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Sally Sitou
Portrait of Sally Sitou
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in July 2022

Sally Sitou is a proud Chinese-Laos-Australian. She grew up in Cabramatta in South West Sydney. She is the daughter of Chinese parents who fled Laos after the Vietnam war, a mother to her young son Max and most recently is serving as the current Labour Federal MP for Reid.

Sally believes in a generous, inclusive and compassionate Australia. She is committed to building a more successful, sustainable and just Australia, starting from representing her electorate, voicing and fighting for their concerns and values.
The first time I heard about Sally was a few weeks before the 2022 Federal Election, when I was researching who would go against the incumbent Liberal MP for Reid at the time. It’s not often that I’ll see someone who looks like me and has a similar cultural background to me, put their hand up and run for office. Although Australia is such a multicultural country, I’ve never seen this diversity of thought and background be reflected in our parliamentary leadership, and for a long time I never questioned it too deeply, and accepted it for what it is.

It’s people and leaders like Sally who care so much about their local community, and are courageous enough to believe in their ability to represent their community, who are helping me see the value and need for better representation in Australia. Not only in public media and parliamentary leadership but in all forms of leadership.

I chose to interview Sally because I was inspired by her story of wanting to create a better Australia, and how she was doing something about it - by running for, and becoming the MP for Reid.

I hope Sally’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
You’re currently the MP of Reid, one of Australia’s most diverse electorates composed of Australians with Chinese, Indian, Korean, Sri Lankan, Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern heritage and many faith communities. How do you make sure you are satisfactorily representing your community?
The only way you can represent a community well is to go out and listen to them to find out what they care about, their priorities and concerns. And during the course of the campaign for the Federal Election, that's exactly what I did - go out to speak to people and be present. I just don't know how you can be an effective member of parliament without doing that first. Then after that, you really need to be helping them - making sure we get the right policies in place, making healthcare more affordable for families who are saying that it's just getting too expensive, or looking after our aged care sector because people have really real concerns about their parents or grandparents who are in the aged care sector.

So there’s helping our community from a policy level, but helping them at an individual level as well. A lot of people don't know what their member of parliament does, but people can come to our office for any issue relating to a federal department - e.g. immigration, the tax office, NDIS - and we can help them at that very individual level.

That's the beauty of this job. It’s all about service to others, and making sure that they get the help that they need.
Did you ever think you would or could run for Parliament? What made you decide to run in the end?
I never thought I would run for Federal Parliament. I had entertained the idea of being a representative, but at the local council level. I thought that it would be great because of my real interest in the community. There would be things that I could work on that would make a real difference. I actually was on the Labour ticket, very briefly, for Strathfield council.

Federal government was never something that I had entertained because in my mind. That was for people of the caliber Senator Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, my old boss Jason Clare. They were just people that I really admired. So in my mind, I thought that I wasn’t of that caliber. It wasn’t until I spoke to others about how there wasn’t a Labour candidate for Reid yet, and these same people suggested that I should run, that made me dream a bit bigger and expand what I thought was possible for myself.

That was the moment when I realised that I could run, and then it changed to the fact that I should run - I had been talking for so long how our Federal Parliament failed to reflect the community; if I was talking about this for so long, and if it was something I really cared about, I realised that I needed to step up and do something about it.

That’s part of the reason why I decided to run. The main reason is because I wanted to change key values and policies - central to this is reforming how we approached climate change and the education sector. I’ve seen a decade of inaction on climate and recognised the urgency at which we need to act. And I knew that if we could win Reid, that we would be able to change the government and finally put in place some actions that would address climate change. With the education system - it’s been so central to the success of our family here. When I think about education I think about it from the entire lifespan. From birth - I would love for all kids to have access to an affordable early education, because it is such a rich environment for learning. Right through to primary, secondary and the tertiary sector. Having worked in the university sector, I saw how much they suffered during COVID-19. The government at the time completely wiped their hands of anything to do with the universities, and just let them sink on their own. This hands-off approach to the university sector, given the importance of it, was baffling to me and made me realise that I ought to step up.

I also ran because I really thought that I could put in the work to win the seat for Labour. I believed that I had the ability to work hard - knock on doors and do the unglamorous campaigning side of things because I enjoy it - I truly enjoy meeting people. In many respects, I have really come around to the type of caliber of person that is required to be a federal member of Parliament. I think that someone like me who enjoys meeting new people, wants to listen to their concerns and wants to meet with these community groups - that’s exactly the sort of person we need for the Federal Parliament.

Do you have any advice to those who want to get more involved in civic engagement but don't know how to?
First of all, it’s great that you want to get involved, and it’s also important that you want to get involved. And there are so many ways for you to get involved. You can work on a campaign, volunteer for unions, an NGO, or an advocacy organisation. Whatever your interest is, whatever the cause is that you want to push, there is undoubtedly a group of like-minded people who want to do the same as you, who you can meet with.

There's two things I'd say about getting involved. It's never been more important for people to have their voice heard. But also it’s incredibly fun. When you meet a group of people who have similar views to you, who are also passionate and want to do something about it - it’s simply a really lovely community to be part of. And that's why I was so proud of the campaign that we ran. We created a real community.
on culture and identity
Growing up in Sydney, what has your personal experience with your Chinese Laotian background been like?
Growing up in Cabramatta in South West Sydney, I had an amazing experience. I had fantastic teachers, a great group of friends and a community full of extended aunties and uncles that I felt comfortable and at home with. It was a brilliant place to grow up. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties when Pauline Hanson made her infamous speech in Parliament and the role of Asians in this country and her fear that Australians were getting swamped by Asians, that I really felt uncomfortable. Prior to that I just assumed that others saw me as Australian, and that this was a welcoming and accepting country of me. It wasn’t until her speech and the subsequent political movement that she was able to create, that I realised that some people may not want me here.

This shouldn’t and doesn’t override the positive experience I had growing up in Australia. There was just this discomfort that her speech created, that wasn’t a consistent part of my adolescence but was definitely always in the background.

In terms of my cultural background, I wish that I had a closer connection to both my Chinese and Laos heritage. I had an experience which perhaps is typical for many people who are born here - where my childhood was spent distancing myself from my cultural background and not feeling proud of it. For example, when my parents sent me to Chinese school, I would go but rebel in terms of really taking in what was being taught to me, which I really regret now because my Mandarin is not as good as it should be. My husband and I desperately want to raise my son as bilingual, but we’ve hit the limit of my own Chinese Language skills. I wished that I had embraced it earlier.

But in saying that, I’m fully embracing it now. I’m incredibly proud of my Chinese heritage. I’m incredibly proud that my parents grew up in Laos. I don’t speak any Laotian but we have a lot of family there - it’s where my husband and I got married. We are still trying to maintain those connections but we’re doing it in a fusion way. We celebrate Christmas but Christmas will be of Asian food. We might do Chinese new year but it’ll be a barbeque. We’ve created our own family traditions which is so good, and the beauty of growing up Asian Australian.