Greens candidate for Batman, Alex Bhathal feels there is a strong chance of winning this year. Batman’s progressive electorate has long voted Labour but that is about to change if Bhathal gets her swing of less than 8 per cent
Alex Bhathal realised very early in life — as young as five — that politics could bring about change that touched people’s lives. She came to this conclusion as she watched her father put on his best turban and go the Camberwell civic court to claim his Australian citizenship, which was made possible by the Whitlam government.
Since then, she has always followed her convictions. When she was 21, she left the ALP over a uranium mining issue. Today, she feels that she is on the right side when it comes to the asylum seeker issue – which has, predictably, been hogging the media in an election year.
As the two major parties continue to try to out-do each other to see will come out with the harshest policy against the asylum-seekers, the Greens have chosen to stand by their policy that is diametrically opposed. Bhathal feels that the economic and social argument for doing away from detention and for on-shore processing is strong and feasible.
“We have data, which has been independently compiled to show that it will cost 1/10 what it costs at the moment. To host them in the community and to process them on-shore with case workers is the safest option for everyone,” says Bhathal.
“They should be housed in Australia. If there are rural communities that can have them, then that’s fantastic. Many rural areaswould benefit from the skills that they bring and even just the life that they would bring to any community,” she believes.
Bhathal is outraged at the policy direction under Kevin Rudd. “We’ve taken the poorest country in the region and we are dumping our own manufactured political problem onto Papua New Guinea,” she says.
“The recent allegations that have been made about the operation of the existing detention centre at Manus Island and role of the department of Immigration in covering up the abuse, these show that it is also a very risky thing to be doing for Australian staff and employees. They have to implement the shocking policy. It’s also awful for those people there,” she adds.
Speaking about the Gonsky scheme, Bhathal says the Greens support a fairer funding for the Australian education system, adding that it’s way overdue.
“We have extremely unbalanced system at the moment. More funding goes to private schools than public,” she says.
“We support the underlying principal that schools should be funded equitably, according to need. We would like to see the money for the reform brought forward so the changes are implemented immediately and changed to 2016, which is the ALP’s approach. The Government hasn’t committed any funding immediately. Changes are needed now. Children only go to school once. Children who are in schools at the moment are missing out and they should get that money,” says Bhathal.
She feels that although the focus needs to be on manufacturing, the electorate would benefit from a more high-end manufacturing industry. This calls for a stronger emphasis on research giving the production an edge in the international market.
“We should not be entirely research based. We want a strong manufacturing industry. In order to be competitive internationally, this production would have to be high-end. This is the approach that the Singapore government has taken. They put money into manufacturing alternative energy products,” she says.
Bhathal feels that the area has a strong manufacturing base. “We have a manufacturing base. We are close to the city. We have two universities within the electorate that has the infrastructure to do research; we have the infrastructure and the transport facilities. It is an obvious place to look for an industry,” she says.
Bhathal hopes to use the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to attract investment as part of the Green’s approach to boost funding. She is going to work at getting about 1 billion more in funding each year to enable this shift in manufacturing and focus on green energy. Most of the funding would come from private sources but public funding would also be invited and welcome.
“We could learn from the Singapore model,” she says of this funding scheme. “We have the personnel, the technological know-how and the infrastructure to be a major hub for renewable energy manufacture and research.”
Bhathal speaks with a kind of passion and clarity of vision that comes with a clear understanding of complex issues. This is probably because she has been politically aware since she was about five.
“Since I was five, I’ve been interested in politics. That was the time that Whitlam was elected. My dad could not be an Australian citizen before then. It was during this time that I saw my father put on his best turban and go to the Camberwell civic centre to claim his citizens. That is when I realised that governments do make a difference and I thought to myself: ‘I better get involved. This is important,” she says.
Initially a member of the ALP, she left it over the issue of uranium mining. She was about 21 then.
She has a lot of ideas but there is a range of opinion about her chances. “If we get the same preference flows as 2010, we can win with a swing of less than 8 per cent. We need about 7000 votes. We’ve gained a lot of votes, with a lot of young people moving into the electorate. We’ve achieved a lot of shift in the votes. We’ve also running the strongest and longest campaign. My budget is one the largest that I’ve ever had,” she says. Bhathal managed to shift a lot of voters in the previous campaigns. The swings were as high as 6.3 per cent so when she says 7.8, it is a possibility.
Bhathal has lived in the multi-cultural electorate for about 20 years and says that being Indian is a very important part of her identity. “My dad is Punjabi. I am only half Indian but maybe because there were so few Indians when I was growing up, people always asked me where I was from.When I said I was Australian, they would say ‘No, you are not’. I grew up always having to explain myself. Being Indian is an important part of my identity. I’ve realised that I’ve become very attached to my religion. I think it’s an amazing religion that I believe in strongly. Being Sikh is a very important identity. I am proud to be a Sikh. I am also attached to the Indian community and I feel that it has brought a lot to Australia.”
As Australia continues to be in the news for all the wrong reasons, be it bush fires or our immigration policy, Bhathal feels that stronger leadership and a vision is what we need.
“We need stronger leadership to stand up to Australia’s humanitarian tradition, we need people with a long-term vision who have ideas and plans for the future. We have to move beyond selling our raw materials and to being a proud manufacturing nation and lead in research and design. We need to get with the times,” she says.
Her ask for Batman, should she be in a position to do so, is a 24-hour bulk billing medical centre and universal dental care for all Australians. “I would also be trying to deliver on our commitment to boosting the funding through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation,” she says.
For those of us who are not aware of the history behind the name of Batman, the name sounds pretty cool and Bhathal’s two boys love it. “They think it’s good. However, it’s got a bit of sad history. Batman, in his own diary, admitted to killing two aboriginal children, including a two-year old, at point blank range. It is in his own words. So I will be putting in a submission to change it. I would like it to be named after William Barak. He was an Aboriginal man and a major figure in 19th century Melbourne. He reached out to white settlers and led his people. He could speak many languages and I would like to see it named after him,” says Bhathal.