Reading Time: 10 minutes
Incumbent Labor candidate Julie Owens and Liberal candidate Michael Beckwith discuss issues that affect the people of Parramatta and their policy priorities
JULIE OWENS (ALP) Since 2004
MICHAEL BECKWITH (LIB)
What convinced you to join your party and get involved in politics?
Julie Owens: I have been interested in politics since I was a teen. I joined the Labor Party when Keating was running for Prime Minister. And I loved Whitlam – he opened Australian minds, and let the world in.
Michael Beckwith: I’ve had a lifelong interest in politics and grew up in a political household. I got involved in politics later in life, after my career and my family grew up. I joined the Liberal Party because I saw the need for good management of the economy. There is a choice between one party who are not good at managing finances, and the Liberal Party who are financially responsible and planning for the future.
The campaign trail is a rough and challenging one. What strategies have you been using to reach out to as many voters as possible?
Julie Owens: I am the servant of my electorate and I only campaign during the election. Throughout my term I have worked to serve the people of Parramatta. Now we’re in an election campaign I am working to meet with as many people as possible. We’re out at train stations, doing doorknocks – 70,000 houses have been doorknocked so far. It’s a real act of discipline.
Michael Beckwith: I’ve been employing the old-fashioned strategy of meeting people. I’ve been spending my days meeting with people throughout the electorate – early mornings at railway stations, doorknocking, attending events.
What are the three key issues facing the people of your electorate?
Julie Owens: One, the future of Medicare. The Liberals are cutting and weakening the system, and we are committed to its strength.
Second, Education. We live for the future of our children and Labor is committed to implementing to the Gonski funding model to ensure fairness in education.
And Jobs. We need to promote jobs by investing in the renewable energy sector and building infrastructure that will offer prosperity and security over the long term.
Michael Beckwith: The overarching issue nationally is the same major issue for Parramatta. The Liberals have a plan for Australia’s future, and that is to build the economy and employment opportunities for Australians, to grow jobs. The other party does not. Our platform is all about growth and jobs and developing the nation.
The Liberal party has a program designed to bring people into the workforce. We want to implement subsidised internship programs to help get young people into work by giving the experience necessary to get a job. We are also reducing the corporate tax rate for small businesses with a turnover of less than $10million. We’re not reducing the personal income tax for the business owners, but we’re allowing them to reinvest those funds and expand their business which will allow them to employ more people.
The second thing is, Parramatta has waited years for good infrastructure and we are now seeing investment in that sector. The widening of the M4 as part of the WestConnex project has started and is being delivered by the State government with federal assistance. We need to keep the Liberals in because we need to finish this project. This is one of the biggest building projects ever undertaken in Australia and we need to continue this investment in infrastructure along with the building of light rail in the area and upgrades to Westmead Hospital.
I would say the multicultural nature of Parramatta demonstrates a harmonious mix of people in Sydney. In fact, half of all people living in Parramatta were born overseas. There is a strong sense of diversity in this area and we need to build on that.
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?
Julie Owens: There is the same unfairness as we saw in the last budget. Cuts to pensions, longer waiting times for job payments. All the cuts are to the low and middle income earners and all the benefits go to the top end. The government needs to realise that it is customers that support businesses and there needs to be money in people’s hands in order for that to happen. This budget is unfair and unwise and focuses on the wrong end.
Michael Beckwith: We need to be realistic about where we are and what can be done. There is a massive budget deficit due to Labor’s overspending. We need to fix the budget and it’s about how you balance that with people’s expectations. This is a good budget. The government has not raised taxes for the poor, or for middle income earners, instead it will be the big corporations and high net worth individuals paying more tax. Families are not receiving tax relief, but when you have a debt, you have to pay it back. It will take several years, but that is the situation. We haven’t raised taxes for most people and they understand that we need to pay down the debt. I think it’s a great budget.
What is your opinion regarding preference deals in the election?
Julie Owens: I don’t think about them much. I am more concerned about the changes to Senate voting. The informal vote is usually 20-25 per cent higher where English skills are lesser and there is a newer population. I’m concerned the number of informal votes will increase in this election as the new rules are complicated. I am worried more people will be disenfranchised and it not be as democratically pure an election result.
Michael Beckwith: Obviously preferences are important, but candidates are not involved in conducting preference deals.
Parramatta has been a Labor seat for the past four federal elections, though it is considered a marginal electorate. Why would this year be different?
Julie Owens: You would have to be a fool to take this seat for granted. When you look at the electorate it is very much a ‘flat bell curve’ in terms of the distribution of wealth. You have tradespeople, businesspeople, it is not a homogenous seat.
We can’t predict the outcome of the election all I can do is work hard to make sure the full range of community voices are heard.
Michael Beckwith: At this election, people have a choice between a party with an economic plan to build the future and a Prime Minister who clearly explains that plan, and a party who are not good at managing finances or planning for the future. The mining boom has ended. The government needs to maintain a stable economy, build on our free trade agreements and work to create export opportunities for business in order to boost employment.
What is your understanding of issues concerned with the multicultural community in your electorate and how are you best placed to address them?
Julie Owens: There is not one multicultural community in Parramatta, there are hundreds – it’s very diverse! Each cultural community has its own issues. Some have migrated from volatile areas, some migrate for family, some are business people looking to trade or further a career. But no matter who people are, they all want the same thing and that is to secure the future of the next generation. They want jobs for the future, a health system that is accessible, they are concerned if their children will be able to buy a house. Even those without children want to leave the world better for the next generation and that goes for issues around climate change as well.
The issue of parental, spousal and long-stay visas affects many in the Subcontinental and Chinese communities, and I have always pursued these immigration issues. The government plans to reduce the pension for those who undertake six weeks overseas travel unless you have worked in Australia for more than 35 years. It is perfectly reasonable to want to visit friends and relatives, especially for that amount of time and this is just going to stop people from going, not save money on the part of the government. It is just mean-spirited.
Michael Beckwith: I represent everybody, not any one group in preference. Each member of a multicultural community is a new Australian; they belong here and are important here. The Indians I meet are very interested in the political process and many of them involved in my campaign bring a new energy. It is similar with members of the Chinese community in the area.
I know the issue of parental visas affects many in the multicultural community. It is quite a specialised area and I hope to speak with the Immigration Minister and go through the options together and work it out. Given it affects a lot of people, this is something I want to deliver.
How can we better encourage new Australians to become involved in politics?
Julie Owens: I think the subcontinent community is a mature population and I don’t necessarily think the next leaders will come from internal Subcontinental groups within the party. I think it is about their status within the broader community. It is naïve to think that if a party runs an Indian there will be large numbers of Indians voting for them. There are doctors, lawyers, business people and I don’t necessarily see friendship groups as a pathway to politics. Those interested in politics should join regardless and be recognised for their individual achievements. It is about diversity in representation and Indians are an educated, sophisticated community that is ‘grown up’ enough to complete as individuals on their own terms. It can’t be true that people will simply vote for ‘one of their own’. The community is smarter than that. They are focused on issues such as education, a good business environment, an ability to trade.
I do think there needs to be greater recognition of skills attained overseas and fighting against the hidden racism in society along with greater appreciation for culture and language. People are here to build better lives for themselves and their children’s future and we need people with experience and different backgrounds to articulate the more subtle issues in parliament.
Michael Beckwith: It takes time for that to happen. A lot of Indians have been here for 20 years and now is the time you see them becoming more involved. When people first arrive, they spend time getting to know their new country. When you look at previous migrant groups who arrived here in large numbers, now you see them as Members of Parliament. But it takes time for them to settle and become involved in the party. My colleague, Mohit Kumar who is running in the seat of Chifley, has been in Australia for over 20 years.
Tell us about a memorable moment in any dealings with the Indian community. Have you travelled to India?
Julie Owens: I haven’t yet travelled to India – I’ve been busy in the electorate – but I’ve been told by a number of people you can’t visit ‘India’ because it’s so diverse when you get there.
I live in a community with the world in it. I have had homes, temples, places of worship all opened to me and I have gained a greater understanding of Hinduism and other religions, those have all been wonderful moments.
My spice cupboard has improved immensely; I have a curry leaf tree growing on my balcony, I cook lentils and sprouted mung beans – I even tried to make my own kulfi.
I own about 25 saris and I just have a ball interacting with the different parts of the community – the Gujaratis, the Telugus, the Malayalees. I wish people could see the diversity and fabulous nature of people as I have been able to.
Michael Beckwith: I have never been to India. But, when I first came to Sydney from Hay (a small town in western NSW), I arrived by myself. I moved here to start a career and I was a house guest staying with friends of my father’s. I had just completed my HSC before I left home and because I had been busy studying, my family hadn’t had much time to teach me how to fend for myself. I was just 17 years old, in the city and I had no idea! I was living with an Indian lady, Dorothy, who taught me so much; she taught me how to cook, how to iron my shirts, how to go grocery shopping. I should add, she didn’t teach me how to cook Indian food, more western staple dishes. Sadly, Dorothy and her husband are no longer with us but I remember them very fondly.
I have also made a number of Indian friends through work, but not nearly enough. Recently I went to the BAPS Temple in Rosehill which was a thrilling experience. It is very different to a Christian church and it was great to be a part of the Hindu ceremonies.
What do you enjoy most about politics?
Julie Owens: I have enjoyed the people the most, and I didn’t think I would. I am an introvert and I didn’t think I would be able to sustain the levels of contact.
I have met people on the best and worst days of their lives and I have learned that, across the board, everyone is trying to make their lives better, some people just don’t know how.
Michael Beckwith: Meeting people and the happy smiling faces I see every day. I have been invited to places I wouldn’t normally go to; it’s about the doors that open for you. I recently attended an Indian music cultural event and they reserved a seat for me in the front row. It’s all about these opportunities to meet people and get to know them and understand them better.
What might people not know about you?
Julie Owens: My secret activity is that I play the piano, I’m actually a strong musician. I am a Conservatorium graduate and I actually studied Carnatic music – I used to know all the ragas and talas and was a great fan of Ashok Roy. I enjoy going to music concerts – traditional concerts, Sufi concerts, in fact, there’s a big Indian music concert in June and I usually set aside a whole day in my schedule to attend.
Michael Beckwith: Most people wouldn’t know that I lived in a house with an Indian lady when I first moved to Sydney! That’s not really something I’ve spoken about and I had kind of forgotten about it until now.