Disclaimer: This interview was conducted much before the Christchurch terror attack.
Pawan Luthra (PL): With just a few days to go before pre-polling starts and then the big day on 23 March, how do you think your campaign is going?
Michael Daley (MD): I think we’re going as well as we can go. I took over as leader of the Opposition on 10 November, and I haven’t had a moment to waste. In all the time I’ve been Opposition Leader, I’ve had maybe two days off, so I certainly can’t work any harder but I’m very encouraged by the reception I’m getting. We’ve been up and down the coast, we’ve been out the West to see the fish kills out in the Menindee River, I’ve been spending a bit of time in Coffs Harbour and places like that, and I’ve been very encouraged by the people’s reception of our simple message, which is that I just want to be a Premier who respects people. Who puts ordinary citizens first. I just want all those families to have the services that they pay for in health and education and things that citizens deserve.
PL: Michael, the NSW economy is number one in the nation – with average predicted surpluses of $1.3 billion over the next 4 years and low unemployment rates. Should we not the Coalition government for managing the economy well?
MD: We managed the economy well when we were last in government – we ran 15 surpluses in the 16 years we were in government. We went through the global financial crisis and we were back in surplus within one year out of that very difficult time. But unlike this government that has sacked 30,000 mums and dads and ordinary people who work for the government, we didn’t need to sack a single worker to keep our budget strong. I respect people’s right to a job – a good, full-time job. The numbers that they won’t talk to you about, especially in the context of sacking 30,000 people at least, is that they ended up sending $1 billion a year on consultants. $1 billion a year. So instead of hiring people in good, solid, secure, full-time jobs, they give the work to consultants and contractors at the top end of town and pay three times more. One of the other things about the economy in NSW, particularly in Sydney, is that it’s not based around the activity of the government. It’s about the finance and services sectors – aged care, finances and services in Sydney – and I don’t think the government can take too much credit for that. Nor can they take credit for the fact there’s a construction boom coming out of building operating, coming off very low interest rates, on investment coming in to Australia from a lot of overseas jurisdictions including India. I’m not sure they’re as smart as they think they are. Let me tell you, Pawan, one of the things they’ve done is, sell $70 billion worth of assets – they didn’t just sell electricity, they’ve sold ports, 22,000 buildings and blocks of land, even the Land Titles Office, that owns the title deed to your house and everyone’s house in NSW.
PL: So should you become Premier, would you put a halt to these asset sales?
MD: If I become Premier I give you an iron-clad guarantee – no further privatisation. Not in health, not in education, not in electricity, not Sydney Water, not trains, not buses – I’ll be a Premier in the old style, that provides good old-fashioned services to the people of NSW.
PL: Let me ask you a related question. You’ve just come off a very fiery interview that’s being talked about quite a bit. You said on another radio station after a discussion on the SCG Board, ‘Labor wants to bring the board from the 19th century to the 21st century, and ensure it acts in the interest of all of the people in NSW’. What else in NSW do you think needs bringing in to the 21st century?
MD: Well, honesty and integrity. That’s two of the things that need modernising in this state. People have a right to know what governments are doing with their money. Your tax doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to the people of NSW, and every time the government does a project like WestConnex, burrowing under people’s homes in the Western suburbs of Sydney, vibrating and cracking them, they don’t tell you the truth. They don’t tell you how the project’s going, they don’t tell you that it’s blown out of proportion, about the waste. The Light Rail in my area, from Kingsford to the CBD, has doubled in cost – from $1.6 to god knows how much – well over $3 billion, sending business broke. Everything is a secret with this government. I just believe in inherent dignity of people as individuals, that they deserve respect.
PL: Michael, let’s talk about population. Infrastructure Australia’s own projections are for a worsening congestion, as Sydney’s population balloons to 7.4 million people by 2046. The current government is looking to slash immigration numbers, but your plan is for the states to sit down with the Commonwealth and Productivity Commission to decide on an immigration policy with the states able to have their say. Now is that not a cop out from taking difficult decisions – to stay with the current levels, slash them or increase them?
MD: If this state government wants to say it has a plan to slash immigration, that’s a lie. Let’s call that for what it is. The Commonwealth government thankfully, on a bipartisan basis, for the last 20 years has set immigration numbers. The reason I say thankfully Pawan is because if immigration becomes a hot-button issue, racism will raise its head in Australia. Australia is a country that is, as far as possible, a pretty harmonious one. We do have our problems from time to time, but I think it’s a very harmonious society. Immigration should not become a divisive issue; if it does, we all lose. State governments do not set immigration policy. They have no power whatsoever to control the people that come to live in their jurisdiction. The NSW Liberals are saying they have a plan to cut immigration – that is a lie. They have no power to do that. I’ve been honest with the people in NSW; I’m not going to promise to cut immigration because I can’t. It’s set by the Commonwealth. But what we have said is that the states are the ones that bear the brunt of population growth and movement – and it’s not all immigrants, sometimes it’s people coming back from other states after a mining boom and things like that. So we should have a seat at the table, sit down with the Commonwealth, and work this out on a bipartisan cooperative basis. But too often, people use that dog whistle of ‘immigration’ to cover up their own mistakes. And for 8 long years now in NSW there hasn’t been a single ribbon cut on a major project. So we’ve got the worst of both worlds – we’ve got overdevelopment in Western Sydney going mad, the planning system out of control, and a government that’s bungling its way through the billing of infrastructure projects and hasn’t opened one in 8 years. Their response is a cowardly one, and it’s to say ‘we’re going to cut immigration’. I think that just demonises people from overseas and I won’t have a part of it.
PL: Let’s turn our attention to Indian-origin Australians, who now number approximately a quarter of a million, and growing. What strikes you most about our community?
MD: They’re fun-loving people who work hard, with a good education ethic. Their young people are significantly under-represented in social unrest. So when you want to look at how our communities represent and carry themselves, I’ve always found that the Indian people carry themselves with dignity and respect and the young people are very respectful and well-behaved and I like being in their midst. They know how to work hard, but at the end of the day when you’re down-field, they also imbue those values that I do too. With four children, I’m a family man, and Indian people are great family people.
PL: Recently in Victoria, Daniel Andrews delivered on an election promise to the Indian community there, when he got the ball rolling on an ethno-specific aged care facility, an Indian-based aged care facility. Now there’s a need [for that] here in NSW too – is this something which you can look in to or promise to the Indian community in NSW should you be the Premier after this election?
MD: How about we do this, Pawan. How about if I become the Premier on the 23rd of March, you get a delegation of Indian people to come in and see me. I’ll make sure you’re one of the first people I meet. You bring the delegation in, I’m happy to meet with them and discuss that.
PL: Fantastic. Moving on, trade of goods and services between NSW and India is worth about $1.8 billion annually, but the needle has barely moved in the last few years. While Barry O’Farrell committed to frequent visits to India as Premier, his successor Mike Baird and the current Premier have not been that regular. What is your strategy for igniting the trade relationship between NSW and India?
MD: I take your point, that they paid lip services and didn’t get over to India, and I think that would be one of the things I would love to do – one of the first orders of business as Premier, go and travel with a delegation to India. You’d be mad not to want to return and just strengthen our relationship. I don’t understand why they dropped that ball but it’s pretty clear to me that they did, and I won’t do the same.
PL: So should you be the Premier, do we expect you to be going to India maybe on a yearly basis as Barry O’Farrell was planning?
MD: Yeah, I think you could expect to see that.
PL: Brilliant. Now, Michael, I’d like to learn a little bit more about your Indian links. You’ve attended many Indian community functions. Any which stand out?
MD: Well, in the seat of Maroubra, there’s a strong Indian community. One of my strongest supporters and best friends is Bawa Singh Jagdev, who’s one of the pioneers in the Sikh community and tells a story of how there was no support for people of subcontinental background in the 1970s and how he set up some institutions that still survive to this day. But I also do remember when there were difficulties with Indian students about 9 or 10 years ago, when some of those students were feeling unsafe. I was the Minister for Police, and I worked very closely with your Consul General at the time Amit Dasgupta, who is a friend of mine and a lovely fellow. We appointed a very senior police officer Robert Redfern to preside over that problem and we fixed it smartly. So that’s one of the things I’m really proud of.
PL: Any Indian personality who has inspired you?
MD: Kapil Dev. I love Kapil Dev.
MD: I just love his competitive spirit. He was fair, and he could knock your head off if you weren’t concentrating. It was entertaining cricket – good days they were. You guys are going okay now in cricket now as well. There used to be a time where we could guarantee we could tick that one off – we beat the Indians – no more. It’s very frustrating sometimes. I have to say.
We should just consider ourselves lucky you guys haven’t caught on to playing rugby yet.
PL: (laughing) I think they’re sending out a few AFL delegations to India, I do know there’s a community action group which is trying to encourage AFL not only within the Indian-Australian community, but in India as well. So maybe another 20 odd years before we have some challenges for the Sydney Swans and other teams?
MD: Well I’d like to join them over there. I’d like to join Daniel Mookhi and Jodi McKay and a few of our other members… One of the things I’m proud about in this election campaign is that we have a field of diverse candidates from project communities. We’ve got Charishma Kaliyanda, Durga Owen, Alan Mascarenhas, of course you all know Daniel Mookhey and Aruna Chandrala for the Upper House. We’re really proud of the candidates that we’re running.
PL: Finally, on a serious note, why should the Indian community vote for you and your party?
MD: I don’t think it matters what community you’re from. You want inherent respect and dignity from your government, and people of all backgrounds are not getting that from this government. People want to know that their government will look after them, will listen to them, will not take them for granted, will give them the services that they want and the services they deserve. One of the things I don’t like about this present government is that they think they’re better than the other people. They think they know more than the community, and I’m not like that. I was raised in social housing estates in South Maroubra, amongst people who didn’t have very much, and I’ve always been taught to not think you’re better than other people, and that’s the sort of humility I think people will be looking for in a Premier. Humble and driven, that’s what I will be.