10 October 2016

ACT election candidate bake-off: Elizabeth Lee

| Charlotte
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Elizabeth Lee

You may know that Canberra Liberals’ candidate and ANU Legal Workshop lecturer Elizabeth Lee is widely expected to win a seat in Kurrajong on Saturday, but did you also know that she’s been teaching group fitness classes for 14 years, most recently at Fernwood?

Here are some other things we learnt about the popular candidate during our visit to her Braddon apartment for the candidate challenge: she came to Australia from Korea at age 7 and is a fluent Korean speaker; her parents worked variously as cleaners and garbage truck drivers to make ends meet during her Western Sydney childhood; she first moved to Canberra as an 18-year-old to study at law ANU, loved it and stayed; she played hockey for the university while a student; she’s a Brumbies fan (this year’s schedule has pride of place on her fridge); and she was recruited to run for the Libs by then Opposition Leader Zed Seselja.

Well-liked by fellow candidates from all parties, Ms Lee is supported by an army of volunteers who cheer as though she’s a rock star when her name is read out at an event.

Elizabeth Lee

Two of them recently broke the 46,000 steps barrier in one day of campaigning for Ms Lee, who says that she wants to win mostly to reward her supporters for their hard work.

“The team is amazing,” she says. “When you’ve got people like that, how do you not stay motivated?”

The former ACT Law Society vice-president came within a couple of hundred votes of out-polling her Liberal colleague, the incumbent Steve Doszpot, to take a seat of Molonglo at the last Legislative Assembly election. With Liberals colleagues Jeremy Hanson and Giulia Jones running in Murrumbidgee this time around, and the other two Liberal candidates running seriously in the new seat of Kurrajong being first timers, it seems likely Ms Lee will join Mr Doszpot in the new Assembly.

Unlike those of some colleagues, Ms Lee’s campaign team is not made up of Young Liberals. She says most of her supporters are from outside the party machine. Among them are current and former ANU students, though Ms Lee says she has never used her position as a lecturer to gain their support. Rather, they have learnt of her political ambitions elsewhere and approached her to volunteer their services outside the classroom.

It was a surprise to learn that her crew of supporters does not consist mainly of family members, with sister Rosa the only relative who lives in Canberra (a very supportive only relative, but still, the only one). The RiotACT had heard that Ms Lee had a put a large family network to work letter-boxing and door-knocking. It’s possible the rumour stems from the fact that a photo taken at a BBQ early on in her first campaign includes family members and a handful of other people who are Asian-looking. The photo inspired a distressing conversation for Ms Lee recently.

“I got an email the other day from somebody I had letterboxed … saying, ‘How do I know that you’re going to represent the people of Kurrajong when clearly you’re only going to represent [essentially] the Asians?’

“I said, ‘But if you’d had a look at my bio, I’ve always pursued leadership roles in mainstream if you like, for want of a better word, so the ACT Young Lawyers, the Australian Young Lawyers, the ACT Law Society. Never have I pursued just roles in the multicultural or the Korean-Australian lawyers or the Canberra Korean Community.’

“It’s important to me, but being Korean is one part of who I am, not the be all and end all.”

Ms Lee is proud of her Korean heritage, which she says shapes her as a person, including her values and work ethic. She will be prouder than ever if elected on Saturday, because it would make her the first Korean-Australian ever to be elected to an Australian parliament.

Her parents arrived in Canberra over the weekend to spend the week with Ms Lee. They came to Australia three decades ago, speaking no English, knowing no one, and worked in blue collar jobs to make ends meet.

“My parents gave up a pretty comfortable life in Korea, and why would they have done that?” Ms Lee says.

“It’s because they wanted a better life for us. The best way that we can really thank them is to strive and reach our fullest potential, for them to see us succeed.”

A relative newcomer to politics having first joined the Liberal Party in 2010, Ms Lee deliberated over where she belonged beforehand. Comparing party policies didn’t help much, but thinking about what mattered to her did.

“When I looked at my core values, it was essentially that everyone should be free to live their life the way they want without judgement, provided two things: one is that they take responsibility for their actions, and two is that they don’t hurt anyone else,” she says.

“When I read the Liberal Party platform, it actually seemed to sit well and resonate with me.”

Ms Lee is not into labels, but says if she were to be put in a box, it would probably be “the small “l” Liberal, the moderate”.

She is pro-marriage equality.

“I don’t care who wants to get married, who are we to say these people can’t get married?”

She also struggles to understand the factions set-up in the ALP.

“Some people asked me why I didn’t just join the right of the Labor Party and I said, ‘That’s why, because there is a right of the Labor Party’.”

After earlier stints as a solicitor and government lawyer, Ms Lee has loved her work as a law lecturer, and it was this fact that made her to hesitate when Zed Seselja approached her to sound her out about running for the Assembly. She had met the then ACT Opposition Leader at an ANU Law School alumni dinner in 2010, and mentioned the fact that she had recently joined the party to him as he posed with her for a photograph.

The pair later met up for coffee and kept in touch, and then in September 2011, Senator Seselja called her to ask whether she would consider running for the Assembly. Ms Lee had only been at the ANU for a couple of years at the time, so she asked for some time to think about it, but eventually agreed to run and was pre-selected the following March.

Having just missed out at that election, she ran for the seat of Fraser in the 2013 Federal election, setting up a Lee vs Leigh battle that she knew she could not win. Fellow candidate for Kurrajong this campaign Candice Burch was Ms Lee’s campaign manager. This was a challenge about the experience, and service to the Liberal Party. Ms Lee enjoyed learning more about Federal politics and sparring with fellow academic Andrew Leigh.


Now, to the blue icing-covered chocolate chip cupcakes. They were pretty good considering it was the first time Ms Lee had baked them after finding the recipe on the Taste.com.au website. Most impressive (and in keeping with the brief) were the edible image cake toppers she’d ordered in a sheet from La Torta and carefully cropped. They featured 12 key policy areas or aspects of Canberra life that matter to Ms Lee: Visit Canberra (tourism), family, health, the arts, small business, infrastructure, sports, technology and innovation, public transport, education, public service and community.

I found it very hard to choose one, giving me a strange sort of insight into the dilemmas our representatives face constantly. I was tempted by the eternally under-funded arts, but elected for the mission-critical public transport option in the end.

Ms Lee chose community.

“That sort of encompasses what I’m trying to achieve,” she says.

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I’ve met and talked to Elizabeth and she struck me as a cut above the average ACT politician. She’s certainly not a party hack like so many who have sat in the Assembly. I was disappointed but not surprised to learn only the other day that Andrew Barr has been a staffer and then politician from the time he finished studying, or maybe even before he finished university. I firmly believe that people should have a successful career outside politics before running for office. Unfortunately I can’t vote for Elizabeth as I’m not in her electorate.

I hope that Elizabeth gets up this time, we need more liberals with life experience other than being political staffers. I have seen Elizabeth more than any other Kurrajong candidate this election, she is always up for a chat at the shops. Good luck Elizabeth Lee

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