Earlier this year, Jenny Leong was facing life on the breadline.
She was staring into the room of a house infested with cockroaches and mould. But the Greens MP for Newtown had the choice to walk away from the squalor — unlike the real tenant. She was supposed to bunk down with the family that night as part of the SBS program Could You Survive on the Breadline?, screening later this month. But it was a line she could not cross, and she stayed in cleaner digs.
“It was uninhabitable,” she says. “At the point where you have holes in your cereal boxes that are relatively new because the cockroaches have eaten through them. When you put a pizza box down and if you don’t literally keep actively flicking the cockroaches away, they will eat the food in front of you. And when your child has cockroach bites on them, that is uninhabitable.”
After a nine-day experiment trying to live on as little money as someone on welfare, Leong came to the conclusion that she could not survive on the breadline. “No, and I don’t think anyone should have to,” she says.
Leong, 44, represents a constituency of great contrasts — one that reflects the depth of Australia’s housing crisis.
Newtown is an increasingly affluent electorate, populated by white-collar professionals who love its cosmopolitan cafe culture. It is a magnet for musicians, actors, media workers and middle-aged professionals who remember their days at Sydney University. The median house price is about $1.7 million and private rentals cost about $750 per week. But 90 per cent of the constituent problems Leong deals with are related to public housing.
We meet for lunch on cafe-lined King Street at a Palestinian vegan cafe called Khamsa. We both order the Jerusalem Bowl — a rich mix of hummus, babaghanoush, quinoa, fattoush, cauliflower and falafels. While Leong has always felt at home on King Street, her experience on the SBS program showed her how unwelcome she would feel without enough money to buy a coffee or to shout someone a beer.
“The thing that I felt like was really a massive eye-opener for me was the sense of exclusion and isolation,” she says. “It was the first time I’d had any taste of this nice street doesn’t feel welcoming because I know I can’t buy anything at the shops.
“For people I met in the show and people I interact with daily here in the electorate, there is no escape from that.”
Apart from her brief stint on the show, Leong has never lived in public housing.
As a woman, she has experienced exclusion and racism. But other than the occasional racial comment in the playground which made her want blonde hair and blue eyes, her life growing up in Adelaide had felt “safe and secure”. She and her sister lived in a middle-class home with their parents, who had a family business. Their Malaysian Chinese father, Chris, had come to Australia as an international student and is still working. Their mother, Jan, an Anglo-Australian from Collingwood, is retired.
When Leong skipped a grade at her Catholic primary school, a teacher said it was because there weren’t enough chairs in her old classroom instead of telling her the real reason for the jump (she was very bright). After finishing high school at the age of 16, she enrolled in theatre studies at Flinders University, with dreams of becoming an actor. But after two years, her interest waned, and she deferred her third year. A visit to Sydney to see a friend turned into a permanent move after the bright lights and buzz seduced her. “I’ve always been a big-city person,” she says.
“My parents were very disturbed that I had left university. I came over to Sydney to visit a friend and thought, ‘why wasn’t I born in this city?’”
Leong started a full-time job waiting on tables at Sailors Thai restaurant in The Rocks where she met her partner of more than 20 years, Kristian Bolwell. They shared smokos together out the back. Apart from some “grumpy suits” who were rude to her while she served them, she loved the job and life in Sydney.
Leong kept working at the restaurant after enrolling at Sydney University. She did an honours degree in performance studies and started a PhD after winning a scholarship. But by then, her interest in politics was taking over.
“I got more involved in refugee activism and less involved in my PhD,” she says. “And over a period of time, I realised I didn’t want to be sitting in a room studying things and writing. I wanted to be interacting with people.
“Everything shifted from there.”
Former Prime Minister John Howard’s refugee policies had provoked her and Greens leader Bob Browne’s words inspired her move from refugee activism to party politics. But it wasn’t what Brown had to say about the environment.
In the months leading up to the 2001 federal election, Brown had spoken out against John Howard’s decision to refuse a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, permission to enter Australian waters. The vessel was carrying more than 400 mainly Afghan refugees who had been rescued from a distressed fishing boat.
“I was part of the Tampa generation,” she says. “There is a whole generation of people that joined the Greens because of that.”
For Leong, there wasn’t enough to distinguish Labor from the Liberals on refugee policy, the invasion of Iraq or global warming. “Bob Brown was saying the stuff that I wanted people to say. That’s why I got involved,” she says.
Within a few years of joining the Greens in 2001, Leong ran against Labor’s Tanya Plibersek in the 2004 federal election for the seat of Sydney and was unsuccessful. She worked for Amnesty International as a community campaigner from 2008 and took on a national role the following year. That led to a job as a crisis coordinator and campaign manager at Amnesty’s London office in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprising.
After a year in London, she took another job with Amnesty in Hong Kong, where she was eating noodles, trying to learn Mandarin and enjoying “not being the only Asian in the room”. But after three months living in a city where the high cost of housing rivals Sydney’s, she returned to Australia to be with Bolwell, who was working for the pilots union as an employment lawyer.
“I have been with him more of my life than I haven’t,” she says. They have a five-year-old daughter, Scarlett, who starts school next year. The couple have had an “unofficial wedding” but are not legally married. They decided to wait until same-sex couples were given that right. But so far, they’ve been too busy to make plans.
After Leong returned from Hong Kong in late 2012, she managed the Greens federal election campaign in 2013. Two years later, when an electoral redistribution created the new state seat of Newtown, she felt her name was written all over it. She remembers looking at the draft map thinking that every place she had rented apart from one and every job in Sydney had been in the electorate, which includes Redfern, Erskineville and Newtown.
Leong won the seat with a 4.6 per cent swing. Now more than six years later, she concedes the Greens are prone to the same kind of infighting that has divided the major parties.
In the early 1990s, when the party was priming itself to be a significant third force in Australian politics, Brown predicted its support would grow because people were “so disenchanted with the major parties”. But it was Brown who later became disenchanted. He has criticised his old party in NSW as a long-term disappointment and accused former Greens senator Lee Rhiannon of introducing factionalism.
While she wishes it was different, Leong admits that internal clashes are a “sad reality” within the party.
“The left or the progressive side of politics is kidding themselves if they think they are immune to that,” she says.
Leong was reported to have stormed out of a party room meeting in 2017 after a stoush with her colleague David Shoebridge. The following year, she used parliamentary privilege to call on her Greens colleague Jeremy Buckingham to resign and not contest the March election over a sexual harassment allegation, which was investigated and rejected.
After some local police officers posted racist and sexist comments about her on social media, she took her complaint to the Human Rights Commission.
She regrets that she could spend all her time working on how to solve the housing crisis in NSW but find “no one is interested”.
“If the police respond and racially attack me on the internet because I call out sniffer dogs, I get a media scrum that is huge. That is a reflection on the current state of our politics,” she says. “If I say something about another colleague or someone else, that’s the big story. That is a constant challenge.“
Could You Survive on the Breadline? premieres 8.30pm, Wednesday, November 17, on SBS.
Bill please: Khamsa, Shop 3/612-622 King Street, Erskineville. Open daily 8am – 2pm. 0481 451 791.
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