In conversation with Jodi McKay, the new NSW Leader of Opposition

On the issues that matter and the need to bring compassion back into politics.

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Jodi McKay is a familiar figure within the Indian Australian community. It’s hard not to notice at a community event that the warmest applause amongst all the invited guests is usually reserved for her. Dressed immaculately in a statement sari, it typically takes her time to reach her allocated seat, as many surge forward to share a special moment with her.

Jodi McKay1.Indian Link

The Member for Strathfield and recently elected Leader of the Opposition in NSW Jodi McKay is known for her warm interactions with the multicultural community.

Yet at Indian Link, we thought it was time to learn more about the person behind the saris. As she breezed in to our office in her power colours, she was bright and chirpy, quick with her observations (“You’re the only male in this office, Pawan”), and eager to talk.

Congratulations Jodi, on your new role. What have the last four weeks been like as the Leader of the Opposition?

It’s been incredibly exciting. I’ve spent most of the last four weeks travelling around the state, making sure that everyone knows who I am, what I’m about, and what the Labor Party can do for them. And the reception has been fantastic: yesterday we were in Lismore, tomorrow I’m on the central coast, and then we’re on the south coast, I’ve been in the Hunter, spent a lot of time in Western Sydney, and then of course Parliament resumes next week. For me it’s about making sure that I’m talking to people and they understand who I am and why I put my hand up to be leader and how Labor is going to win the next election.

What went wrong for Labor in both the NSW and the Federal elections this year?

There’s been a lot of reflection in regard to that; I think they were two separate issues. The Federal Election I won’t comment too much on, but at the State election I think that people just didn’t feel that they could vote for us, that they trusted us enough. I think the anger was there towards Gladys Berejiklian’s government but I’m not sure that we put the case forward well enough for people to actually vote for us, and what I’m hoping to do is to rebuild that trust in Labor so people know who we are and what we will do in the lead up to that 2023 election. But it was a disappointing result, we won only two seats, and I think it’s important to know that we’re only two seats from minority government as well though. So Parliament is an interesting place right now.

I think the anger was there towards Gladys Berejiklian’s government but I’m not sure that we put the case forward well enough for people to actually vote for us, and what I’m hoping to do is to rebuild that trust in Labor so people know who we are and what we will do in the lead up to that 2023 election.

You’ve said, “I’m not going to pretend I’m Gladys – I am not. We’re very different”. Yet the general perception is that that the Coalition government has delivered on jobs, growth and infrastructure.

Let me say upfront that I see Gladys as very capable; I look forward to taking her on. It’s going to be very interesting having two women as leaders of the parties here in NSW. I see her government, however, and her leadership as largely hollow. I see it as transactional.

With respect to other issues, I’ll say two things in regard to that: those projects are $14 billion over budget, they’ve wasted that money, there’s been $70 billion in public assets that have been privatised, and being in government is about more than that. We have 37,000 more people who are homeless since they came to government, we’ve got issues within our mental health system that we’ve seen played out in the last week, we’ve got rural communities that are losing jobs, we’ve got people in Western Sydney who are paying 60% more for their electricity, we’ve got 2,500 public servants about to lose their jobs. You can’t be a government just bent on infrastructure. You have to be a government that is about supporting the community.

I see Gladys as very capable; I look forward to taking her on. It’s going to be very interesting having two women as leaders of the parties here in NSW. I see her government, however, and her leadership as largely hollow. I see it as transactional.

For me it’s about being true to the values of our party; I think anyone who knows me will know that I’m very much about heart – I want us to be a party with a big heart, a party of compassion, about recognising the struggles people have on a daily basis, the fact that people want to get their child in to a good school with quality education, that they don’t want to have to be struggling with a waiting list getting in to hospital. There are a whole range of issues that this government is not focusing on.

(The NSW Coalition’s) projects are $14 billion over budget… there’s been $70 billion in public assets that have been privatised… We have 37,000 more people who are homeless since they came to government, we’ve got issues within our mental health system, we’ve got rural communities that are losing jobs, we’ve got people in Western Sydney who are paying 60% more for their electricity, we’ve got 2,500 public servants about to lose their jobs. You can’t be a government just bent on infrastructure. You have to be a government that is about supporting the community.

Labor has been diverse in its pick of candidates – in terms of gender as well as ethnicity. But this has not worked for you in the last election, state and federal

Well, I think we need to have candidates who are representative of the community and I have pushed that. We’ve been able to achieve gender diversity in our cabinet – 50% of which are women – and those women are there on merit. But we need to do much better around our multicultural representation. We need to make sure in particular that in our upper house it is truly reflecting of the community which we serve and that means it’s not just about our multicultural community – it’s also about people in rural and regional areas that are represented there. We have to do much better. We are the party of multiculturalism, but I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball and my focus is on making sure that every single one of our MPs, no matter their cultural background, understands the importance of a diverse and vibrant multicultural community. I do and no one would doubt that, that I am so committed to our multicultural community, and I want everyone to know that under my leadership that is what the Labor Party is.

We need to make sure in particular that in our upper house it is truly reflecting of the community which we serve and that means it’s not just about our multicultural community – it’s also about people in rural and regional areas that are represented there. We have to do much better.

Are there sections of the media that are playing up the nationalistic angle?

We have to call that out when it happens. I’m not going to mention the media you’re speaking about – I think most people would know who that is – but they’re also the media that wants to attack the Labor Party all the time as well because of what we stand for.

How will you get your message out, past the biased media?

I’m going to do it conversation by conversation, which is what I’ve always done, because I love people, I love connecting with people, and I want to get to as many people as possible. Neville Wran, when he did this in the 1970s, travelled the state and he made sure that at every country show and at every CWA morning tea and at every multicultural function he was there and he was talking to people about who he was and what he stood for and what the Labor Party could do. And that’s what I want to do, that’s me.

Jodi McKay9.Indian Link

How would you describe the mood in the NSW Labor party right now?

One of the good things about this leadership ballot has been – because it’s the first time in NSW that anyone has been elected out of a ballot process, which is too long a process – that it involved a vote of our caucus and of our party membership. So we had 12,000 members of our party who voted. But I travelled 1,000 km every weekend to talk to our party membership, and out of that leadership ballot process they are reinvigorated.

We’ve had 2,500 new people join our party since the federal election and through that leadership process. So our party is re-energised, it’s reinvigorated, and it’s ready now to spend the next 3 and 4 years – 3 years for the Federal and 4 years for the State – to make sure that we hold the government to account and we have people that believe in us, and that’s my job to get out there and make sure people know who we are and what we’re about.

Jodi, tell us what you are most passionate about in politics.

I want to see politics in general focus more on what matters to people. You brought up this government’s infrastructure spend – and that has been a significant amount of money they have spent to the detriment of many other things.

I think there has to be a recognition that the government has a role in cost of living, and making sure that people can pay their bills, and can get from their home to school without being stuck in traffic. That public transport is available and not congested. That public schools have decent buildings and not half of them which are demountables.

They’re the things that government can and should do, but I also want us as a party to focus on the intractable issues that won’t win votes, and that’s something like homelessness. My DNA, who I am, demands that I have a focus on those issues. That media we spoke about, they’ll say ‘Oh, this is the Labor Party helping all those people on welfare.’ It’s not, because people are slipping on the cracks that should never be there because of the cost of living.

Is aspirational politics more sellable as a discussion rather than homelessness and politics of support?

There’s two things I’d say to that. It is sometimes like whistling in a dark room, I agree, but I’m still going to do it anyway, because it is who we are as the Labor Party to make sure that where there are people who are in difficulty to support them, and I will never ever walk away from that, no matter how many votes it doesn’t get us. It’s just who I am, I have a responsibility as a person in this community and as a member of the Labor Party to do that.

Jodi McKay6.Indian Link

But yes, you spoke about aspirational voters, and I come back to those issues around education and health – education is in our DNA. We’ve got the smartest kids in school who want to be teachers and then when they look at what a teacher is paid decide ‘I don’t want to do that anymore because I can get more money working in another profession’. But we should have our best and brightest as our teachers. We’ve seen this government focus on building hospitals, but we have waiting lists that are like never before. We have nursing positions that can’t be filled if you’re in rural/regional areas. There’s parts of hospitals that aren’t opened – so you have to be more than just a builder. You’ve actually got to be a person or a leader that realises that people matter and if you’re going to deliver services it’s truly about making sure the service is there and not just talking about it or pretending that you’ve built something. And that’s what I see Gladys doing.

You’ve taken on the portfolio of Shadow Multicultural Minister. Would you say we are doing multiculturalism correctly in NSW? Or are we lagging behind Victoria?

That’s actually a very good question. For me, taking on this role is about sending a very strong message about how I value multiculturalism and our party values it. It’s about standing up when I see and hear things that I find offensive to our multicultural community and taking a strong stand as a leader on that. But it’s also about funding, it’s about the programs that are there through community language schools, and through language in schools more generally. It’s about making sure that you’ve got a strong multicultural body that is setting policy and advising government. But I keep coming back to the fact that it’s about living the experience; I live it every single day. Multiculturalism is one of the most important things that I love. The thing I love about being an MP is that my electorate is one of the most diverse in NSW. I have immersed myself in it because I feel so strongly about the strength we have and are as a society when you have a multicultural community that is strong and united, that’s cohesive. That’s my job – to be the champion.

Jodi McKay5.Indian Link

Is Multicultural NSW lagging behind Multicultural Victoria? I don’t think so. But I do think that when you look at particular communities – such as the Indian community, Victoria probably does far better than us at certain events, I think there’s been more of a focus on that – they seem to attract some bigger names than what we do here. And I know you’ve been a strong commentator on many of those issues. So can we do better? Yes, but I don’t think in any way we should talk down what we do here.

Let’s learn more about your Indian links. What draws you to India?

That’s a great question. It’s the colour, the excitement, the extremes I see when I’m in India. I can go in any one day from feeling such despair to the heights of ecstasy around me. No one word describes the attraction. I actually think I’m half Indian, people keep saying that… but to me it’s just wonderful – the colour, the saris, the dancing, the music.

The saris – you’ve famously said you have 85 of them. Is there a sari adviser in your entourage?

There are a couple of things I’d say about my saris. I wear a sari out of respect for my community, but I also wear a sari because it makes me feel like I’m a leader in my community, and that comes about because it is the way I give to my Indian-Australian community and the response that I receive back. Sometimes when I drape it I drape it wrong but no one cares because at least I’ve made the effort. Sometimes I find myself wearing a southern Indian sari to a northern Indian event and I never make that mistake again.

Jodi McKay2.Indian Link

And no, I do not have a sari adviser on my payroll. It’s just me, but I learn. Julia Finn is the same, Julia and I learn. We find when we go to functions we just end up looking at the women’s saris. And when we’re there we find we have sari envy! The sari to me is one of the most beautiful garments you could possibly wear. I am completely enamoured by it. My mother used to own a fabric shop when I was growing up and had rolls of fabric around her, so I used to love fabric. But it’s the way it comes together as something you wear; you know the pallu and the fall at the front and it can look so different, whether it’s pleated or it’s on your arm… I just have such enthusiasm for the sari.

You are aware of the “multiplier factor” in Indian festivities – each festival will have at least 4 different groups celebrating it. Does it tire you to keep up with it all? Do we have too many associations in our community?

Sometimes I think there’s not the coordination that there should be amongst particular groups who organise events. If you take Diwali for instance, I would go to 10 Diwali events. I do think that there is probably more that can be achieved by working together. Because some of these events will be in the same location – there will be Bowman Hall in Blacktown or in Parramatta. But the one thing that I find frustrating about Indian events – can I say this – is that everyone has to speak. My advice to anyone organising an event would be to get one or two people up only and get the speeches out of the way really quickly. The problem is that then I can’t stay for the entertainment or the cultural experience, because the speeches have gone for two hours. And all the MPs are saying exactly the same thing.

Jodi McKay3.Indian Link

And regarding the question on too many Indian associations, that’s controversial – I would say no, there are so many different parts of India that the events are often themed around. I think those small community events are really important. I won’t say there are too many associations; I think sometimes you get the bigger events where there isn’t enough coordination. But you know it’s important. What I’ve noticed, though, is that there aren’t nearly as many events in winter – I think that’s probably to do with the saris – but more of the events are held in summer, so at the moment the Indian invitations coming for me are quite sparse. I’m like, what is going on?

But seriously, what can NSW do to increase engagement with India for business and trade?

I think the Varghese Report was a really solid report. I just don’t think anything has been done with it. There’s been a lot of discussion about some of the aspects of it, particularly around trying to make it about more than just education, so I would like to see more done with that. I’d like to see some sort of action plan as a result of that – and I’d like to see NSW involved. That was a federal report, and then it’s like the states need to carry some of these actions through as well. I’m looking at a trip to India soon again – I had a discussion today whether I can get there in the next couple of months – but I think it is about making sure that we have a high profile there and that as much as possible, in regard to trade, is supported. There’s such a focus on education and we need to move beyond that. There’s a lot we can be doing around technology, around new innovations, but we seem to focus on education and education only. I’d like to see us do more than that.

Hear the full interview as a podcast on Indian Link Radio on 26 July and 30 July.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH JODI MCKAY

A personality that inspires you?

Right now, Jacinda Ardern. She’s compassionate and she governs with heart.

What would you tell your 18-year-old self?

It’s okay growing up in the country and in rural and regional NSW – it does not limit you.

Two strengths which women leaders have over men leaders?

Ability to take people with them. I look at my own leadership – I want people to be there around me and not feel threatened by people in my sphere. Taking people with you during that journey is really important. Another thing is – I’ll say this, and a part of me doesn’t want to say this – I think that we do have a lot of compassion that we put in to our leadership. There’s a lot of understanding of empathy, which I think sometimes is missing from male leadership. But let me say, that does not mean that we are not strong and forthright and capable and also hold our own in Parliament, because we do. I can debate any man in that Parliament and hold my own and those blokes in that Parliament know it.

A good day for you is…?

… one where I am out and about and not sitting in my office. Sometimes we’ve had leaders in the past who have spent the whole time sitting in Macquarie Street. For me, it’s out talking to people.

Jodi McKay4.Indian Link

What keeps you awake at night?

Worrying about my media advisor calling me at 5:30 am and wondering if I should, at 2 am, be actually checking what the news story is of the day so that I know when they call what I have to say. Your head doesn’t stop in this job, right? You’re always thinking, you’re always trying to pre-empt what may be there and what role you may have in that as leader.

That one moment when you knew you wanted to serve the community?

In this role? It was a discussion I had with my husband late one night. We’d been working through all the possible issues that could come up and he said to me, ‘Do you want to do this?’ and I said yes. So when it came down to it, it was whether I wanted it or not, and I want this.

Your message for the Indian Australian community?

I value you, I love being in your community, I love you being a part of this great multicultural state, and I will always be there to support you.