How does a Nigerian-born punk with a childhood in the Middle East and a father in MI6 grow up to be in charge of Australia’s childcare policies, and how has the German ancestry of one Senator brought his politics under the microscope?
- Penny Wong: Her journey to becoming the first Asian-born member of an Australian Cabinet is one that began in Malaysia more than three decades ago.
- Eric Abetz: It’s not just Eric Abetz’s views on abortion and unemployment that have made headlines since he took a seat in the upper house.
- Sussan Ley: How does a Nigerian-born punk with a childhood in the Middle East and a father in MI6 grow up to be in charge of Australia’s childcare policies?
- Mathias Cormann: How did Australia's Belgium-born Finance Minister turn a holiday into a lifetime?
One in every four Australian residents was born overseas. We spoke to four Australians in public life about how their cultural heritage has shaped their values and beliefs.
Politicians from different parties, houses and homelands such as Penny Wong and Eric Abetz have opened up on how their past has influenced their political life and policy decisions.
The Labor Senate Leader has taken a leading role in the party’s fight against the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, drawing on her childhood plagued with racism.
“The experience of prejudice and racism has no doubt formed my desire to try to make things better."
Now facing another challenge from a Family First Senator, Wong has passionately defended the Act, telling SBS that her early migration is an experience that formed the foundations of her political drive.
“The experience of prejudice and racism has no doubt formed my desire to try to make things better,” she says.
“There was always going to be a set of choices I made about how I would try to do that and ultimately I chose politics.”
The unusual upbringing of Liberal MP Sussan Ley has also influenced her life in politics, where she now holds responsibility for childcare.
The Nigerian-born MP was raised primarily in the Middle East, accompanying her father on rounds in his work for British intelligence, before migrating to Australia where she integrated herself into Canberra’s punk scene.
Ley says her unique upbringing helped her develop “tools for life generally”.
“It’s helped me survive circumstances where I might feel alone,” she says.
“Sometimes in politics, I think people often feel a need to be liked or a need for their views to be endorsed.
“While I know that’s nice, it’s not something that’s a need in me and maybe that traces back to the time where I just simply had to rely on myself.”
Leader of the Government in the Senate Eric Abetz also spoke on how his past has encroached on his political life, particulalry insults over his grand uncle, a high ranking member of the Nazi Party.
Despite the honorary SS-Standartenführer's death coming less than four months after his great-nephew’s birth, Abetz says his critics have compared him to the Nazi operative.
'The children are old enough now for me to talk about it, but if you are of German origin, it does make you an easy target for certain elements'
“The children are old enough now for me to talk about it, but if you are of German origin, it does make you an easy target for certain elements,” he says.
“There were the gratuitous comments such as ‘we didn’t fight two World Wars to allow this to happen to our country’ and those types of comments. Certain people in the Senate in the past have tried to make certain allusions to my background.
“All I would say is I judge people on the basis of who they are, what they are, how they are, not on… whether you had a great uncle who was involved in the national socialist regime of Germany at the time.”
But for Finance Minister - the Belgium-born, German, French and Flemish speaking Mathias Cormann - the reception has been warmer.
He says his constituents in Western Australia have been supportive, saying "people don't worry where you come from".
"If you are prepared to work hard, have a go, there's really no limit what you can achieve in your chosen field of endeavour whatever that might be," he says.
"And I really think, dare I say it, us, as people who migrated to Australia to give it our best and to contribute."
We’ll bring you more of the personal stories behind political headlines as the series continues.