The fugitive who defeated Kristina Keneally in a fight seat choked as he recalled how she nearly drowned while fleeing Vietnam.
The independent MP took a swipe at Ms Keneally in her first speech to Parliament on Monday, also comparing the Covid lockdown to the tyrannical regime she fled as a child.
Ms Le donned traditional Vietnamese clothing printed with an Australian flag as dozens of supporters cheered her on from the gallery of the House of Representatives.
She recounted how she escaped the fall of Saigon in April 1975 at the age of seven with her mother and two younger sisters on a rickety boat bound for Hong Kong.
Her father, a lawyer working for the Americans, did not make it onto the boat and she never saw him again.
“I remember running with my mother and two younger sisters to get to a boat and fighting my way through the screams and screams of women and children. I had no idea what was going on,’ she said.
“All I can remember is the screams, the panic, the chaos and a moment on the boat as I turned to look back at my birth country to understand what had happened and just big, black smoke saw in the distance.
“I remember the moment I thought we were going to die when a big storm hit our boat.”
Ms. Le’s voice broke as she recalled holding onto the boat for her life with her sister as the boat rocked and her mother held my other sister tightly in her arms.
“I remember being soaking wet under the tarpaulin when the sea hit us and it rained,” she said.
“I remember my face almost touching the ocean as our boat rocked so violently from the storm, and I remember my mother warning me to hold my sister and a plastic canister if the boat overturned, until we could find each other.
“When I tried to peek through the tarp, all I could hear was the storm and [I] was afraid we wouldn’t survive as neither of us could swim.
New MP Dai Le donned traditional Vietnamese clothing printed with an Australian flag as dozens of supporters cheered her on from the House Gallery
“My mother continued to pray, prayer beads in hand, while the boat continued to rock. The ocean was pitch black and all I could think about was falling into that black abyss.
“I prayed in my heart that if the boat capsized, I would still cling to my sister and find my mother.
“The next morning the storm eased but everyone was exhausted. I remember seeing bodies lying on the boat like corpses.
“I remember the years in refugee camps dreaming of being able to lie on a real bed. To have a real home and go to a real school.’
Ms Le choked again, this time with joy and gratitude, as she discussed how Australians welcomed their family.
“I remember the moment we were resettled as refugees in Australia, known to many in the refugee camps as the island with the best education system in the world, and we remembered it as we left [Sydney Airport] the feeling of acceptance and gratitude,” she said.
“We were filled with hope as we gazed upon the horizon of endless possibilities.
“Australia, you welcomed my mother, my family, with open arms. You have given us comfort, food, and a warm bed to sleep on.’
Ms Le thanked Neil and Kylie Williamson for helping her family integrate and being at the gallery for her speech, and a friend for introducing her to Anzac biscuits and making her feel like she belonged.
Her mother worked as a cleaner, starting with an Italian migrant who set up a shoe store.
Ms. Le’s voice broke as she recalled holding onto the boat for her life with her sister as the boat rocked and her mother held my other sister tightly in her arms
But as grateful as Ms Le was for how Australians were supporting her family, she had harsh words for last year’s NSW Covid lockdown, which has been particularly harsh in her area.
She compared the restrictions in western Sydney, which were controversially stronger and more policed than the rest of the city, to the communist dictatorship her family had fled.
“We were not allowed to travel more than a 5km radius from our homes, we were told to obtain travel permits, we were forced to get tested every three days, we had helicopters flying around our area as well as police officers on horseback and men in uniform knocking on people’s doors,’ she said.
“Although the intention was good, we are a city made up of people who fled tyrannical regimes and war zones, like my own family and my own home country.
“Last time I checked, a government that denies individuals the freedom to choose how they live, work and raise their families was labeled a communist dictatorship — a political system that my family and I have escaped .”
Ms Le, who entered local politics as an ABC reporter via a Cabramatta car park, was elected an independent in the heartland of the Labor Party because Ms Keneally was chosen to contest the seat over local candidates.
The former senator was chosen by Labor headquarters despite living 70km away on the affluent island of Scotland’s Northern Beaches and renting a house she vacated days after the election defeat.
Voters rejected her so strongly that the seat swung from a Labor majority of 28 per cent in 2019 to five per cent in Ms Le’s favour.
“We believed it was time for one of us with lived experience, who had come of age, who lived and lived most of our lives in this community, to fight and stand up for us, to represent us,” Ms. Le said in her speech.
“Especially in the last few years during Covid and lockdown, talks started in a small team. Could we sit back and take our fellowship for granted again?’
“The people of Fowler wanted and needed a representative who came from their community and would never forget the personal challenges they face every day and who have stepped in our shoes and gone through what they have gone through.
“Not just at election time, but every day.”
Ms Le is congratulated by opposition leader Peter Dutton after his inaugural speech
Ms Le said it was necessary as her constituency has been “neglected and abandoned by the big parties” and “despite their resilience, we are not a privileged people”.
She pointed out that Fowler had the third highest unemployment rate in Australia at almost 10 per cent, three times the national average, and a 20 per cent lower median income.
42% of residents are tenants, compared to 32.6% for the NSW average.
Ms Le said Fowler is also one of Australia’s most multicultural electorates but there is not enough support for newcomers.
She encouraged the government to start with people already in the country to address the skills shortage given the unemployment rate among its constituency.
“If we need to take in more migrants, the government has a duty to ensure that there are immediate plans to build more housing, more public transport infrastructure and more local services for this projected increase,” she said.
“Our community has seen the settlement of nearly 10,000 refugees with no additional places for hospitals, schools, waste disposal, road maintenance…or job opportunities.”
Ms Le said if immigrants were resettled without needed services, they would “fend for themselves in a foreign country and feel marginalized and demonized”.
A huge crowd in the gallery gave her a standing ovation, including many Vietnamese in traditional dress as they chanted her name.
A long line of MPs, including Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, formed to congratulate her.