Greens candidate Alex Bhathal discusses issues facing constituents and her policy priorities
What convinced you to join your party?
Alex Bhathal: In August 2001, I saw television footage of 433 asylum seeker men lying on the open deck of the Tampa container ship. They were starving and dehydrated, some of them were unconscious and nearly close to death. I was in disbelief; I couldn’t believe that this was happening because of my own country’s policies and that the Government wasn’t doing anything to help these people.
The next interview was with Dr Bob Brown, the then leader of the Australian Greens, and he made the point, ‘What are we doing about the 60,000 British backpackers who overstayed in Australia last year and why isn’t everyone jumping up and down about them?’
At that point I made a decision to re-engage with electoral politics after 15 years of being quite cynical about both Labor and Liberal policies. This led to my decision to join the Australian Greens.
What has the campaign trail been like so far?
Alex Bhathal: This year, I have more people on board my team than ever before, and the vast majority of them are volunteers including myself. The Greens do not take large donations from multinationals and corporates as the other parties do. We take donations from individuals and all the donations need to go through an ethical approval process which can limit us in getting millions of dollars for our campaigns.
My team, however, is fantastic and I have a lot of human capital. What I lack in the monetary sense is made up for by the efforts of a brilliant team. We try to reach out to people who may share our values but may not be aware of how much the Greens are aligned with their own beliefs.
What are the three key issues facing the people of Batman?
Alex Bhathal: Refugees, and immigration more generally, is a huge concern for people, especially the newly arrived migrants in this seat. We have a very ethnically diverse seat with more than 60 per cent of us from migrant backgrounds and we all have family overseas. It is imperative to restore a proper family reunion program so we can function properly instead of having a 20-30 year waiting list.
People are also terribly concerned about how the Government is targeting the vulnerable people here including the disabled, unemployed and asylum seekers.
Another big one for people in this electorate is global warming. I speak every day to people and I find that from children as young as five, right through to their grandparents, people are concerned.
Housing affordability is another issue and the need for a comprehensive reform of our tax system so it supports people instead of making it impossible for people to settle down in their own homes. Parents of 20-30 year olds are concerned that their children will not be able to afford their own homes without significant assistance from their parents, whereas in previous generations people found it easier to afford the security of owning their own homes.
How do you plan to improve employment opportunities for people in Batman, particularly the youth?
Alex Bhathal: Greens are very focused on the need to move Australia away from a mining and extraction-based economy to a high tech, jobs-rich new economy where energy will be produced through renewable sources. That kind of energy production will create jobs for a lot more people, for example, installers of solar panels, sales people, retailers. That’s one way we can boost our economy.
Greens also want to support small business operators, including giving more power to Small Business Commissioners to investigate and prosecute cases where multinationals are creating monopolies or duopolies, as in the case of supermarket chains, and shutting out small business operations.
We led the way with the proposal to drop tax rates for small companies, and it’s good to see that’s been picked up by the Turnbull government, although, they have applied it to companies that have a turnover of more than $10 million. That is much larger than what we define as a small business and this has unfortunately watered down the impact of that tax cut.
Greens realise that small business is a significant way forward to create jobs for young people and we want to support them with a range of suitable policies.
With the Coalition’s proposed budget, over 75% of people within the Batman community will not receive tax cuts. What is your view on that?
Alex Bhathal: Ours is not a wealthy electorate and a drop in income by over a $1000 a year will affect those who can least afford it.
The poorest people in our electorate, those on very low income, often on Centrelink payments, are being slogged and that is really shocking.
From my perspective, as a social worker, and knowing what things are like on the ground of this electorate that is the opposite of how it should be. We should be giving people in need more money so they can live a dignified life and not give tax cuts to people who really don’t need them.
What is your opinion regarding preference deals in the election?
Alex Bhathal: The Greens believe that the preferential majority voting system is really crucial as it leaves the choice to voters. With the senate reforms that we have been able to achieve, people have full control by opting for their preferences in the order they wish both for the lower and upper house.
The ALP is busy telling everyone that there is a deal between the Liberals and the Greens and that is not the case.
We have to wait for the nominations to close to see who is running and then we will work out how our preferences will go on the voting cards that we will be handing out during the voting period. There is no deal between the Liberal party and the Greens on preferences.
What is your understanding of issues concerned with the multicultural community in Batman and how are you best placed to address them?
Alex Bhathal: I am from a migrant background and am personally affected by things like not having a functioning family reunion program anymore. I have elderly relatives who live outside Australia and I would like to bring them here and care for them in my own home, but I am unable to do that because the family reunion program is no longer functioning.
There is also the fact that new migrants have to wait two years to receive any kind of benefits. The Greens have always believed that this puts an unnecessary burden on people who have come to make a valuable contribution to Australia and I would like to see significant reforms in that area.
Migrant communities have the same concerns as mainstream communities, we would like well-funded services and freedom of rights and no discrimination. Recent comments made by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton were disgraceful and had no basis in reality.
I see a lot of migrants feeling that there is a time for a change and to see a Government that is more supportive of Australia’s multicultural traditions and which is prepared to celebrate and recognise the great contributions migrants make to Australia instead of trying to denigrate different groups.
How can we better encourage new Australians to become involved in politics?
Alex Bhathal: The Greens have seen more people from newly arrived migrant communities getting involved in our party recently and that is wonderful. I think it is the obligation of all the parties to welcome people and to make it easier for them to contribute.
Running welcome forums in different CALD languages could do this. We are establishing a multicultural support group that is a new initiative the Greens are hoping to achieve in the next year. All of these are important so people feel that they are in a welcoming space with people who accept and support them.
The Liberal and Labor parties have a good tradition of welcoming people from diverse backgrounds but we do not see that diversity reflected in Parliament.
We see a lot of Indians Australians run for seats that are unwinnable whereas the Greens have a person of Indian background, like me, running in the second most winnable seat in terms of primary votes this year. In future I would like to see more Indians running in seats that are winnable.
Have you had any dealings with the Indian community? Have you travelled to India?
Alex Bhathal: I have had overwhelming support from the Indian community. I have people rushing up to me wanting to shake hands and wishing me the best wherever I go. Indians are making many donations from around Australia and each one of them, no matter how big or small, are deeply appreciated. The Indian Community understands that we lack representation at the Federal Parliament and they can see that this is about to change and are feeling excited.
Recently I attended and spoke at a public meeting of students out of which many were Indian who were being exploited by the 7 Eleven corporation. They had lost over half of their income over a decade and the Greens have been strongly lobbying for a legislative package that will require these corporations to compensate employees where they have been exploited.
This is one of the things I am proudly standing up for my community. If I am elected I will regard myself as a parliamentary representative for the Indian community across Australia.
What do you enjoy most about politics?
Alex Bhathal: I love meeting people. I am a social worker by occupation so politics is a way for me to deal with the structural problems that prevent people from making their full contribution to society.
What might people not know about you?
Alex Bhathal: I am a vegan and that is something that not many people may know about me. It’s something I have done more recently and I feel really good about myself as I felt guilty about contributing to an agricultural system that relied on the suffering of animals.
Read Labor candidate David Feeney’s responses HERE
Read Liberal candidate George Souris’ responses HERE