentarians in the lower house, Jamie Parker and Tamara Smith, and encouraged by positive contributions from the cross bench over recent years. In coming months she will work on ways to make parliament more accessible to the community, and initiate means of meeting regularly with constituents at various locations within the Newtown electorate.

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