Friends in the Indian community

Three sitting NSW MPs talk about their work with their Indian-origin constituents ahead of the 23 March state elections

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JODI MCKAY (Australian Labor Party), recontesting the seat of Strathfield

GEOFF LEE (Liberal Party), recontesting the seat of Parramatta

JULIA FINN (Australian Labor Party), recontesting the seat of Granville

Why do you feel that your side of politics is more appropriate for Indian-Australians?

Jodi McKay: It’s really about what we stand for as a Labor Party. Labor is a party for the many, not just the few. I joined Labor because I believe in the responsibility we all have to support those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. I think those beliefs are worth everyone aspiring to, no matter your background.

Julia Finn

Geoff Lee: I always say, “Indian-Australians have three priorities – education, jobs and family.”

Our Government has made NSW the best performing state in the nation. This has enabled us to spend record amounts schools and education infrastructure. We will deliver $4.5 billion in school infrastructure upgrades over the next four years across NSW – fully funded.

This strong economic position is reflected in the lowest unemployment rates in Western Sydney for 30 years. Australian Indians are very entrepreneurial, and a strong economy helps them start and grow their businesses. One only has to look at our own ‘Little India’ in Harris Park to see the diversity of businesses that are thriving.

Jodie McKay

Having a job or business means you can look after your family, buy a house, pay the mortgage and put food on the table.  Having a job means that you can take responsibility for you and your family and make the most of opportunities in life.

Julia Finn: The Australian Labor Party has opened up the opportunities created by our great education system and always does more to support every child receiving an excellent education. It was Labor that expanded university education and it is Labor that will restore vocational education. Labor will do more to support our hospitals, including health care workers. My community, which includes over 8000 people born in India, want a fully staffed, first class Westmead hospital.

Labor will also do more to help keep the Indian community keep their culture alive in Australia, we are providing more funding to community languages schools, increasing funding per child from $130 to $200. We will also expand languages education in our public schools by 100 teachers, which hasn’t been increased in NSW in over a decade.

Only Labor is preselecting candidates from the sub-continent in winnable seats. Daniel Mookhey MLC was elected in 2015 and have endorsed Charishma Kalyandra in Holsworthy and Durga Owen in Seven Hills, two key seats Labor must win to form government. But more than this, it is the Labor MPs predominantly who are always with the Indian community, not just at election time.

You have been a sitting member now for a number of years; what do you feel you have delivered specifically for the Indian-Australian community in your electorate?

Jodi McKay: My interactions with the Indian Australia community have been one of the most rewarding aspects of my role. I think I have been able to highlight the diversity and strength of the Indian Australian community. One of my warmest memories is wearing a saree into NSW parliament to recognise Indian Independence Day. That speech was a way of showing my great respect for the community.

Geoff Lee: I am proud of my achievements in delivering for the Indian Australian community, from standing up for our community to securing funding for things like community language schools, events and festivals, and vital infrastructure.

We have invested $11 million in community language schools, to help children continue to learn and understand more about their heritage language and culture. We have committed a massive $2.2 million over 4 years to the Parramasala Festival and I have been proud to support grants to the CIA, UIA and FIAN for local events. Harris Park Station also received a $17 million upgrade making it so much more accessible for the many commuters.
Education is important to many Indian Australian families and we are making record investment in new and upgraded schools. The O’Connell Street Public School opened in 2018 for 1,000 students and is very popular with the Indian Australian community. Rosehill Public School and our two flagship vertical school in Parramatta CBD will also give our local Indian Australian families access to fantastic state of the art schools by the end 2019.

In the NSW Parliament, I was proud to have spoken out against the proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial-Discrimination Act – changes that were unfair, unjust and unwarranted. I have also supported the Sikh petition calling for an exemption to wearing bike helmets and was responsible for bringing this petition directly to the Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight. On many occasions I have spoken on record about the great achievements of Indian Australian organisations and highlighted their service to our community.

Julia Finn: It has been an honour to represent the Indian community and the entire Granville community in the NSW Parliament. I’ve been privileged to be invited to share your most joyous and most sacred events and call so many of you my friend.

The Indian community in my electorate is very much part of the broader community. I fought with our local community to save Wentworthville pool and many Indian Australians joined this fight – they swim at this pool and many of them have learned to swim at this pool. I have raised concerns about overcrowding at Westmead Public School in the Parliament and with both sides of politics – it is the biggest public primary school in the State. The academic results are outstanding but the children are suffering from lack of space to play at lunch and there are over 20 demountable classrooms. I helped them secure $70,000 towards their new outdoor learning area for Years 1 and 2 and I want to do more. I also fought against the M4 toll and only Labor will reinstate the cashback scheme for the M4.

I also lobbied the new Cumberland Council to be more inclusive of the Indian community, to invite Hindu representatives along with the Christian and Muslim leaders to citizenship ceremonies and lobbied them to celebrate Holi and Diwali, a cause that has been taken up successfully by Councillor Suman Saha. The Diwali event in Wentworthville was a fantastic success and bought the entire community together to celebrate the festival of lights.

If Labor is elected at the State and Federal level, we will together deliver a new, 250 carspace multi-storey commuter carpark at Wentworthville station. The current carpark is full well before 7am and the community is growing, so we need more parking at the station.

What, according to you, are the community’s pressing needs going forward? How can you help with these?

Jodi McKay: There are many in our community that are struggling with balancing the family budget. Sydney is an expensive place to live – and I just don’t think enough has been done to help families.

Labor is the only party that will tackle these cost of living pressures – by re-regulating electricity prices, providing rebates to install solar power, making public transport free for children, and providing a cash back for those paying a toll on the M4.

Geoff Lee: I have been privileged to work closely with the Indian-Australian community over the last eight years. Many people speak to me about their concerns about job opportunities, having the best education and childcare, providing affordable housing and improving security in the area.

Strong economic management and record spending on infrastructure by our government has set-up NSW in an enviable position. Our strong economy has delivered record job growth in NSW with 500,000 jobs created since 2011.

Parramatta is receiving record investment in local school upgrades and new schools. These include: O’Connell Street Public School opened in 2018, a major upgrade of Rosehill Public School due for completion this year, two flagship vertical schools in Parramatta CBD to open later this year, planning for a new K-12 school in Rydalmere and for Carlingford West Primary School and Cumberland High School.

In addition, I see Parramatta becoming an education city with Sydney University’s commitment to build a $500 million campus in our city, and Western Sydney University and UNSW to jointly build an engineering innovation centre.

Childcare is also important for families and I am proud to say that NSW is the first State to subsidise all three and four year olds attending community preschool, on average saving families more than $1,600 over two years.

Affordable housing is important. The Liberal Government has introduced a raft of measures to help improve housing affordability which include boosting supply of new dwellings and first home buyer concessions.

Also important is to feel safe and secure. We’ve already seen the positive impact installing CCTV cameras has had on behaviour on our transport network and the Liberal Government has announced $5 million over the next four years to help community groups and small businesses install cameras to help make our streets even safer. We will also see more high visibility policing as we increase our police force by an extra 1,500 extra police over the next four year.

Julia Finn: The Indian-Australian community is one of our greatest multicultural success stories, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any challenges. I want to see another primary school in Westmead, just as good as Westmead Public School. I want more and faster train services for our area, the timetable introduced by the Liberals in 2017 has really disadvantaged our area. There are fewer trains, many aren’t air-conditioned and there aren’t enough car spaces at the train stations. The M4 toll is an unfair tax on western Sydney, where most of the Indian-Australian community lives. It is hurting families.

It is also a challenge to keep culture and faith alive in Australia, to make sure kids growing up here can talk to their grandparents back in India and immerse themselves in their culture. That’s why community language schools and languages education in our schools is so important. It also helps Australia economically, to take advantage of our great multicultural society and the diversity of languages spoken here. Festivals and houses of worship are important too – that’s why I have always helped faith communities to build their houses of worship, including the BAPS Mandir in Rosehill and the Shakti Temple in Old Toongabbie.

Labor will bring back the cashback scheme for the M4 toll. We will build a commuter carpark for 250 cars at Wentworthville. We fought to save Wentworthville pool alongside the community and I am lobbying for Westmead Public School almost every day.

Ever been to India? If yes, your standout memory?

Jodi McKay: I’ve been to India twice in the last three years. My standout memory is visiting schools in Chennai, Jaipur and Agra and seeing the real India, not just what tourists or many other politicians experience.

Geoff Lee: I have had the privilege of visiting India on many occasions and to play a role in building closer personal, cultural and economic ties between our two nations.

Last year, I joined NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on a trade mission to India that focused on strengthening two way investment and cultural ties.  The standout experience on the mission was seeing first-hand the hundreds of thousands of passionate cricket supporters lining Mumbai’s streets. We were privileged to meet with and chat to Sachin Tendulkar – a legend in India and around the world.

In 2015 I represented the NSW Premier at the Australia India Institute’s first Australia India Leadership Dialogue in Delhi aimed at strengthening ties between Australian and Indian leaders in government and industry. The stand out experience was providing a small grant for women in a remote village to enable their independence though processing their crop to add-value – this small grant changed the lives of a whole town in Gujarat.

My most memorable experience was when I first visited India in 2013. I attended Vibrant Gujarat where a met with the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi on several occasions. It was during this visit I spoke at the opening session, with 7,000 people in the audience and over 1 million watching on TV.

Other stand-out moment were: visiting BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar and seeing the golden stature of Bhagwan Swaminaryan illuminate the last rays of the setting sun; the peace, tranquillity and openness of the Golden Temple in Amritsar; and last year joining the NSW Premier in laying a wreath at a memorial at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in memory of those who lost their lives in the 2008 terrorist attack.

Julia Finn: I have been to India four times and cannot wait to visit again. There are too many great memories. The highlight of my most recent trip to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh was attending the beautiful, huge traditional wedding of Pavan and Rachana Chandrala. I’ve also been honoured to be a guest of BAPS many times at their Akshardhams in Delhi and Gandhinagar and their Mandir in Bangalore. The Golden Temple is incredible, as is the Taj Mahal of course, and the Himalayas. I’ve seen the Asiatic lions in Gir National Park but my greatest disappointment is I’ve never seen a tiger in all my visits to India. 

We have seen you at many Indian functions in your splendid Indian attire. Do you own traditional outfits from other communities as well?

Jodi McKay: I was given a Hanbok when I was in Korea and I have worn that a couple of times to significant Korean events, but basically my wardrobe is overflowing with sarees and only sarees.

Geoff Lee: The only other traditional suit that I own is a traditional Chinese suit from Zhongshan – representing my Chinese ancestry. It’s very similar to the Indian suits – sometimes people think it’s Indian.

Julia Finn: I have some Dutch wax cloth African outfits, I briefly lived in Ghana and have spent a lot of time in Africa. Other than that, not really. I really like to wear a sarees or salwar kameez, they are really beautiful and the community always appreciates the gesture.

Within the Indian community we have many different organisations, and therefore many different celebrations of the same event. Does that make it hard for you with speeches etc?

Jodi McKay: For me, the speech is not the important part of an event. The real connections occur when you’re walking around a room and meeting people. If there is one thing I could change about Indian events, it would be the focus on every politician speaking. The organisations put too much emphasis on keeping the politicians happy. I don’t attend the events because I want to give a speech, I’m there because I genuinely want to support them.

Geoff Lee: From day one I have been warmly welcomed at many Indian celebrations from Parramasala, Deepavali, Holi Mela, Vaisakhi Mela, Republic Day to Independence Day.  Celebrations are what makes this a great place live and raise a family.  They help create a strong sense of community with a shared understanding of our heritage and diversity.

For me it is always a great honour to be able to speak at these events and I can assure you when I do, I always ‘speak from the heart’. Although for anyone who has ever heard me speak they know that I always finish by saying “it is an honour and privilege to join you. I am Geoff Lee Member for Parramatta.”

Julia Finn: Each speech is different, although there will be some key elements about the festival that remain the same.

A standout memory from your dealings with the Indian community?

Jodi McKay: I love Holi! Every year I host Holi in the Park at Homebush West for children in my area. Most of the children live in high rise apartments, so they don’t have the opportunity to experience the Festival of Colours. In the spirit of Holi, parents bring a shared plate of food and I buy loads of colour for the kids. It’s a really happy time.

Geoff Lee: The most outstanding event that that I have experienced is being part of Bhoomi Pooja with His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj for the new temple at Kemps Creek. I was privileged to meet with His Holiness, partake in the ceremony and was given a rose which I still keep today.
Julia Finn: I spent a long time negotiating with the City of Parramatta Council on behalf of both BAPS and the Shakti Temple to help them build the Mandir and the new temple that is under construction. Too often religious communities struggle with the approvals process which should be simpler, as houses of worship are only used a few hours a week for prayer and are almost always a beautiful addition to the community. Finally attending the reopening of BAPS was a great highlight, it’s a wonderful building that will serve the community for decades, even as they expand and need to open additional centres. Similarly I can’t wait for the Shakti Temple to open later this year, they are a wonderful community.

There is much disillusionment with politics and politicians at the moment: how can that public perception be changed?

Jodi McKay: Politicians need to treat people as people, rather than as numbers in an election game. This requires a genuineness and a real interest in reaching out to everyone in society, regardless of religion, race or background.

Geoff Lee: World-wide there is increasing disillusionment with politics and Australia is no different. Rapid adoption of social media and shorter news cycles has added a sense of frustration for the community.

I have seen first-hand the importance of democracy and how it eventually works out for the good of our community. Democracy may be messy and cumbersome but it is the best system in the world. What is good about democracy is its innate ability to evolve over time to reflect the changing needs of society.

We need politicians who work for the best interests of the community that they serve. We need them to fight for what is right and just not just what is popular. They need to be genuine and approachable and be able to get things done for the community.

Julia Finn: Some politicians need to do much more to respect the honour and privilege bestowed on them in representing their communities. However much of the good work that politicians do goes unnoticed as it is not controversial and newsworthy, which is a real challenge. But if the community knows you and sees the work that you do, if you listen to people, not just talk at them at election time, you can get past those negative perceptions and deliver for the community.

Pawan Luthra

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Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.