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Incumbent Labor candidate Michelle Rowland and Liberal candidate Yvonne Keane discuss issues that affect the people of Greenway and their policy priorities
What convinced you to join your party and get involved in politics?
Michelle Rowland: I joined the ALP when I was 18 and at university. I always had an interest in social justice issues and following the media of the time, keeping up with current affairs, so it was a logical transition. I have been a member of the party now for 26 years.
Yvonne Keane: If you told me eight years ago I would be in politics I would have told you you were crazy. My son Asher was born in 2009 with a permanent bilateral hearing impairment (deafness in both ears). I was told he would need a fulltime carer in order to be able to learn to speak, so I gave up a successful career in television to be his carer. It was the greatest challenge to help him develop spoken word. It was during this time that I met with a bunch of other mums in a similar situation and I decided to form Hear the Children (Early Intervention Centre). The aim of the organisation is to help hearing impaired children learn to speak and be able to go to school at the average age along with their peers. As a fulltime career and volunteer I was talking to the government and lobbying for change. At the time there was a Labor government and they were very clearly not interested in these children because of their postcodes, because their parents live in ‘safe’ Liberal seats.
My family, my parents, I always voted Labor but this was a genuinely life changing experience. While doing some research, I ended up on the Liberal party website. And I started reading the ‘We Believe’ section. I called over my husband and we both realised, ‘This is us!’ There was this ethos and all the policies which aligned with our values. I joined the Liberal party the next day.
The Liberal Party believes in action, about rolling up the sleeves and doing something. With the domestic violence shelter I recently helped set up, The Sanctuary, we’re doing something to help women and children escape violent situations. I see a synergy in my work as a disability advocate and campaigner against domestic violence and the work of the Liberal Party in supporting and empowering the vulnerable.
The campaign trail is a rough and challenging one, especially in a marginal electorate. What strategies have you been using to reach out to as many voters as possible?
Michelle Rowland: The best strategy is to be a good Member of Parliament and have good relationships with the community, talking with and listening to constituents. I have been an MP since 2010 where I set up mobile election offices and after the last election, the very next week we had one of the offices out in the community. It’s not so much ‘campaigning’ as it is doing your job, being available and standing up for people.
I was born and raised here. Living in the local community and having a little girl at preschool in the local area means I am connected to the issues and people in the community.
Yvonne Keane: We do doorknocking, letterboxing, street stalling, trying to meet as many people as possible. Ours is a really grassroots campaign, all about talking to people and finding that personal connection. And utilising a really underused skill – listening.
What are the three key issues facing the people of your electorate?
Michelle Rowland: The first one is living standards. Malcolm Turnbull might say it’s an exciting time to be an Australian, but many people are struggling to get ahead. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald showed that GDP growth in the area of Greenway is at zero. Wages are not keeping paces with living standards and people need to pay their mortgages and their kids’ school fees. In terms of women in the workforce, where there are jobs, once you take out the costs for childcare, people are left with only a small amount.
The second big issue is health. There are huge concerns in the community regarding cost cuts to Medicare, the $5 additional payment on prescriptions and the extra payments for a simple visit to the doctor.
The third major issue is education. This is a young area and we need to invest in schools. Labor is committed to the Gonski model of funding primary and high schools, and, in terms of higher education, we don’t want to burden people with huge debts in order for them to go to university.
Yvonne Keane: It is hard to narrow it down to just three. What I get as feedback from the community is that the economy and jobs is a big issue – people want us to live within our means. They see a government who can pay down the debt, balance the budget and ensure economic growth. All the issues people on the streets have about the economy are the same issues I see in Greenway. I had the opportunity to visit the Productivity Boot Camp recently which was a life changing experience. They take disadvantaged young people and train, upskill and uplift them. They are given a sense of worth and value. They’re engaging disaffected people in a way I’ve never seen before. And this is the kind of program that fits perfecting with our PaTH Program, helping young men and women in Greenway get jobs.
Small business is another area of discussion within the community. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and we need an economic environment designed to help them which will in turn help promote jobs.
Roads and infrastructure, getting from A to B, is another big issue. People want to know how we’re going to deal with the growth and density in the local areas. There is great excitement about the record infrastructure spending on projects and these projects work better when the State government is in step with the federal government.
With the Coalition’s proposed budget, a majority of low and middle income earners in the community will not receive tax cuts. What is your view on that?
Michelle Rowland: The budget reflects this government’s priorities. They are giving tax cuts to corporations and nothing to families.
They have made a choice to back big business over the people of Greenway.
Yvonne Keane: Not one person I have met while campaigning has spoken to me about that. It is always important to support the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. This is a very sensible budget that plans for the future. It is not about giving people instant rewards to ‘buy’ security for the seat; it’s about looking at the long term.
Greenway has been a Labor seat for the past two federal elections, though it is very much considered a marginal electorate. Why would this year be different?
Michelle Rowland: I have always treated my electorate with great respect and put in my very best effort as the local Member of Parliament over the past three years. I am standing on my record. Under this government we have seen cuts to Blacktown Community Aid and local community safety projects; we have seen our local Medicare office closed. This shows how out of touch this government is about the needs of the people of Greenway. I have been the best MP I could be over this term.
Yvonne Keane: I wouldn’t have put my hand up if I didn’t think I had a shot. I am using every ounce of my energy to help take this across the line. Ever since I was a little girl at Toongabbie West Public School, I have not seen enough change in this area. We haven’t had the right tools. We are aspirational, hardworking, honest people. We can change the world from Greenway but we need the right investment and infrastructure to do it.
What is your understanding of issues concerned with the multicultural community in your electorate and how are you best placed to address them?
Michelle Rowland: There is a common aspiration that unites all migrants: for families and children to have a better life; the best education, career and healthcare, and every opportunity to better themselves. That is a universal aspiration. Then there are other more specific concerns related to the multicultural communities, things such as family reunion visas and the migrant pension cuts. People come to Australia with the best intentions. They help make up our diverse society and their stories should be shared with the community.
When it comes to parental and long-stay visas, there is room to change these visas and I know that because I help people dealing with this on a regular basis. Under Labor reforms we would create a more streamlined approach. People might have their roots in Australia now, but there is still a need to travel back to their home countries. I have discussed this with (Shadow Minister for Immigration) Richard Marles and Labor has a plan for reforms in this area. This has been a consistent issue over the past three years I have been the local MP.
Yvonne Keane: We have a really strong record on multiculturalism. The Australian Indian population is obviously significant in Greenway. I’ve been very welcomed by our Indian community in the electorate, there are actually many community leaders working on my campaign. I have been a part of the Holi mela and the Vaisakhi mela and recently I was able to attend the India’s Got Talent event at Parravilla.
How can we better encourage new Australians to become involved in politics?
Michelle Rowland: That has been a major challenge for political parties – you diversify or die. We have a need for greater gender, age and ethnic diversity in politics. You don’t want to alienate or ignore anyone. I think the most representative level of government in our community is at a local level, and then the diversity is diluted the higher up you go – to state and then federal politics. Labor has responded to these challenges with Affirmative Action targets for greater female representation and greater indigenous representation, but the next big challenge is being open to all ethnicities.
A lot of people from a subcontinental background are involved in campaigns but they don’t realise how to translate that to putting up their hand to actually run for election. I know there is much more colour and movement involved in an Indian election, but it is important for people to be engaged in the process.
One thing I will say is that it’s really important for people, if they can, to become a citizen of Australia. I have been the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and I am a big believer in Australian citizenship. If you’re not a citizen, you can’t vote.
Yvonne Keane: I would just encourage people to join the Liberal party. Our membership reflects the diversity of Australian society and people should feel completely comfortable to get involved.
Tell us about a memorable moment in any dealings with the Indian community. Have you travelled to India?
Michelle Rowland: I have been to India twice during this parliamentary term. I visited Chennai, Punjab, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Rajasthan. I was really informed by members of the local community about aspects of India and the exchange of religious and cultural links from both visits has been really beneficial for me.
Yvonne Keane: I haven’t had a chance to travel to India yet. With two small children, my husband and I haven’t really had a chance to travel but we would love to in the future.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit the largest Sikh temple in the region with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop which was a great experience. I am hoping to get out there again soon. I’m also hoping to meet with the people behind the Sikh school in the next few weeks to see how we can support that project.
What do you enjoy most about politics?
Michelle Rowland: When I go to high achiever school presentations, every year the proportion of high achieving students from the subcontinent and other migrant backgrounds is getting bigger and bigger. These are going to be the future captains of industry, social trailblazers and business leaders. And I look at the faces of the parents in the audience and it is the look on their faces that says ‘This is why we came to Australia.’
Yvonne Keane: There have been times when, in local government in particular, you see the decision on an issue going in a particular direction against you. Then, you speak up and have a choice and you are able to change the outcome for the better. That’s a rewarding experience.
What might people not know about you?
Michelle Rowland:My mother was born in Fiji.
I am an excellent cook. I make everything from desserts to Italian or spicy Indian. I always start with homemade basic foods. And I’m a regular at some of the Indian spice stores!
Yvonne Keane: I used to be able to ride a unicycle. I’m not sure if i can anymore, I haven’t had the opportunity since I was a teenager!