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