Record number of candidates in the fray

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There are more South Asian candidates standing for the upcoming Federal elections than ever, find SHERYL DIXIT and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA, and surprisingly most are not from the two major parties

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For the first time in Australia’s election history, we are witnessing the largest number of South Asian candidates actively participating in the 2013 elections. A total of 26 candidates of Indian and subcontinent origin will represent political parties, or stand as Independents, for seats in both the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives. While this may seem like an unimpressively low number across a wide range of political platforms, it does indicate that the Indian diaspora is taking a greater interest in Australian politics and that they are lending their voice and efforts towards better understanding and acceptance of their communities within Australian society.

Conducting research for this report on the Australian elections has been an interesting and enlightening experience. For instance, how many of us were aware that some of the registered parties on the Australian Electoral website are the Fishing and Lifestyle Party, Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, Australian Sports Party, Bullet Train for Australia, No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics and Shooters and Fishers Party? Would we vote for the Australian Sex Party, Coke in the Bubblers Party, Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party, Smokers Rights Party or the Pirate Party Australia? We certainly aren’t spoiled for choice, are we?

We are all aware that the 2013 Elections is bound to be dominated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberals (Coalition), with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott respectively, jostling for the throne of Australia. The Greens, a growing and seemingly dedicated group have finally found themselves in the reckoning, as more and more Australians seem to support their policies for climate change and a cleaner, greener world. And of course, a plethora of parties such as the Palmer United Party and the WikiLeaks Party, not to mention Independents, are trying to have their say in the future of Australia.

 

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Current trends indicate that multicultural communities in general are confused about the current political scenario. The ALP, with their leadership issues and their suspect policies in relation to asylum seekers and the economy, have lost them the vote of confidence with the public. The Liberals are faring no better. They come across as indecisive and conservative, to say the least. Their policies are unclear and they seem adept at circumventing topics of controversy like the budget deficit and gender parity issues. And while both parties have reasonably strong candidates in the background like Joe Hockey and Penny Wong, neither leader inspires confidence in voters.

For the Indian community, it’s a matter of waiting and watching. There are many issues in the balance, such as progressing Indo-Oz relations, visa issues, trade and bilateral relations – the list is endless! But the increased representation of south Asian candidates in the 2013 Election is an indicator that times are changing, and that the voice of multicultural communities are being heard. It is a significant development and one that we must embrace with enthusiasm, as a sign of better things to come.

Both the major political parties have made an attempt to inculcate Indian-origin people into their campaign strategy. The Australian Labor Party has the support of two candidates, Manoj Kumar, candidate for Menzies in Melbourne, Victoria, (House of Representatives), and Bhupinder Kumar, candidate for Chibber, New South Wales, (Senate). However, it does seem like Labor doesn’t seem to have made a strong enough pitch to recruit more candidates from one of the fastest growing migrant communities in Australia.

The Liberals have done better, recruiting four candidates to the party, three of these from Victoria. Dr Ali Khan, Jag Chugha and Shilpa Hegde will all contest from areas in Victoria. Following close behind are the Greens, with four South Asian candidates representing the party. Prominent among these is Alexandra Kaur Bhathal, who will contest from Batman in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

But it is the newer and lesser known parties who have a strong Indian presence among their candidates. The Palmer United Party has a total of nine Indian-origin candidates. Headed by Professor Clive Palmer as their Federal leader, the party was formed on the ashes of the United Australia Party (UAP), an Australian political party founded in 1931 and dissolved in 1945. Now in 2013, the UAP has been re-launched by Professor Palmer, with the slogan of ‘Reunite the Nation’. It’s probable that as a newly formed party, they needed the numbers from a cross-section of candidates, but whatever the case, it is a fact that the Palmer United Party supports the largest number of Indian-origin candidates in these elections.

The WikiLeaks Party was incorporated as a political party in 2013. According to its website, the party ‘stands for unswerving commitment to the core principles of civic courage nourished by understanding and truthfulness and the free flow of information’. The Constitution of the WikiLeaks Party lists its objectives which include the protection of human rights and freedoms; transparency of governmental and corporate action, policy and information; recognition of the need for equality between generations; and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination. Naturally, Julian Assange is its leader and is supported by two Indian origin candidates, Binoy Kampmark, a respected academic and Suresh Rajan, a renowned economist.

Most of the South Asian candidates standing for election are from across Australia but unsurprisingly, none belong to the Northern Territory, Canberra and Tasmania. What is surprising though, is that none are from Queensland, with its relatively strong Indian migrant base. The candidates still do not seem to have a strong presence, but the fact that they have one at all is promising from a long term perspective.

So what kind of policies do these candidates support and what are they striving to achieve?

Jag Chugha is the first Punjabi Sikh to stand for a Federal Seat of Parliament in Australia. About his candidacy Jag says, “Scullin is a great place to live, but things should be better. Under Labor the cost of living has sky-rocketed, small businesses are doing it tough and people are worried about their job security. These are issues that people are talking to me about daily. I want to give my community a strong local voice and fight for our fair share”. As a long-time resident of Scullin, Jag feels he understands the local community’s needs and can represent local families to deliver real results.

For Alexander (Alex) Kaur Bhathal, Greens candidate for Batman in Melbourne’s Northern Suburbs, it is her fourth candidacy for this federal seat. “I am standing for a vision of a future in Batman where we can all thrive, she says in a statement on the Greens website. “I will work for a flourishing small business sector, combined with a renewed manufacturing base which could provide hundreds of local jobs in the renewable energy industries… building a strong focus on renewable technology research and design manufacturing in our suburbs which have great manufacturing infrastructure and plenty of people looking for local work. We are the most progressive electorate in Australia, with a combined Greens and Labor vote of 78.5%”.

50-year-old Sam Swaminathan is a relatively new migrant who came here in 2003, and is standing as an Independent. “I stand for economic growth, employment, the abolition of carbon tax, services for senior citizens and tax concessions for working parents,” says Sam enthusiastically.

“We’re standing for three key things at this election,” says Dr Binoy Kampmark of the WikiLeaks Party. “These are issues of transparency, accountability and justice. I call this the ‘holy trinity’ of our platform. In terms of accountability, Wikileaks is well known for its slogan of ‘We open governments, everywhere’. As a party we want no hidden deals, no backdoor deals. We want transparency in funding, in accounts. By accountability, we refer to surveillance. We believe the state has become too powerful in relation to citizens. Is it necessary to spy on us to keep us safe? We want to generate an interest amongst the public, as to what Intelligence does with our data. In terms of justice, we seek protection for whistle blowers, and want to stop abuses of state power”.

For Ganesh Loke, candidate for the Palmer United Party, a solution to the Carbon Tax and the problem with asylum seekers is paramount. “We want to have the Carbon Tax abolished; to have a humanitarian refugee policy whereby Australia is protected while at the same time refugees have opportunities to enhance their lives, and to do away with paid political lobbyists,” says Ganesh. “Both major parties are against refugees. That’s against international law, which states that genuine refugees must be resettled. Mr Palmer’s policy of onshore processing is the most humane policy in the debate,” he adds.

Shilpa Hegde is a candidate for the Liberal Party from Wills in Melbourne, and she says that Liberal has a plan to put Australia back on track. This plan includes generation of one million new jobs within five years by delivering lower taxes, more efficient government and more productive businesses. “I’ve noticed many families have become burdened by the rising cost of living and the lack of essential services in their community,” she adds. “As a part of the Liberal team, I have the real solutions to lower the cost of living and fight for improved services, like schools and hospitals, for our community. I want to represent my community in Parliament and make sure the residents of Wills get their fair share,” she adds.

What was the ‘X’ factor that convinced these candidates to join the party of their choice?

“The protection of human rights is paramount to me. WikiLeaks Party delivers this,” succinctly states Suresh Rajan from the WikiLeaks Party.

“I’ve been involved in the Liberal Party for a number of years now, and this combined with my interest in helping out my local community, influenced my decision to run for Parliament,” says Shilpa.

“I was first introduced to the Liberal Party several years ago by my father and at that time realised that I too shared the beliefs of the party,” says Jag. “Everyone should be free to pursue their goals and develop their talents”.

“I’ve never been in politics,” admits Binoy. “I’ve written extensively about politics though. And this is the first political party I’ve come across that extends my (passion) for being critical of power. “It’s a party of review, if you like, a watchdog part, so important in today’s world. That’s the first reason. The second reason is the party’s diversity is remarkable. Membership extends across the left-right divide. It’s a broad eclectic group of people with similar interests”.

A former Labor Party member, Ganesh claims he was completely disillusioned by the Party in recent times and so decided to seek a new platform.

“We are the most progressive electorate in Australia, with a combined Greens and Labor vote of 78.5%,” states Alex. “People in this seat value social justice, human rights and the environment. I would be proud to represent the people of this seat”.

The campaign trail is a rough and challenging one, which certainly needs the benefit of strategy to reach out to as many voters as possible. How did the candidates deal with this aspect of the elections?

Jag is out campaigning every day, listening to locals. “I’m meeting people at shopping centres, schools, markets and train stations,” he states. “I’ve been out door knocking and leafleting, trying to let people know that the Liberals have a plan to reduce the cost of living for families, help small businesses get ahead and strengthen the economy. I’ve also been attending community functions where I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people of different cultures and backgrounds”.

Sam, a chartered accountant by background, has been reaching out to the Indian community through various associations, and has been meeting people at cultural functions, and places of worship. He has also been emailing Indian associations in Newcastle and Central Coast.

Binoy has been campaigning across various forums, particularly in social media, “I’ve also participated actively in forums such as at the Fitzroy Town Hall recently which was received well. We’ve had a variety of debates and meetings in our effort to gather a support base. There has been interest from the community because of the Indian background (my mother is Bengali). And also Indian connections overseas have brought good and positive coverage for both Suresh Rajan, our candidate in WA, and me,” he claims.

Ganesh has been campaigning at community functions such as the IndAus Fair and the CIA Independence Day Dinner, as well as at shopping malls, local stations, and places of worship such as the Swaminarayan Temple. Ganesh also participated in the Daily Telegraph debate to put forth his views to a wider audience. “Being a techie, social media is one of my strengths,” he reveals. “My Facebook page has 3,200 likes, more than other candidates in my constituency”.

Shilpa and her team have been following a similar strategy of letterboxing, door knocking and meeting people in shopping centres, community hubs and train stations. “I’ve been listening to locals and many people have been telling me that the cost of living is having a real effect on their household,” she says. “I want people in Wills to know that the Coalition has real solutions to lower the cost of living, create job growth, strengthen our local economy and get the Budget back on track”.

All the candidates are involved in various charitable activities, including support for specific charities, volunteering their time and efforts for the betterment of the community.

Most of the Indian origin candidates contesting in the Federal elections have a strong background and would be more than proficient at their role, if elected.

Suresh Rajan from WikiLeaks Party has had a distinguished career in economics as well as having been a vigorous advocate for ethnic communities and people with disabilities. He served for several years as head of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA and is currently the President of the National Ethnic Disability Alliance, the peak body for the CaLD Disability organisations in Australia. Suresh holds a Bachelor of Commerce with a double major (Management and Accounting) and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Western Australia, and is a regular commentator on television and radio in his role as a financial planner and economist.

Alexandra Kaur Bathal is a well-known and respected member of the community. She has 25 years of experience working in the social welfare sector, with families and local communities. Alex is a former Welfare Spokesperson for the Australian Greens Victoria and is active in the refugee rights movement, anti-nuclear and environmental campaigning. As a qualified social worker, Alex’s professional experience includes clinical practice with young people, community development, research, management, program and policy development.

Jag holds qualifications of Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Commerce and Master of Laws. He is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of experience and is currently the senior counsel at a top 100 ASX Australian listed company.

Sam Swaminathan, the NSW Senate Independent has extensive work experience within the mainstream, through his dealings with charity organisations in the north shore, churches, aged care and retirement  facilities.

Binoy arrived in Australia in the 1990s but has been living in the US and in the UK where he worked towards a Cambridge PhD. Dr. Binoy Kampmark now teaches core legal courses within the Legal and Dispute Studies program for the Bachelor of Social Science at RMIT University.

Ganesh arrived in Australia in 1999 as a student, and took degrees in IT and education from Charles Sturt University. He is currently an IT entrepreneur in Sydney. Shilpa is an Electronics Engineer who currently works for DWS as an IT consultant.

So finally, why politics, and will this be a career for these candidates, regardless of whether they win or lose?

“Politics is a platform by means of which you can bring real change to society,” says Ganesh Loke. “If you want to change the system, come forward, get involved”.

“Politics is a way of serving the people. There’s been nobody from the India community so far who has risen in this field. I feel it is time to take some responsibility and start to give back,” says Sam.

“I’ll answer that question by quoting from French writer Andre Malroux: Politics is justice; if you can’t have them together, it’s an empty mission,” emphasises Bijoy.

 

With the election fast approaching, these 26 South Asian candidates are worth keeping an eye on. To date there have been a very small number of Indian-origin parliamentarian, including the serving Senator Lisa Singh from Tasmania, and the recontesting Alex Bhathal. It will be interesting if the community can add to this on the night of September 7th.