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Having owned a number of pubs in his career, Sydney City Councillor Craig Chung knows a thing or two about how people in a community come together. And while many may perceive politics as a difficult subject to brooch in polite company, he believes that many of the topics people label ‘politics’ are actually more about ‘community’.
Chung is a fourth generation Chinese Australian, with strong family connections to Sydney dating back to 1882 on his mother’s side. His dad immigrated to Australia at seven, not speaking any English, though his commitment to study saw him win a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University.
At 82 years old, his dad still practices as a GP, and his mum works alongside him in the practice. Both parents taught him hard work is something to be proud of.
“Some of the values I have today about hard work and education come from my parents. And I’ve always been interested in the public service and advocacy side of the community,” explains Chung, who enthusiastically got involved in politics in 1988 while studying for a Bachelor of Arts from the Macarthur Institute of Higher Education (now part of Western Sydney University).
He was elected a member of the Student Representative Council and then the National Union of Students, working alongside other political hopefuls such as Penny Wong, Natasha Stott Despoja, and Luke Foley. When the Institute amalgamated to become the University in late1989, Professor David Barr (CEO of Macarthur), encouraged Chung to take a position on the Academic Board and mentored him in the fine art of working with committees.
“I really threw myself into campus life and made a lot of great friends, including Shane Alvisio who was a great advocate for sporting activities (later a member of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games organising team and Chung’s groomsman),” he remembers. “I was with him trying to get some inter-campus rivalry going in sport, even though sport was not my regular thing. I just really enjoyed organising the budgets and events side: we even managed to get a few rounds of the Student World Cup rugby at the Bankstown (Milperra) campus.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games being a student organiser: in 1991, Chung invited Federal Minister for Education Peter Baldwin to explain the introduction of HECS to a group of angry students. Then in August that year, he was one of around 500 students who made their views loudly known outside a nearly $1000-a-head “Higher Education Summit” at the Hotel Nikko in Kings Cross attended by leaders from theeducation, government and business sectors.
“My university years were formative years of becoming really interested in public policy and advocacy,” he says. “We mounted a protest with a whole lot of other campuses down at the Hotel Nikko, where we knew all the vice chancellors were meeting. And afterwards, Brian Smith, the Vice Chancellor at the time, called me because he was quite upset with a news article that appeared that I suggested he gives back half of his salary. But you know, we’ve moved on, I’m over 50 now and we moderate our views.”
Chung admits while he has always been passionate about getting involved in the communities he’s part of, he didn’t start out as a great scholar. Like some teenage boys, he felt he just didn’t fit in at the selective high school he attended, and he didn’t achieve a great HSC result. So, he travelled for a few years before he applied for a place at what is now Western Sydney University.
“My advice for young people is the HSC is important but it’s not the end of the world. There are options,” he says. “One of the things I love about Western Sydney University is it offered a generation of students in Western Sydney the opportunity for education, which otherwise may never have been there for anybody in their family. The University was so supportive, we had a lot of people there ready to help us succeed.”
He remembers some group assignments being tough – “That hasn’t changed for students, whether you’re there in 1988 or 2021, but I thinkthey’re good because they make you work with people you’ve never worked with before” – and his first big exposure to partisan dynamics in a big group was a video assignment he remembers fondly as part of the Communications course. Chung’s group was given the task to market a red liquid, which they called ‘Jesus’s Strawberry Sauce at the Last Supper’.
“You can imagine for some people that didn’t go down so well, but for others it did,” he says. “It was a great experience, and it was my firstbig challenge where some people didn’t like the work we did, even if the quality was good – but you know, as a politician you’ve got to get used to the idea that not everybody’s going to like the work you do, even if it’s good.”
During an early foray into party politics Chung joined the Democrats because some the party’s values and ideas resonated with him. But during an overseas trip with his friend John Brogden (who would become leader of the opposition in NSW in 2002) he was persuaded to change allegiance and joined the Liberal party. He was elected to Ryde City Council in 2012-2016, then City of Sydney Council in 2016.
Like Brogden, Chung knows it can be very challenging trying to put forward change-making ideas when you’re not in the majority group, but it can be done: “If you want to achieve in politics you have to draw on all your capacity to build relationships, to work with people and try and find ways in which you can get positive outcomes,” he says. “I’m especially really proud of the work I’ve been able to addresshomelessness here in Sydney. Homelessness is high on the agenda for a lot of community members and it’s not just about a roof over people’s heads.”
Chung is also proud of the work he’s doing on Sydney’s plan for 2030, strongly promoting ideas that can help make Sydney a ‘Global, Digital and Smart City’. He believes the key to its success will be leveraging data and technology to plan and deliver social, economic, environmental and liveability outcomes to the community.
“The community aspect is so important because although we come from all different walks of life, we share a lot of the same interests,” he says. “Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and try to understand their motivation. I think we need to remain grounded, look for things we have in common and find ways to collaborate.”
“You’d be surprised that people who sit at polar ends of a political spectrum can be the greatest of friends outside politics. So you might not agree on everything but try to find the things you can agree on because that will make life easier – and a lot more fun.”
WORDS BY STUART RIDLEY