Hieu Van Le arrived on a wooden boat that chugged into Darwin Harbour on a misty dawn in 1977. Since then he has occasionally spoken publicly of how the “profound and moving generosity” that met his arrival 41 years ago became the grounding of a dream for a new life in Australia.
Hearing his remarkable story — in 2014 he became Governor of South Australia and the Queen’s first Asian representative in the country — is both moving and inspirational.
It involves a war-torn childhood in Vietnam and a “terrifying” journey by sea to Australia with his young wife, Lan, a trip plagued by hunger and thirst, and defying all reason to survive.
So when Mr Le, as an invited dignitary, was inadvertently included this week in the Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration by Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, he immediately became emotional.
The Cape York lawyer’s speech for the Don Dunstan Foundation in Adelaide included a proposal to resurrect Aboriginal hopes for constitutional recognition, using the agency of a joint parliamentary committee which is looking at new ideas. “At the end of Noel’s oration, he outlined his vision for a Declaration of Australia, which focused on the ‘three stories that make Australia’: our ancient indigenous heritage, British institutions, and an enduring gift of multiculturalism brought about by migration,” Mr Le said.
“At the same time, a montage of black and white photos was running across the screen. Much to my surprise, it included a photo of the boat that brought Lan and me to Darwin Harbour.”
As one of the 2059 Vietnamese refugees to come to Australia by boat between 1976 and 1981, Mr Le has previously said his elevation to Governor sent a powerful message about the country’s “inclusive and egalitarian society”.
A refugee child is carried off the boat on which Le arrived in 1977.
Yesterday, he said he became “emotional” as Mr Pearson completed his presentation.
“It made me emotional because it instantly took me back 41 years, to the challenges of our journey to Australia and those early times in our new country,” Mr Le said.
“As refugees, all we could hope for was to survive the dangerous sea journey and have the opportunity to live and rebuild our life in this country.
“What Australia came to offer us, and what we have been able to achieve here, has been beyond our wildest dreams.
“Our actions in coming to Australia, when and how we did, were simply where our lives led us. Seeing this photo again while hearing Noel’s words made me see our story as part of a bigger picture.
“It made me reflect on how our personal story — and those of thousands of refugees and migrants like us — had indeed become part of Australia’s history and Australia’s story, and I was struck and heartened by the inclusivity of Noel’s vision.”
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall, who has taken on the Aboriginal affairs portfolio, was sitting next to Mr Le during the speech.
“It was a very powerful, very moving speech … I was sitting next to him and he grabbed me and said, ‘That’s my boat’,” the Premier told The Weekend Australian. “Then it dawned on me it was the boat in which he came to Australia.”
Mr Le assumed the role of Governor after working for the Australian Securities & Investments Commission as a senior manager of financial services until his retirement in 2009, after which he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2010.
His five-year term expires next year.