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You can’t be what you can’t see.

Elizabeth Lee. Credit Canberra Liberals

This article was originally delivered as a speech at the launch of Jasiri Australia. It has been edited for length.

I’m led into a classroom

Everyone is staring

No one looks like me

The teacher starts speaking

Her tone is friendly but I can’t understand what she’s saying

I know how to sing the alphabet song and say “good night mama” and “good night papa”

That is the extent of my English

I was seven and I had been in Australia less than a month


It’s the middle of the night

Mum and dad are at the hospital

My sister and I are at a family friend’s house

Waiting for news

And then it comes

We have a new baby sister

“You’re the needle, your sisters are the thread, wherever the needle goes, the thread will follow”

Dad’s words will stick with me

I was receiving my first lesson in leadership


Orientation week

I look around at the faces of my first year’s group at Fenner Hall

No one looks like me

“Where are you from?”


“No, where are you really from?”

“Well, I was born in Korea”

“Oh, your English is really good”

“Um…thanks? So is yours”

I was in my first year of a law degree at ANU and I am one of only a handful of Asian faces at the law school


London, September 2008

Networking event

European Young Bar Association conference

Light hearted chit chat over canapes and drinks

“Apparently a rep from the Australian Young Lawyers is here”

“Yep, that’s me”

A quick look up and down at my Asian face and my Asian stature

A pause. “Oh hi, lovely to meet you”

I was Chair of the Australian Young Lawyers Committee of the Law Council of Australia and was on the international stage to represent my country, Australia


15 October 2016

Election night

Results are being updated live

Antony Greene is calling it

It looks like I’ve been elected

Member for Kurrajong

A few days later, it’s confirmed

I was – and am – the first Korean-Australian elected member of an Australian Parliament


To be the “first” of anything – no matter what it is – is hard

It’s hard because it takes courage, resilience and certain level of blind belief to go where no one has gone before

They say that you can’t be what you can’t see

A beautiful story that I’ve now heard from many sources but I think it originated from Natasha Stott Despoja, former Democrats Senator, Ambassador for Women and Girls and, to this day, the youngest woman to sit in Australian Parliament. Immediately after our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was ousted from the top job Ms Despoja told her daughter – I think she was quite young – perhaps four – that Australia now had a new Prime Minister, and her daughter responded with, “oh, what’s her name?” Because in her short life, of course, the Prime Minister is a woman. Surely it couldn’t be a man because she’d never seen that before in her young life

For a country that was second in the world to grant women the right to vote, to take us over 100 years to have our first female Prime Minister, well, you can say that we’re moving but very slowly

In the ACT, we are slightly better – we can lay claim to having the first female head of a government in Australia when Rosemary Follett became our first Chief Minister in 1989; our first female leader of a conservative government in Kate Carnell in 1995 and of course, the first female majority parliament in 2016 and on a personal level, I can say proudly that I am a member of the first female majority Liberal party room.

On losing her Prime Ministership, Julia Gillard said that she was absolutely certain that it would be easier for the next woman and this is true

There is a reason why the world marks the first man on the moon, the first female Prime Minister and most recently, the first leader of a country to take maternity leave

And for the ‘firsts’ it means forging a own path – there’s no one who can show you the way

And for the ‘firsts’ it means there is a little more pressure, a little more expectation and a little more scrutiny

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean we strive to do it

That, that is worth doing is going to be hard

If it was easy, it would have been done already

We can all be our best selves when the going is good

And to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the ultimate measure of a leader is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.

And at the heart of any ‘first’ is courage and courage is what I value above all else in a true leader.


Elizabeth Lee is a Liberal member of the ACT Legislative Assembly, representing the electorate of Kurrajong. She migrated to Australia from South Korea in 1986 when she was 7 years old and grew up in Western Sydney. She moved to Canberra at 18 to study law at the ANU and has lived and worked in Kurrajong ever since. Lee is the first Korean-Australian elected member of an Australian parliament.