In conversation with Mehreen Faruqi, Senate candidate for the Greens

The Senator in an exclusive chat with Pawan Luthra.

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Senator Mehreen Faruqi, welcome to Indian Link.

Thank you Pawan, lovely to talk to you.

You describe yourself as ‘Feminist. Engineer. Migrant.’ Can you share as to why in that order?

There’s no deep and reasonable meaning behind the order, I just feel very strongly about these three (aspects). I came to Australia as a migrant in 1992 with my husband, our one-year-old son, and two suitcases. We came at a time where it was the recession that Paul Keating said we had to have, and life was tough. So we worked hard and made a life for ourselves, like so many other people coming from different parts of the world, and I’m very proud that we’ve been able to do that.

I studied here – did my masters and PhD in engineering. Engineering is a family profession for us; people think it’s a bit weird that my dad’s an engineer, my two brothers and sister are engineers, my husband’s an engineer, and my daughter just finished her civil engineering [degree]! So it’s in our DNA. My dad used to say that engineers can do anything and everything; it’s kind of part of the training. You’re trained to be systematic and to focus on solutions to issues. I think that’s helped me quite a bit in politics as well.

And the feminist side is something that I got from my aunt as I grew up in Lahore. She was a true feminist in a patriarchal society; she taught me to stand up and fight for my rights. And not just my own, but that of others who face unfairness and injustice around me and in my community.

Engineering is a family profession for us… My dad used to say that engineers can do anything and everything… You’re trained to be systematic and to focus on solutions to issues. I think that’s helped me quite a bit in politics as well.

Mehreen Faruqi1.Indian Link

You have been living in Australia since 1992, and you are the first Muslim woman Senator. You say you are a passionate advocate against racism and misogyny. In your 27 years here, have you felt that racism has increased?

When I came here, I have to admit that I did feel quite welcome. My first impression of Australia was a place that had fought hard for egalitarianism. I guess once you live here for a few years, you (come to) understand the discrimination and the disadvantage that our First Nations people have faced for many years and still do. But otherwise, generally in society, I felt that Australia had tried to eliminate a class system based on economy – you know, the rich and not-so-rich – everyone was at the same level.

But in the 27 years [I’ve been here], things have definitely changed. Now, I think the level of fear and division and the ‘othering’ of people that may not look like what some might say is mainstream Australian, is getting much more prominent. And I hate this. I feel it, and I think since I’ve been in public life I’ve been the brunt of much abuse, which is a toxic mix of racism and sexism. I’ve talked to young people from South Asia and their experiences are not as positive as mine was when I arrived.

Do you think the changing point was Pauline Hanson’s speech in 1996?

I think a lot of analysis does show that that was part and parcel of that. I think politicians – and others as well – have used this division for their political advantage. Recently, I think it’s reached a peak with politicians that are a mouthpiece of the far-right, like Fraser Anning or One Nation – but it’s not just those voices. I think politicians from other political parties have also stood on the sidelines and given a nod and a wink or actually race-baited and dog-whistled themselves, and then others have stood silently and said nothing.

I think the media has to take some blame as well, because they have often given a free pass to people like One Nation, Fraser Anning and others who are not scrutinised for what they say.

There seems to be an increasing level of Islamophobia which seems to be treated as a kind of ‘fringe attitude’ rather than the gravity with which anti-Semitism is treated. Do you consider Islamophobia to be racism or not? And what laws should be considered? What about hate speech?

There is racism and abuse – and very vile abuse I have to say – which a lot of us cop in society at the moment, Muslim women in particular because they are easily identified by their dress. We know that Muslim women, especially when a terrorist incident happens, no matter where it might be, often get abused on public transport or in parks or public spaces. And that’s only one part of the story, [of] the whole Islamophobia register – which is full of this terrible treatment of Muslims at the moment.

With recent comments especially after the horrific massacre in Christchurch, I think this debate on hate speech – and whether we should have some laws that curb hate speech – has started up again.

I think we definitely need laws to stop hate speech. The Greens have actually proposed a code of conduct for parliament, because quite a bit of it has actually been happening in parliament. We have codes of conduct in every organisation, except one for parliament! So we are really pushing hard for laws against hate speech because it does harm people. We know hate speech leads to political violence, but more than that, it damages people living in the community day in and day out. If we hear words like ‘you don’t belong here’, ‘go back to the shithole you came from’, that is damaging to us. We’ve lived here for decades; many of us came here 50, 60, 70 years ago and this is our home and we belong here and we have a right to live here like anyone else.

We are really pushing hard for laws against hate speech because it does harm people. We know hate speech leads to political violence, but more than that, it damages people living in the community day in and day out

What needs to be done, on an intervention basis, to have more people of colour, especially women, accepted in mainstream politics? Quotas?

I sat in the NSW Parliament and I sat in the Senate: I looked around and saw a real lack of diversity. You just don’t see the multicultural Australia that lives and breathes in our suburbs in there; that’s a real problem, especially diversity of gender. When I was in the NSW Parliament, there were only 10 women in the Upper House out of 42 members. It’s a bit better in the Senate, but it’s still nowhere equal.

There’s a definite lack of ethnic diversity, and there’s a real lack of professional diversity as well. Our parliaments now are full of political staffers, and I see that as a real problem too. It’s only when people who can represent the community and its many voices truly, come together, will we have decisions that are for the benefit of everyone in the community.

It’s up to political parties to have structures and processes to ensure that this diversity is moved forward in their parties. I’m very proud to be a part of the Greens, where we have gender equality in our parliamentarians. We do have affirmative action within our party to make sure that this happens.

Other political parties have to look at this too. I have friends in the South Asian community who are Labor and Liberal members who’ve been courted by the two major parties for a very long time. But are we able to stand as candidates in winnable seats? I guess you could say I’m very grateful to the Greens for supporting me to become the first Muslim woman in any parliament in Australia. And that’s reflective of our policies and positions on multicultural Australia.

There has been an emergence of small political parties in the recent past. Do these parties have a role to play in politics, or to paraphrase one of the ALP legends, they are but ‘unrepresentative swill’?

It depends on what parties you talk about. In this election, I think there are about 5 parties running on heavily anti-Muslim agendas. This rise of the far-right is really concerning me because what it is doing is further creating fear and dividing up our society, which is a very ugly thing to do.

I think the way to deal with that is for people to stand up and speak out when people spread this horrific division and criticise people for where they come from or what their division is. Before I joined the Senate, we had that terrible, disgraceful speech from Senator Fraser Anning where he called for the White Australia policy, and other politicians went up and shook his hand. We live in a democratic society and people have the right to put up their hand to run for (representation) and it is up to the community to then decide who gets to be in Parliament.

Let’s turn our attention to Indian-origin Australians, who are now about 2.5% of the Australian population and growing. What strikes you most about our community?

I have to say, when I came here, there were very few faces like mine to be seen around where I lived and worked. Over the past two decades though, more and more South Asians have come to make Australia their life, to learn at our universities, and to live here and make this home. With that has come this huge diversity of culture – art and drama and music and language. I’m very proud to be part of the South Asian-Australian community. Before partition, my grandparents lived in Kapurthala and my in-laws lived in Dehradun, so I consider myself intrinsic to the community.

Apart from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, everyone here is a migrant, and that’s the uniqueness and the strength of Australia, that multicultural community. But it’s very easy to make migrants the scapegoats and the reason for congestion on the streets or why people can’t find jobs, because it’s “migrants coming and taking our jobs”.

Before partition, my grandparents lived in Kapurthala and my in-laws lived in Dehradun, so I consider myself intrinsic to the community.

Mehreen, the Coalition is cutting immigration numbers from 190,000 to 160,000. Where does your party sit on this issue?

We don’t want migration numbers to be cut, but this question isn’t easy. People often talk about what should be the population of Australia, and I think in some ways numbers are quite arbitrary and in other ways this debate really descends into racism and xenophobia. And it often has, because there are certain types of people, usually politicians, who then start talking about who should come to Australia and who shouldn’t. It is often people who look like us, or people who are asylum seekers, who desperately need safety from horrendous circumstances that they are fleeing. So this issue about population – we’ve got to look at it as a global issue.

The second thing is, in Australia we do live beyond our means if you look at sustainability. We overconsume, we waste much. Perhaps we should look at that first before we start talking about what the ‘number’ should be. We’ve got to start living within planetary limits, and one of the reasons I joined the Greens – and I did it when I lived in country NSW in Port Macquarie which was National Party heartland – was of course the multicultural aspect.

I was very passionate about education and making sure education was accessible to everyone, but I’m a civil and environmental engineer as well and I’ve worked in the sustainability area for a long time. Climate change is one of the issues at the moment that we know is already biting, it’s not something in the future. I was at the kids’ student strike for climate change, shouting with them in front of Tony Abbott’s office today. Our children are demanding from us to take action on climate change. These are the issues we need to focus on, not try and chase populist opinion or votes.

We need to change hearts and minds and we need to make sure politicians work for the communities, not the big end of town who hand them millions of dollars in corporate donations.

Climate change is one of the issues at the moment that we know is already biting, it’s not something in the future… Our children are demanding from us to take action on climate change. These are the issues we need to focus on, not try and chase populist opinion or votes.

Mehreen Faruqi2.Indian Link

Mehreen, there is growing distrust in the business world in India about doing business with Australia, given the troubles which the Adani group is facing here. They have had all sorts of legal challenges – environmental and others – thrown at them, and they have countered all of them successfully. Where to from here: is Adani a poster boy for all things ‘anti Green’, or given that to date, they have legally defended all their allegations, it is time to allow them to move ahead in their business?

We know that coal is the biggest cause of climate change, and we know that Australia is the biggest exporter of coal. So if we have any hope of addressing climate change, we have to address coal. I know that both the Labor and Liberal Party do not want to talk about the c-word. We’ve got coal huggers from the Liberal Party in Parliament at the moment, and I hope that this election we can say goodbye to them.

The problem with coal is that we can’t deal with climate change unless we wean ourselves off coal. There is absolutely no way we can do that, and Adani’s Carmichael coal mine is one of those mines which, if going ahead, will cause a lot of climate change because of the coal that we dig up and the emissions that are caused when that coal is burnt. But that’s not the only problem.

There’s coal mining being approved in NSW which we are also fighting against. The Labor Party just announced they are going to frack the Northern Territory for gas, which is again going to create a lot of greenhouse gases and further exacerbate climate change. It’s each and every one of these that needs to be fought against.

Adani’s Carmichael coal mine is close to the Great Barrier Reef, which we know is already bleaching, and so that has become kind of symbolic of what climate change can do to our beautiful oceans and reefs. But at the end of the day we have to wean ourselves off coal. We can. We have the technology to move to 100% renewable energy, and we have a plan to do it by 2030.

We know that India and China are moving towards renewable energy as are other countries, so coal is literally a dying industry, and those communities who work in coal at the moment will be left high and dry in a decade or so. We need to plan for them to be retrained and moved on in a just transition to longer-term sustainable jobs. We’ve done our calculations and there’s 150,000 jobs if we, for instance, move to 100% renewable energy in the next decade. And when I speak to young children – I used to teach at university – they are much more excited about working in industries like renewable energy than in digging up coal.

At the end of the day we have to wean ourselves off coal. We can. We have the technology to move to 100% renewable energy, and we have a plan to do it by 2030.

And that’s why young people are very supportive of the Greens.

Absolutely, it’s very exciting to see a record number of young people have enrolled to vote this year. They’re interested in the Greens because we’re interested in them. The issues that young people face – this generation of young people are the first generation in history who are going to be worse off than their parents – says a lot.

I’ve got two children in their 20s who say they’ll never be able to afford a house. Our kids come out of uni with huge debts, so we’re talking about making universities and TAFE free, because we think every young person deserves the right to be educated. And they’ll need to be retrained and re-skilled many times over in their life as technology advances. So we’re interested in the things young people are interested in and that will impact their future.

Mehreen Faruqi.Indian Link

Finally, Mehreen, why should the Indian Australians vote for you and the Greens?

I have been surprised to see (the number of) young women and young men from Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi background who come up to me to say how fantastic it is to see someone who looks like them in Parliament. I had never really thought about it that much, but it makes complete sense. They feel there is someone who is representing them. They hear my story, and they tell me it’s their story because we have similar lived experiences.

We need voices that represent who we are, that represent the issues that we care about, which in many ways are pretty similar to the issues that others care about, but I think the way I present them is the way that our community feels about them.

Of course we are going to this election with an incredible platform to act on climate change, to go to renewable energy in 10 years’ time, and actually reduce inequality. We know that 100,000 people are homeless in Australia, 700,000 children live in poverty. We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet so many of us are being left behind. I understand what it’s like when we have to wait for decades for our parents to get reunion visas. We need those voices in there to address those issues that we face as a community.