“Hardly a slick political answer”, Dr Kim Huynh muses towards the end of a response.
He’s right. Dr Huynh’s answer isn’t one that you would hear from Andrew Barr or Jeremy Hansen, but that doesn’t seem to bother the academic, who is clad in cycling gear emblazoned with his campaign slogan for the seat of Ginninderra.
“I’m a fast learner. I’ve got a good power-to-weight ratio, I like uphills, I like steep learning curves. I’ve written about every topic I can think of. I’m surprised about the sheer size and breadth of the crap that I’ve written,” he says. “I think that puts me in the good position to be on top of a lot of things, but, at the same time, hold to concrete principles and to act in the interest of Canberra.”
Dr Huynh sits across from me and answers my questions in a professorial, almost circuitous manner. Despite wanting to talk about campaign matters, Dr Huynh can’t help but give extensive responses. He frequently references philosophers, scientists, political theorists, and his campaign manager – the “most objective man in the world” – Tom Chen.
“It’s a massive leap for me as an international relations lecturer to go to into local politics,” he says, when I ask about his transition from political theory to practice. “It’s a huge leap in terms of going from the abstract to the concrete. But, that’s exactly the leap I’d like to make.”
It is a big leap. The odds of being elected are stacked against independents. ACT has no independent representatives currently, and hosts an electoral system that favours the major parties (something that he is no doubt aware of given that he wrote about it in the Canberra Times). Some of his campaign’s decisions – such as Dr Huynh’s refusal to use his face in his material, to the chagrin of his campaign team – are, at best, a thumbing of the nose at conventional wisdom, and, at worst, a serious impediment to electoral success.
You wouldn’t know this from the way Dr Huynh is campaigning. Early in the election period, Dr Huynh seems to be settling into the swing of things. He diligently mentions his policies, weighs in on the light rail debate, and weaves in his background story of how his family fled from Vietnam on a boat and then settled in Canberra decades ago. He even takes a jab at his political opponents’ opportunistic use of community involvement. Compared to some politicians who are only familiar with declarative statements, Dr Huynh revels in each topic’s shades of grey.
“I thought for ages for one word to describe me. It’s curious,” he says. “I like ambiguity, I like asking questions, I like talking to people, I like learning about other people’s curiosities. I’m that post-modern – I celebrate other people’s quirks and curiosities and differences and I get out of understanding them myself.”
Occasionally, I am shocked to hear him answer a question rather than deflecting. Dr Huynh is well known for relying on the Socratic style of teaching to challenge and inform his students. Some of his answers surprise me, from his declaration that he would “in some ways, be the worst Immigration Minister” because of his close emotional connection to the topic, or his admission that he is a regular attendee of Canberra’s premier car show (and bogan Mecca), Summernats.
Towards the end of the interview I asked Dr Huynh whether he considers himself as more of an outsider than an insider. This was the only moment where it felt like he didn’t have an answer already prepared.
There’s a pause. He starts slowly. “I’ve always felt that there’s a lone wolf part of me that is inescapable. It might be a refugee thing. It might be a non-white, fitting in as a young kid. I always fitted in really well, I’ve never had a shortage of friends. But I think my friends would all agree too, that I am a lonely character, that I’m a bit distant in some ways…”
Suddenly, he finds solace in an answer that satisfies him. “Let me say something and see if it rings true. I’m still ill disposed towards institutions, rules and regulations but …” There was a beat, and then he says, “I’ll go back to curious. Yeah, I’ll go back to curious.”
Despite his self-deprecating remarks about appearance or his professed admiration for his students who “are doing better than [him]”, Dr Huynh seems to have an anti-authoritarian streak.
When talking about why the campaign’s imagery focuses on fitness, Dr Huynh gives insight to his aversion to authority. “I’ve always felt like fitness for me is a political statement. It’s an “up yours” against the forces that drove me and my family out of Vietnam and nearly killed me. It’s an “up yours” to totalitarianism, prejudice and oppression.”
It strikes me as contradictory that a man with a disdain for authority would choose to run for political office. In many ways, Dr Huynh doesn’t fit neatly into categories. He’s a lecturer who listens more than he speaks. He’s a family man who is well connected to his community, but describes himself as a bit of a lone wolf. He says his parents often emulate him and his brother, rather than the other way around.
There is one part of the interview which I think offers the key to understanding how Dr Huynh navigates these contradictions. He shares that many well known refugees respond in one of two ways to having everything taken from them – he says the ‘seismics’, such as Albert Einstein and Primo Levi, become liberated by their experience, whereas the ‘phobics’, such as Roman Polanski and Leo Strauss, become sceptical, neurotic and fearful.
“These different types are two sides to the same coin. All my answers reflect this ambiguity. This flipping, tossing coin – you never know where it is going to land. All these refugees are both seismic and phobic at the same time. But my end point is this: either way, there’s still value in the coin’s metal.”