|Senator for Victoria|
1 July 1999 – 30 June 2005
10 March 1940 |
|Political party||Liberal Party of Australia|
|Alma mater||University of Sydney|
Tchen was born in Chungking, wartime capital of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (more commonly known amongst Chinese as the War of Resistance). His father was then a junior diplomat with the Chinese Government and was posted overseas when Tchen was two years old. Tchen followed his father to various postings and never returned to China to live, except for two years (1954–56) in Taiwan, where the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek had fled after losing the mainland in the Chinese Civil War. His father continued to represent the Republic of China government until 1975 when he retired to live with Tchen in Australia. In 1958, Tchen gained a student visa to Australia to study—at that time, the only way for Asians to enter Australia due to the White Australia Policy. Eventually, he obtained a master's degree in town planning at Sydney University.
From 1966, Tchen worked as a New South Wales government town planner in Sydney. Harold Holt succeeded Robert Menzies as Prime Minister in 1965 and effectively ended the White Australia Policy by altering the immigration law to allow Asian migration. After weighing up his choices, Tchen decided to remain in Australia, and gained citizenship in 1971.
Tchen was interested in Australia history and had come to the view that one of the factors that brought about the anti-Chinese attitude in Australia that culminated in the White Australia Policy, was the often self-imposed isolation of the earlier Chinese community.
In 1972, he joined the Liberal Party of Australia, and became active in Melbourne's Chinese community after moving there to work in 1973. At the 1993 election, Tchen was preselected on the Liberal Senate ticket for Victoria, in the unwinnable fourth position. Despite that, Tchen had made history by being the first Asian migrant to be endorsed by either major party in Australian politics at a national election.
Tchen made another run for pre-selection in 1998, at the height of the Pauline Hanson controversy, and was successful. In order to gain preselection, he had to replace a sitting Senator, Karen Synon. Despite being already in the Senate, she was demoted to the fourth position Tchen had in 1993 — a rare event in Australian politics. Although a political myth has grown up around this episode — that Tchen had succeeded by gaining the support of the then-Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett — in fact, Kennett's public support only came after Tchen had won preselection. This was probably just as well because Kennett had a dismal record of supporting successful candidates for preselection at a federal level. Nevertheless, there was little doubt that Kennett had preferred Tchen over Synon, and this sparked a major factional dispute within the party, with the Federal Treasurer Peter Costello and Michael Kroger, a Liberal powerbroker — both sworn Synon supporters — attempting to fend off Tchen's challenge. When the preselection was held, Tchen won endorsement by a comfortable margin and in due course, after a rather more strenuous effort in the election itself, became the first Asian migrant to win a seat in either house of the federal parliament.
In spite of his rather turbulent introduction, Tchen performed unobtrusively in parliament. He served on a large number of committees, performed electoral duties energetically, and on the floor of the senate was often seen but more rarely heard. He was a strong advocate of multiculturalism but with a forcefully positive approach, emphasising the need to seek common purposes rather than identifying differences, and of demanding acceptance rather than just tolerance. As chair of the government members' policy committee on immigration and multicultural affairs between 2000 and 2004, an elected rather than a nominated position, Tchen had an unpublicised, but influential, role to play, as Australia grappled with the vexing issue of how to deal with asylum seekers and boat people.
In December 2003, Tchen stood for preselection for a second term in the Senate. However, despite the support of Prime Minister John Howard, Tchen suffered the same fate as his predecessor and lost a closely fought battle, being dumped in favor of former lower house MP Michael Ronaldson. Tchen declined the offer of the fourth spot and did not stand at the 2004 election. He retired from the Senate when his term expired on 30 June 2005.
In his retirement, Tchen again took up his interest in Australian history, especially Chinese Australian History which he believes should be treated as an integral part of Australian History, rather than as a matter of niche interest. He has worked with several notable Australian historians including Judith Brett and John Fitzgerald. He is an Adjunct Professor with the Swinburne University of Technology.
In 2015, Tchen was appointed a Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission by the Labor State Government.
Tchen is married to Pauline, a librarian. They have two adult children: Jacinta who is a marketing and cultural strategist and Adrian, a surgeon.
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