Tea with the Premier

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After a marked absence at community events, the Barry O’Farrell engages with the Indian community. PAWAN LUTHRA reports

A few months ago in its editorial, Indian Link raised the issue of the rare sightings of Premier O’Farrell at Indian gatherings in Sydney. While there were immediate counter-claims by the Premier’s press office, Mr O’Farrell’s actions speak louder than words as, over the past few months, the community has had greater engagement with him. The Premier’s presence at the UIA India Australia Fair was well received, and recently, he requested the Council of Indian Australians (CIA) to organise a community forum for their members and the Indian media through which he could elucidate on government policies and the State government’s engagement with the Indian community.

Following a torrid week of flak with the media weighing in opposing the State government’s cuts to the education sector, Premier O’Farrell, flanked by the Minister for Citizenship and Communities Victor Dominello, and Member for Hornsby Matt Keane, looked remarkably calm as he arrived on 15 Sept at Crown Plaza, Bella Vista for morning tea.

Welcoming the Premier, CIA President Subba Rao Varigonda spoke of the work which the organisation was doing for not only the Indian community, but also the benevolent nature of their activities through the donating of funds to the Queensland Flood relief in 2011 and the Cancer Council of NSW in 2012. He took the opportunity to remind the Premier that not only would it be appreciated if a member of the CIA was part of the Ministerial Consultative Committee, but also how funding could help the CIA to assist the community better. The formal presentation of 11 executive committee members was followed by a short video presentation highlighting India’s achievements, those of Indian Australians, developed by Sanjeev Mishra from TV Ozone.

Next, Barry O’Farrell took centrestage and confirmed that the goals of his government are similar to those of the CIA, of accountability, integrity and good governance. He reiterated his mantra of how cultural diversity can be the platform for good growth, and the importance of engaging the multicultural community with their connections in their country of origin, to progress business opportunities. Talking about NSW’s engagement with India, Mr O’Farrell did acknowledge that with five Premiers of NSW in five years, the message can be confusing and so it was necessary for him to visit India regularly to create a better brand for NSW. He is looking forward to his forthcoming second visit in two years, in October-November 2012.

Premier O’Farrell then opened the discussion and invited the audience to put forth any issues of concern. What followed was a free-flowing forum for about half an hour, in which the Premier took questions on education cuts in NSW, business opportunities with India, Air India flying to Sydney, among others. He was quite clear that it was necessary to reign in spending in the back rooms of the education department. “Only 1,800 of the 45,000 jobs will be cut, and no front line teachers will go. Education is over 21% of our State budget and we need to manage the costs well so that we can manage our finances well. The cuts of $1.7 billion will be over 4 years,” he revealed. Mr O’Farrell said he was not surprised by the level of anger generated by his decision to slash the education budget. However, NSW had to make up billions in lost GST revenue from Canberra, he said.

The Premier did indicate that there was a need for GST reform at the federal level so that some taxes such as the payroll tax can be reduced, but he did not foresee any progress on this front with the current lack of political will in Canberra.

He also expressed a keenness for Air India to fly to Sydney and through Nihal Gupta, his adviser on all things Indian, they will collectively engage in communication at the highest levels in civil aviation during his visit to India.

For the Indian community in NSW, Mr O’Farrell acknowledged that there was room to consider a representation from CIA on the Ministerial Consultative Committee, but ruled out any special funding for the organisation other than what was available through the normal channels. “The State budget is very tight and it is difficult to allocate any more monies,” he told the gathering. However, he was keen to address the concerns of the group for a Hindu crematorium and advised them to take it up with the relevant minister. “I will do all I can to help,” he promised.

The morning tea called on request of the Premier allowed a productive interactive forum for the Premier to talk to the community. Such Town Hall style presentations should become a regular occurrence within the local community, for better interaction with their political representatives.

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