Indian Australian community in western Sydney and its importance in electoral politics

Sydney/18th March, 2016

Next federal election for Australian Commonwealth Parliament will be held later this year. If the Turnbull Government goes for the double dissolution of the Parliament, then this election may happen as early as July. If not, then they will happen in September-October. Opinion polls are indicating a tough contest between Bill Shorten-led Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition of Liberal Party & National Party. Significant lift in the numbers for the Coalition in the opinion polls after Malcolm Turnbull became the Prime Minister has largely drifted away from the Coalition. There are multiple reasons for it and these reasons are well known. Honeymoon period for the new Prime Minister is well and truly over. Lack of policy clarifications and policy direction are also relevant. Western suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney have many seats which are classed as marginal, where a small change of voting can deliver these seats to either party. If ALP wins many of these seats, Bill Shorten will become the Prime Minister. The Coalition will need to hold on to many of these seats if they want to form the next Government. They definitely have a tight contest.

People in the Western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, like similar areas in other cities, are doing tough, with higher unemployment, cost of living pressure and poverty. These factors often lead to higher level of dissatisfaction and willingness to change the voting pattern. Their votes are up for the grab.

Newer migrants and people who can’t afford to buy expensive houses in Northern and Eastern Sydney, find Western Sydney as a place where they can find houses within their reach. In regards to Indian Australians in NSW, it is well known that this community has a significant presence in Western Sydney. Suburbs like Parramatta and Blacktown have a large number of Indian Australian families. “Singh” was the most common surname in Blacktown a few years ago. Strathfield and some area in South West Sydney in/around Liverpool also have a significant Indian Australian presence.

No party can ignore this community anymore. This fact is now well known and is evident from the efforts by both major parties to work with our community over the last 5 years. ALP had formed a group from our community in 2010, calling it Subcontinent Friends of Labor (SCFOL) and Liberals networked with this community, forming Liberal friends of India (LFI) around 2011-12. Both parties, when in government, have worked to develop better relations with India. While Prime Minister, John Howard (the Coalition) was the one who decided to sell Uranium to India in 2007, it was Prime Minister Julia Gillard (ALP) who managed to reverse ALP’s opposition to Uranium sale to India in 2012, despite India’s refusal to sign Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Both parties have made active efforts to network with Indian Australians too. It is an undeniable fact that none of the major parties can ignore Indian Australians in Western Sydney  if they want to win these seats.

With my interactions with Indian Australians, it is clear to me that reaching out by political parties plays a significant role during elections, even though the issues in NSW are not different for us when compared with those for the general community. Our voting behaviour should generally be similar to the general community, but networking by political parties and outreach by their apparatus and operatives can play an important role.  Having said that, I think it would be prudent to make a comment or two here about the efforts by political parties to develop better relations with our community.

ALP started the process of active networking with our community by forming SCFOL Unfortunately, the group was led, and continues to be led, poorly. They controlled and continue to control, some of the community associations, which, unsurprisingly, damaged these associations. Nobody listens to these community associations today and these associations are irrelevant for our community. SCFOL was not inclusive and left out many prominent ALP members from our community, as a manifestation of Right Vs Left factional politics. Its first president did not appear to have a good understanding of Indian community. He came from a Union background and ran a smear campaign against many people just because he did not like them, had disagreement with them or those people did not agree with his style and brand of politics. Division, not inclusion, was his “Mantra” to serve his factional interests. It is beyond me why a group of Indian ALP members will run a vicious campaign against one of the Indian sub-continental persons (Susai Benjamin) from the same party. Obviously, it was an outcome of Right Vs Left ALP factional politics. Treachery and disloyalty are generally a part and parcel of political parties. I was not surprised therefore to know that the founder president was removed recently, and quite acrimoniously, leading to hostility and animosity between key members of the group. The new president of SCFOL, in my view, does not have the necessary ability or capacity to lead effectively. He is a light weight figure, when compared to former SCFOL president, as far as ALP connections are concerned. No surprise to see that the new president and few other equally ineffective leaders of SCFOL did not get any importance during Bill Shorten’s recent visit to Revesby Gurdwara, while the ex-president had the ears and eyes of the federal leader. Whether you like him or not, he (ex-president) was, in my view, more networked and effective as the SCFOL leader. SCFOL needs to be reviewed and revamped.

Liberals had shown their interests in developing good networking with Indian Australians a few years ago, but, later, appeared to have lost interest in such networking. During the O’Farrell Government time, only one person was taken as the Indian community, solely because he was a personal friend of the Premier. Everybody else was ignored. Sadly, this particular person never had any networking with Indian community. Currently, Liberal ministers seems to think that a marketing woman from Indian community, who has charmed her way into the Liberal network, is the key person for the networking with Indian community.  Liberals are either naïve or they don’t care, if they believe this to be the case. Little do they understand that her key focus is her business interests, just like she did with ALP ministers. Federal and state Liberal leaders used to be seen in Indian community events, but this seems to have become less frequent. One pleasant thing however is that some from amongst our community with high-sounding but false positions after their names, and without matching credentials, are not in the inner network of Liberals anymore. It’s a big relief. These people are only for themselves and with their ugly antics, causing shame to themselves and our community. They were using photographs with high profile Liberal politicians to promote their business interests in fleecing money from gullible people. What is needed is the revamping and strengthening of LFI. Like SCFOL, it must be supported by key government ministers and Party officials, if it were ever to get traction in the community. Its key members from our community should be those who have good networking and are decent people, not those who are into exploitation and fleecing of the vulnerable people of our community. Those who sold work experience certificates, arranged fake marriages or arrange or sell 457 visa in return for cash should be kept away from LFI. In contrast to SCFOL, I haven’t heard much about LFI for some considerable time. I am not sure if it is still active. Obviously, LFI should become more active, and visible, if Liberals are keen for the votes and support from our community. It is in their interest to do so if they want to change the current 60:40 voting pattern against Liberal party, and in favour of ALP, as far as our votes are concerned. Improving the networking with our community is a no-brainer.

If I have an advice for ALP and the Coalition, and they listen to it, I will advise them to revamp these groups and go beyond SCFOL and LFI to network with our community. SCFOL and LFI represent a minuscule part of the community. After all, both of them need to have a large and productive network in the community to influence voting behaviour in their favour.

We, as a community, need to do a lot more to be a significant player in politics and political processes of Australia. We must work together in getting some, albeit only good ones, from our community in the local Councils and Parliaments. They must not be those who are into unethical, and illegal, activities like underpaying employees, taking or arranging 457 visa in return for cash or selling work experience for visa purposes. Such people are obviously so keen to be photographed with politicians, simply because it helps their business models and scares the victims from putting complaints. Political leaders must stay away from them and push them away into garbage bins, where they justifiably belong. It’s undeniable that we need to join political parties. Our numbers in Western Sydney are our strength and similarly our numbers in political parties will be our strength as well. One thing more. We must ensure that only good people from amongst us are supported for these roles in politics. Nobody with sub-standard qualities and ethics is encouraged. We don’t need Indian style politics in Australia. We will need to be careful, proactive and determined to not allow undesirable people with poor value system to succeed in their pursuit of selfish interests.

Finally, our support and votes for any party or candidate must be based on policies, principles and quality of the leadership. We must not allow anyone to fool us. Our votes should never be for someone who is not deserving of our votes.

Yadu Singh/Sydney/18 March, 2016
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Politics, political parties and Indian Australian community!

 

Sydney, 1st Sept, 2014Australian Flag

There are over 150,000 people of Indian heritage in NSW and 500,000 people Australia wide. Ours is an increasingly important community politically. In Western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, there are constituencies, where Indian Australians constitute more than 10% of total votes. Our votes can decide the outcome in many marginal seats.

It is no wonder that political parties are reaching out to Indian Australian community actively. It started with Parliamentary friends of India during previous NSW Govts led by Nathan Rees/Kristina Keneally, followed by Liberal Friends of India formed about one year ago. Similar groupings are in existence federally and Victoria in one or the other form.

While there is no doubt that we are important electorally, the thrust from political parties has been to deal with us only symbolically, not substantially. Except for the recent pre-selection of an Indian Australian in Seven Hills seat, there is no sign of any efforts from any political party to preselect anyone from our community for any of safe seats. If any of us is ever preselected, it is generally for those seats where there is no chance of us winning. ALP’s Harmohan Walia contesting a safe Liberal seat of Mitchell some years ago and inclusion of Bhupinder Chhibber in the Senate list from ALP last year, albeit at a lower and unwinnable spot, are two classical examples. There was no chance of them winning. Similar examples are there from Liberal side too. These are examples of tokenism.

Over the years, our community dynamics have been changing. Indians have been migrating to Australia in big numbers. India has been the top source of migrants over the last few years. Many of us have been joining political parties too, but still not in sufficient numbers.

Prior to 1990s, Indians were big on supporting ALP. Smart marketing and outreach by ALP created an impression that ALP was more favourable and friendly to ethnic migrants. Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, were liked by Indians and other ethnic communities. Liberal Party leader, John Howard, before he became the Prime Minister, had the baggage of his comment against Asian migration in 1980s, which created some significant concerns regarding his stand towards ethnic migrants. It lingered on even after he admitted that his statement was a mistake. Unfortunately, this impression became further re-enforced in our minds when we saw the excessively harsh commentary, actions and sanctions by Australia against India after 1998 nuclear tests. Indian army officers were expelled from Australia overnight. The tone and the contents of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s statements were particularly terse. It created a serious damage to India-Australia relations. Things changed quite favourably for Liberal party though when PM John Howard declared that Australia would sell Uranium to India in 2007, while ALP persisted with its policy of ban to sell Uranium to India, until Martin Ferguson and PM Gillard led campaign to reverse the ban succeeded at the end of 2012.

Today, there are almost equal supporters in our community for ALP and Liberal Party, although ALP supporters may have an edge. This support has been determined by variety of factors, which did include Uranium issue in the past. With changed dynamics of our community now however, economic management, policy on asylum seekers and business-friendly policies are playing a big role in our attitudes towards political parties. Quite a good number of our people are in small businesses. Younger members of our community are driven more by market economy than socialist ideas. After all, India has been an open and market-based economy since 1991, which has exposed our younger people, before they migrated, to market and open economy.

ALP and our community: There is a significant contingent of ALP supporters in our community, based largely in Western suburbs. They take part in ALP-supporting events through the year and during elections. ALP Premiers used to take some community members with them while taking trade delegations to India, thus giving an impression of inclusion. Subcontinent Friends of Labor was an initiative from NSW ALP HQ, which was provided full support by ALP top leaders to make it known and popular in the community. Grants to various temples and community groups was one of the strategy to win support. This has its advantages and disadvantages. This group is not as strong now as it was during ALP Govts in NSW and Canberra for obvious reasons. Its biggest drawback was its attempts to go against some sub-continental candidates like Susai Benjamin, as part of Right faction Vs Left faction battle. This was seen too during Bill Shorten Vs Anthony Albanese ALP leadership contest last year. This was not smart by any means, because it weakened and divided ALP members from Indian sub-continent significantly. On the positive side, ALP at least in NSW has a better strategy to communicate its stands and policies by emails to not only ALP members, but also other community members who are not ALP members. As Indians constitute a very big proportion of Indian sub-continental people in NSW and since interests of India are quite different from interests of other countries in the Indian sub-continent, it is preferable, in my view, to go for Labor Friend of India. Utopian socialist idea of Indian sub-continental unity or brotherhood is a myth, impractical and is never going to work.

Liberal Party and our Community: Prior to 2011 NSW State elections, then Leader of Opposition, Barry O’Farrell, was seen literally in every community event, but it changed dramatically once Liberal Party formed the Govt. Premier, Barry O’Farrell chose to rely only on one Indian who, in effect, had hardly any networking within the community, and did not help Liberals get many votes. Until election, he was virtually unknown. Indians were perplexed why he was being promoted on behalf of Liberal Govt in NSW. Premier O’Farrell ignored even Australia India Business Council (AIBC) when visiting India with trade delegations. Our community formed a clear and wide-spread perception that Indian community was actively distanced from NSW Govt either as a default or design. It indeed caused a substantial ill-feeling towards Liberal Party and NSW Govt. This was conveyed to local MPs, but they were either unwilling or, more likely, unable to do anything about it due to the fact that everything was driven from the former Premier’s office. Current Premier, Mike Baird, is much more inclusive, which is a welcome change and is already generating some goodwill. A lot more however needs to be done to overcome the damage. Time only will tell whether there is a real directional change under current Premier. Liberal Friends of India (LFI) is a good initiative but it has lost its charm or the enthusiasm lately. It needs to be reinvigorated. There was a time when  we saw one more body of the similar type with the name of  “Liberal friends of the subcontinent”  doing some events in Western Sydney. This created some considerable confusion. I am not sure what is IRS status now. LFI also needs participation from top ministers and must allow membership of even those community members who are Liberal-minded but are not members of Liberal party. It should not just be a mechanism to raise funds for the party. Its Chairman should be a key Minister with Executive Committee comprising of key Liberal-inclined community members, irrespective of their Liberal Party membership status. LFI needs to be reformed and relaunched.

Parramasala, an initiative of Keneally NSW Labor Govt, is indeed a good idea, and I am happy to see that current Liberal NSW Govt has decided to continue funding it. I went to its launch only a few days ago, and noticed things which could have been done better. Ministerial Consultative Committee (MCC) for Indian community has been dissolved, like other MCCs, but there is a need to have some form of Advisory Body from our community for regular consultations, discussions and interactions between our community and the Govt.

NSW Friends of India: Like USA and some European countries, there is a need for such groups in Australia. It should be a bipartisan phenomenon, with key ministers, MPs, journalists, businesses and community members, with year-round activities involving lectures, debates and discussions. A group like this may not get enthusiastic support from the Govt, but we, as the community, should push for it. After all, there are bonafide pro-India people in all political parties, businesses and media.

Our community’s participation: It is also true that many of us do not join political parties in sufficient numbers. This should change. Australia is our country too, and we ought to take part in its processes in all shapes and forms. We get a chance to do so pretty actively if we are part of political parties. Only then, we will be able to go for pre-selections and elections to reach Parliaments. After all, quota system is not a good idea generally, and it is better to compete fairly and frankly. If we are not inclined to join main political parties, we can consider forming or being a part of issues-based groups like “Voice of the West” focusing on Western suburbs to advance our political interests and ideas.

While at it, it will not be out of place to point out that we need to interact, collaborate and network with  members irrespective of their party or political affiliations and inclinations, when it comes to our common interests for the community. Just because someone is a member of ALP or Liberal party does not mean he or she is an enemy for those who are in opposing camps. There is no need or justification to badmouth or run an undermining campaign only because of someone’s political affiliation or inclination.

An edited version of my write-up was published by The Indian Sun newspaper recently. (http://www.theindiansun.com.au/top-story/australian-political-parties-indian-community/)

 

Dr Yadu Singh

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