Indian Link exclusive interview: Opposition leader Bill Shorten

Pawan Luthra in conversation with Shorten, ahead of the 2019 Federal Elections.

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The Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten about why he deserves a turn in government, about issues of concern within Australia’s Indian community, and about the Australia-India relationship.

Welcome to Indian Link, Mr Shorten.

Namaste and thank you for having me on Indian Link.

Bill Shorten.Indian Link

Your party has been leading in all the polls for a considerable time now but recent reports have indicated a tightening. Where do you feel you are now with respect to the Elections 2019, and what do you need to do to get over the line on 18 May?

I feel that the Labor Party, united, with a plan for the future, is the best plan at this election for the Australian people. We want a fair go for all people. We want to support families with the price of childcare so we’ll give them subsidies; we want to look after older people so we’re going to provide dental care support for older pensioners, and we also want to start taking real action on climate change and help people’s wages get moving. This is real change. By contrast the government is chaotic and divided – when you voted for Tony Abbott you got Malcolm Turnbull, when you voted for Malcolm Turnbull you got Scott Morrison, and when you vote for Scott Morrison you’ll get Pauline Hanson or Clive Palmer. Too much chaos.

Mr. Shorten, there has been an emergence of small political parties in the recent past. What are your thoughts about this? Do these parties have a role to play in politics, or to paraphrase one of the ALP legends, are they the ‘unrepresentative swill’?

It’s up to people who they vote for, but you always have to study the details. What Labor has is we are one of the two parties who can form a government. Australians are sick and tired of chaos, they’re sick and tired of politicians squabbling with each other. My plan is to put people first. We’ve got some very exciting foreign policy, we’re very keen to help improve our relationship with India and take it to the next level. But perhaps one thing which would be of particular interest to your media consumers, is we are going to reform and deliver a fairer, long-stay parent visa. Many elderly parents want to reunite with their families living in Australia, but they have to travel to Australia as tourists. This is costly, frustrating, disruptive and exhausting as they ferry between our two countries. Problematically, Mr. Morrison’s Liberals have got an unfair temporary-sponsored parent visa which has a $40,000 fee and is capped at 15,000 people. The visa can only be renewed from overseas, forcing families to send money on costly overseas exchange.

The parent visa issue is causing much discussion in the community at the moment. Your proposal is uncapped and also allows families to have both sets of parents to unite with. Wonderful for the migrants no doubt, but the criticism is that it is policy on the run and could well open up waves to ‘grey immigrants’. According to the Migration Program statistics, there are over 100,000 applications for permanent visas which will flow across. While good for the migrant community, is this not a policy to buy migrant votes?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say on one hand we’re ignoring migrants, or on the other hand we’re doing too much. You pick the critique. I pick families. The reality is the cost of childcare is very expensive. Why should people who’ve come to Australia be denied the chance of seeing their parents and grandparents come and visit so they can stay with their family and see the little children? I think this is part of being a multicultural society. People say that this will lead to too many grandparents visiting, but if you’re a working family in this country and your grandparents turn up and are able to help mind the kids, you don’t complain, you just say thank you.

People say that this will lead to too many grandparents visiting, but if you’re a working family in this country and your grandparents turn up and are able to help mind the kids, you don’t complain, you just say thank you.

Let’s turn our attention to Indian-origin Australians, who are now about 2.4% of the Australian population and growing. What strikes you most about our community?

I think Indian-Australians make good Australians. I think they’ve got a value to faith, value to family, and they’ve got a work ethic second to none. I think being a migrant is a courageous thing to do. I’m not like some of the far right who say we should never have migrants. We’ve got to have an orderly program. You want to make sure that you don’t bring in too many people at one time so that you make sure the infrastructure keeps up, but in my experience Indian migrants tend to be good taxpayers, small business entrepreneurs, and we see them doing very well at schools and universities. So, I think Indian-Australian migration is a net plus for the Australian story in the future.

Mr. Shorten, the coalition is cutting immigration numbers from 190,000 to 160,000. Where does your party sit on this issue? If you were to win government, will you keep the existing numbers or slash them?

I think the government is pumping up its own tyres without actually being truthful. The reality is that the technical number is 190,000. Last year there were 152,000 migrant citizens, this year they’re saying 160,000, so I think their bark is louder than their bite. The reality is that we’ve got the same view – 160,000 – but this government is trying to have it both ways. We’ll be guided by the experts [regarding numbers], but for me migration shouldn’t be a political football.

Bill Shorten2.Indian Link

I am keen to learn your views on the potential of a trade relationship between India and Australia. There’s much talk about it but the relationship seems to be limited to the four Cs – Commonwealth, cricket, coal and curry. There really does not seem to be a strong connection in another C – Commerce. The bilateral trade needle is stuck in spite of the rapid growth of the Indian middle class. If elected on 18 May, what steps will you take to move this relationship more forward? 

We’re going to unstick the needle. Our exports – we rank 5th behind China, Japan, Republic of Korea and the US. In imports we’re 13th, but I’ve got no doubt we can boost the trade. We’ve got a policy called ‘Future Asia’; Australia and India are secular outward-looking multicultural nations who respect and cherish liberty and democracy. In a practical sense, we support in principle the Ten Priority Recommendations of Peter Varghese’s India Economic Strategy. We want to hold an annual Australia Week in India Trade Missions focusing on the 10 sectors identified in that document. At the moment Trade Missions to India are only held every two years.

I think there’s a number of (other) things we can do. We can teach more South Asian and Asian languages in our schools. We can improve the Asian literacy of Australian company directors. We can do more in terms of air links between Australia and India. The less time it takes people to have to stop somewhere else between Australia and India, ie if we can create an air-bridge, then there’s more opportunities for commerce.

I also want to set up a reciprocal internship program to allow recent Australian graduates to help build Asian business capabilities for young Australian professionals to work with the Indian government.

You mentioned the four Cs – but I think there’s another C, Culture. What we have to do is view India not just as a source of students but as a two-way exchange between our universities.

We can do more in terms of air links between Australia and India. The less time it takes people to have to stop somewhere else between Australia and India, ie if we can create an air-bridge, then there’s more opportunities for commerce.

So better soft power exchange?

People are people, always beats everything else.

There is a strong feeling within the business community in India about the difficulty of doing business in Australia, after the constant delays and challenges which the Adanis have faced here. They have successfully fought off all legal challenges thrown at them by environment and other groups, yet it has taken them this long to get Federal approval for their project. Has there been hyperventilation against the Adani group, and what effects from that flow on to Indian businesses wanting to invest in Australia?

I think you’ll find that my view on mining projects shouldn’t be based on the country of origin of the company. More so the quality of the project. I can understand from the press coverage why people might see some of the stereotypical debate, but this is the case: Indian direct investments are welcome in Australia. Of course [regarding] Australian direct investment, we need to improve opportunities in India, and as you know, that’s not as straightforward as it sounds. But let’s make that a commitment to a shared work in progress.

Mr. Shorten, your message to the Indian Australian community in the lead up to the election?

Namaste, my name is Bill Shorten. I seek to be prime minister of Australia. I acknowledge the contribution of the Indian-Australian community to Australia. No one is ever unhappy when an Indian-Australian family moves next door. They know that their neighbours bring with them a sense of history and pride, a sense of family and hard work. Labor believes in supporting middle and working-class families in this country. A vote for Labor will see real action on climate change and lower energy prices. A vote for Labor will see $2,000 subsidies to families with every child in childcare to help them with cost of living. A vote for Labor will see us getting wages moving again. A vote for Labor will also make sure that we have the best healthcare system in the world, and a vote for Labor will support the pensioners and Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders to be able to get new support for the cost of dental treatment in their later years. A fair go for all.

Labor believes in supporting middle and working-class families in this country. A vote for Labor will see real action on climate change and lower energy prices. A vote for Labor will see $2,000 subsidies to families with every child in childcare to help them with cost of living.

Mr Shorten, with but a few days to go now, we wish you the very best in your campaign and look forward to talking with you on the other side.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH BILL SHORTEN

You have attended many Indian community functions. Any which stands out and why?

You never go home hungry! You never go home without having made new friends. We’ve got some shared history. When Gandhi was put in jail, the Australians had to beat the English at the Ashes. The ties of language provide easier opportunities for our countries. Indian-Australians get more involved in the Labor Party. Victorian Labor is very successful in electing Indians – same with the Labor Party more generally, from Western Australia to Victoria.

Bill Shorten.Indian Link

PM Morrison boasts of his curry making skills. Where can you match him on your knowledge of things Indian?

I’ve studied Indian history. I’m very familiar with 20th century Indian history, and the ethnic and religious challenges. So I would back myself with having some knowledge of Indian history which I think is useful for an understanding of where a society goes.

When you visited India, what struck you most?

The dynamism. Dynamism, history and pride. On the day when it was the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, I was struck by the sense of national pride that people had. I went to the government building, and learnt the massive history of the event (of Independence).

Favourite order at an Indian restaurant?

My family love butter chicken, but I’m a dry curry man myself. I like some of the Goanese cuisine, I know it’s not strictly Indian, but there’s some great stuff down there.

Your birthday is on 12 May. Should you postpone it for a week, and host a celebration at The Lodge on 19 May, a day after the elections? And if so – would sco-mosas, sorry samosas – be on the menu?

No, but I’ll tell you what matters to me. I want to make sure that the country is run in the interests of the working middle-class people. I’m very proud of our multicultural identity, I think this country works best when we work together, when the pensioners get looked after, when the children are being supported, when small businesses can back themselves and we welcome migration. Samosas will happen: I’m getting fitter during the campaign so I think some indulgences will be good.