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Tasmanian Senator Lisa Singh talks about her time in Parliament and her hopes for re-election
Why did you join the party and become involved in politics?
I joined the Labor Party nearly 20 years ago now. It was the party that I felt held the values most similar to mine, things like, compassion, equality of opportunity, and respect for diversity. I was at university and had a strong focus on social justice. I was inspired by Paul Keating particularly in terms of his stance on social policy, things like women, migrants and indigenous Australians. I was also influenced by the work of my grandfather. He was a politician in the 1960s and 1970s in the Fijian parliament and was really pushing for Fiji to become independent. I really admired his advocacy and I always knew I wanted to work in some form of advocacy role, so politics was a natural fit.
You come from an Indo-Fijian background. What impact has that had on your life in Australia? Did you experience racism growing up? Have you experienced racism in politics?
Growing up, Hobart was not the multicultural place it is today. At school, there were definitely more people of a more European background than an Asian background. I did feel a kind of subconscious pressure to need to fit in. I never experienced any explicit racism per se, but there were definitely instances of casual racism.
I’ve never personally experienced racism in politics, but some very dear friends and colleagues such as Nova Peris, definitely have borne the brunt of racism. I have been very vocal against all forms of racism in Australian society such as with the ‘Racism, it stops with me’ campaign. And especially with attempts by the federal government to water down the Racial Discrimination Act. I consider combatting those attempts a great victory as they were forced to back down and reconsider their position.
You worked in Tasmanian politics before being elected to the Senate in 2010. As the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the Australian Parliament, did you feel a sense of responsibility, or a sense of burden on your shoulders, to represent South Asian and migrant issues?
It was certainly not a burden. I actually didn’t realise until I was elected that I was the first person of South Asian descent in Parliament. It was actually revealed to me in an interview with SBS Punjabi. That’s not my background, but people often think when they hear the surname ‘Singh’ that it must be. But it made me think that we have much more work to do to make parliament more reflective of Australian society. I have become much more engaged with South Asian community groups and faith-based groups and have come to recognise that they regard me as ‘one of them’ and that I’m an important factor for them. I have taken this role very seriously and I like to think of it like this; I may be the first, but I certainly don’t want to be the last.
How can we better encourage new Australians to become involved in politics?
Role models play an important role, but I think it’s also about a generational change. For my parents, it was not as easy. They had every right, as citizens, to vote and be part of the process, but they regarded themselves as not fitting in. The next step is my generation, where we have lost that feeling of not belonging to this country. I have spoken with Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane about this many times, about the idea of the bamboo ceiling and why we don’t see more people of different cultural backgrounds in leadership roles. I hope with the next generation more will happen, more will change and more people will become involved. Our parliament will not be a truly strong, robust democratic institution without more multicultural members in Parliament.
In your view, what are the three key issues facing Australians this election?
I think in this election the three key issues are Medicare, education and jobs or access to employment. Those aren’t just issues I’ve picked from the air, those are the issues that come up time and again in my discussions with people in the community.
Health especially is the number one issue. A lot of money has been taken away from hospitals, there is the proposal to freeze the Medicare rebate and bulk billing which will lead to a form of privatisation of the system – some people will no longer go to the doctor as a direct consequence of that. Labor was the party to introduce Medicare and that’s something we’re very proud of, I do not want to see an Americanisation of our health system and these proposals are the thin end of the wedge.
In terms of education, Labor is pushing the need for Australia to focus on STEM and to implement the needs-based Gonski funding model. In this way, funding will be directed where it is needed most, and without STEM there will be no jobs in the future. With regard to higher education, we’re anti-deregulation and see changes to funding models and student loan payback schemes as an attack on our education system as a whole.
You have been relegated to the sixth position on the Tasmanian Senate ticket, a spot that is widely considered ‘unwinnable’. What do you think of your chances? Are you campaigning to win or is this more of a farewell?
I am definitely campaigning – I am not going to go down without a fight. Obviously I am disappointed with how things have turned out. It would take something special, something historic, for me to win. I have always wanted to give Tasmanians a choice about the sort of Labor voice they want in the Senate. Whether on refugees, health, or the environment, I have always sought to speak with conviction. I am campaigning and hope to give Labor the best chance for as many spots as possible in the Senate.
You were pushed down the ticket in favour of John Short, state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, a move blamed on factional deals. Do you regret not playing a great part in the Labor party’s factions?
I am a part of the national left, which is more of a non-binding, largely discussion based factional environment. Factions exist; I am not naïve. I have not played a role in that and have instead focused on policy development. I think there should be more freedom for individuals to speak out on issues and support community views as they see fit. There is nothing wrong with factions, but when a few people, or powerbrokers, control how everyone else should vote, rather than give them the freedom to choose that is problematic. Though those power and control issues exist across party lines.
I have always been a passionate listener, accessible and approachable. I have wanted to focus on what we could achieve rather than on factional machinations. There is still a lot I want to do as a Senator and it’s disappointing there’s a chance I may not get to do that.
You have signed the ‘Pollution Free Politics Pledge’ backing calls for the Labor party to ditch fossil fuel subsidies, which is against national Labor policy. Why?
There are varying views in the party when it comes to fossil fuels. Labor has a strong position on climate change and I am highlighting that if we want to meet our targets outlined in various international agreements, we need to ensure we’re investing in renewable energy and moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels. Of course we can continue to protect farmers but we should not be helping larger multinational corporations. We need to end subsidies like the diesel fuel rebate that incentivise polluting behaviours.
In a pamphlet distributed in Tasmania you said you will “remain a strong and independent Labor voice for more compassionate refugee policies” – do you agree with the Labor party’s acceptance of boat turn-backs?
I agree with the Party’s policy on refugees. I worked closely with (Labor immigration spokesman) Richard Marles to formulate our policy which includes increasing Australia’s intake and greater oversight of detention centres. I was not a voting delegate at the Labor Party Conference where the motion was put regarding boat turnbacks. I have been outspoken in the fact that I do not support turnbacks. I hope with the Labor policy and regional framework we never have to use boat turnbacks.
What is your opinion on preference deals?
I am for anything that gives more power to the people. For the first time, at this election, people will be able to direct their own preferences in the Senate. Reform of Senate voting where people are able to have their own choice is a positive step. Democracy is not perfect and it can and should be reviewed from time to time. I was in India in March to witness the exiled Tibetan government elections in Dharamshala. There is a small, new democracy that we can relate to our country and what can be improved. Democracy can’t be static, it must be open and transparent.
You had a strong connection to the republican movement prior to politics and have maintained this connection throughout your time as a Senator. Is that something you would like to pursue further?
I will always be a republican. I was very much inspired by Keating’s stand on the issue. We can learn through what India went through – it is a very proud country due to its independence from Britain. It definitely holds us back in terms of politics in the Indo-Pacific region. I have nothing against the Queen, she’s a lovely lady, but we need our own head of state, we need someone to stand strong and be led by one us.
Tell us about a highlight from your dealings with the Indian community and your travels to India
It was an incredible honour to receive the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman. In my time as a Senator I have taken pride in building friendly relationships between India and Australia, focusing on soft power. I went on a visit to India with our Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development (Deputy Opposition Leader) Tanya Plibersek which was a really meaningful experience. All my visits have been special; India and Australia have a lot in common, but our relationship is still developing. There is a long history but we have further to go to become stronger partners; that requires good leadership, commitment and understanding that our similarities go beyond cricket.
What do you enjoy most about politics?
The people you meet. Being in politics has opened doors I never could have imagined. One day you talk with pensions about how they’re going to get through a cold winter. Then it was a privilege to meet with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in parliament in Canberra and on stage in Sydney. I have seen the full gamut. I have always wanted to be advocating for people, representing them and the things that matter to them, in government.
What might people not know about you?
I am always running late! (Laughing) That fits with my cultural background… Also, I have a pet cat, Ben, he’s a black shorthair, part Burmese. I’m always sharing photos of him on my phone to people in the office!