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Up close and personal with NSW’s first Indian-origin Member of Parliament
Daniel Mookhey made history when he became the first Indian-origin politician to enter NSW Parliament as a member of the Legislative Council. He further made his mark by becoming the first politician in Australia to take his oath of loyalty on the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita.
The 32-year-old from Labor’s right wing previously worked as a management consultant and was the 2013 federal campaign director for the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The youngest of three siblings, Mookhey was born in Blacktown and grew up in the neighbouring western Sydney suburbs of Merrylands. He says he had a “warm and loving childhood” despite losing his father, in his mid-forties, to a heart attack when Mookhey was just five. Raised by his mother, Mookhey says his family was not particularly wealthy but that neither did he or his older brother and sister ever want for anything.
“The thing that was instilled in me most was the value of education and the need to develop your independence, your own ability to work hard, your own ability to set your own destiny,” Mookhey says.
His mother Neelam, an accounts clerk, and his father, a geologist, were amongst the first generation of migrants to benefit from the end of Australia’s discriminatory migration policy, after leaving India in the early 1970s.
“Theirs was not a migration of escape, it was a gesture of aspiration and ambition,” Mookhey says.
The only extended family Mookhey has in Australia is his father’s brother and his father’s cousin, and now two cousins, while his mother’s family remains settled all over India including in Noida, Calcutta and Hyderabad.
But even after his father’s death, Mookhey’s mother was always clear that her family’s future was in Australia.
“My mother is not what you would call a ‘tiger mother’, but nor is she what you would call a lax mother,” Mookhey says. “She instilled a sense in us that you have to work very hard to get ahead, but she didn’t do that on her behalf, she did it on our behalf.”
For his secondary education, Mookhey attended Model Farms High School in Baulkham Hills until Year 10 and then Girraween High School for Years 11 and 12.
“I was the only one of my siblings not to get into a selective school at the end of Year 6,” Mookhey reveals. “I was regarded as the ‘dunce’ of the family. My sister is always up to remind me of that!”
Despite attending high school in the mid-1990s, at a time marking the rise of Hanson-era politics, Mookhey says he didn’t experience any racism at school.
“I was one of the few kids who was different,” he admits. “But I think that is one of the areas where Model Farms has changed. I was there yesterday and there’s a lot more people of sub-continental heritage in the area now. I was the only Indian at the school for the first two years, but I had a great time at school. I really credit that school for giving me a good sense of the diversity of the community. I made a great bunch of friends that I still have,” Mookhey says.
He says his time at Girraween was different, mainly because as a selective school it had a far more diverse student population, full of students with a lot of ambition. “It was a lot of migrant kids from the western suburbs, all of whom took their academics very seriously and benefited from the intense competition,” Mookhey says.
On the question of whether he goes by Nitin or Daniel, “I’m always introduced as Daniel,” Mookhey says. “Nitin is the name given to me by my father and I use it on all my official documents. I don’t hide it, but it’s a typical thing of people who grew up in the same era as me.”
Mookhey’s political drive didn’t start early. “I was a prefect in Year 6, but I failed to win the School Captaincy,” he laments. “My sister did, and she’s only one year older than me, so that’s another thing she likes to laud over me.”
“I like to think entering parliament, as far as elected democracy goes, probably beats it,” Mookhey jokes.
He wasn’t a member of the school Student Representative Council but he was a high school, and later university debater. He was also a rugby player.
Mookhey recounts an infamous incident during his HSC year where, “My mum literally pulled me out of a football match to attend maths tutoring.”
“For my 16-year-old self it was certainly an affront, but in retrospect I actually did go from barely passing to actually doing quite well in Mathematics.”
In his inaugural address to Parliament, Mookhey outlined the story of his general politicisation as beginning as he stood against the changes being introduced by the Howard government in 1996.
“I grew up in a time where the default option was a Labor government,” Mookhey says. “I always assumed that you would have forward looking, progressive governments that respect people’s ambition and are willing to invest in those that don’t start with much but want to go far.”
Mookhey says he was particularly disheartened by the changes to higher education and the inability of politicians to take Pauline Hanson, and her views, head on. On day one of university at UTS, he joined the Labor Party and quickly became involved in campus politics. At the end of 2001 he attended his first National Union of Students conference and served as General Secretary of the organisation in 2004. It was through the organisation he met his now wife Tamsin Lloyd.
“She used to have this wonderful habit of heckling me at all the meetings,” Mookhey recalls. “But she was often right, though I never really tell her that.”
The pair now live in Sydney with their three-year-old beagle, Rumpole, “a cunning creature” according to Mookhey who is “100 per cent devoted to his own comfort”.
Wife Tamsin Lloyd tells Indian Link, “Daniel as a person is thoughtful, caring, honest and funny – and slightly eccentric. I think these qualities are the same at home and as a politician, although probably seen in different ways. Daniel and I both value home and family life a lot.”
Mookhey and Lloyd were married in both a traditional Hindu ceremony and a civil ceremony in Lloyd’s hometown of Armidale in northern country New South Wales. Part of their motivation was to honour their families, but also to include their friends, who were curious about Indian wedding culture, and to demonstrate they are equal partners in their marriage.
“Daniel and I tried to combine elements of both of our families and histories when we got married,” Lloyd says. “It was an honour for me to be able to get married in a traditional Hindu ceremony in my home town. I’m pretty sure it was the first time an Indian (Hindu) wedding had ever been held in Armidale!”
“I wore a red and silver lengha, which my wonderful mother-in-law bought in India. For me, learning about Hinduism has been an honour and very interesting, and I really enjoy having it as a part of my life. My family also enjoyed the Hindu ceremony a lot, and they wore Indian clothes. It was great to have two families and two cultures come together.”
Mookhey adds, “I’m blessed that my in-laws have a real curiosity about my family heritage and history, but I have the same curiosity about theirs.”
Mookhey says it was an “honour” to swear his oath on the Bhagavad Gita as “an acknowledgement of (his) culture and heritage”.
As a family, the Mookheys celebrate the major Hindu holidays – Holi and Diwali – and visit temple for important occasions.
“I also celebrate Rahki every year, but to be blatantly honest with you, it’s because my sister wants money,” Mookhey says. “She just gives me blessings, but I’ve got to say they have gotten me quite far!”
Lloyd adds, “We try to combine elements of both our cultures at home, for example we have a big family celebration at Diwali and also a big celebration at Christmas. It’s nice to have both in our lives.”
Mookhey says the typical way he gives expression to his heritage is through his cooking. His eyes light up as we discuss the various merits of tandoor, whether or not to add cream to a korma, and he confesses his current passion is for Awadhi cuisine and biryanis. On his next trip to India or Pakistan he intends to do a course with a dhaba to learn how to make a proper naan.
“I cook all the different cuisines of the sub-continent but also Southern American,” Mookhey says. “I smoke a lot of meat. I’m getting very good at doing pulled pork and when I’m having my Islamic friends over I do a pretty mean smoked chicken as well.”
For wife Tamsin, “I find family life with the Mookheys very similar to life with my family – there”s a lot of laughter, food and siblings squabbling. And of course a lot of love.”
“I’m lucky that my new extended family is so warm, welcoming and loving – with Daniel I got a loving and welcoming new family in both Australia and in India – lucky me! I’m especially happy to have another Mum in Sydney, as my mother lives in country NSW and I don’t see her as often,” Lloyd says. “The best part is getting eat the fantastic food that my mother-in-law and all my new Aunties prepare, although I had to learn to eat more chilli!”
In his political career, Mookhey has been embroiled in some controversy, appearing before a Royal Commission and being described by various publications as a “union apparatchik” and “campaign tsar”. But to his credit, he does not shy away from discussing the subject. “I was always happy to appear at the Commission and there is no aspect of my Union background that causes me any grief,” he says. “I will say my level of involvement (with the Queensland TWU) was mis-described…but you would never have had a chance to have a new wave of leadership come into the Union movement if it wasn’t for the fact people were willing to put themselves in a democratic ballot.”
A poster on the wall in Mookhey’s office is from the protests following the failure of the Australian airline Ansett. “I look at the fact that I spent a formative part of my career making sure those workers were paid, seven years after they lost their jobs, and I look at that as the type of work trade unions do, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Mookhey outlines the key three areas for his time in the Legislative Council as working to modernise the economy, ensure the future of our cities and grow the clean energy sector. “I’m against the (polls and wires) sell-off,” he says. “I’ll be voting to keep them in public hands because we need to own these assets so we can prepare the community to transform to cleaner, renewable energy.”
He may have just begun his parliamentary career, but Mookhey and Lloyd are also expecting their first child in October. “Daniel is pretty hands-on at everything he does, so I have no doubt he will be a hands-on dad,” Lloyd says. “When he signs up for something he’s always very committed, so I think that will be the same with children.”
FAST FIVE WITH DANIEL MOOKHEY
Favourite band Midnight Oil, also my first concert, currently The XX
Favourite book Goodnight, Mister Tom (fiction); Robert Caro’s series on US President Lyndon Johnson
Favourite television show Star Trek. But I’m also a fan of Silicon Valley, 30 Rock, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad.
Favourite movie The Shawshank Redemption, The Inbetweeners or Superbad. I have a love/hate relationship with Bollywood. In the ‘80s my favourite film was Coolie with Amitabh Bachchan, I did also like Lagaan. But I’m a big fan of Indian arthouse, Earth, Fire, Water and The Lunchbox.
Favourite passage from the Gita I don’t have one but I know the Hanuman Chalisa by heart