Councillor Samatha Ratnam recently inaugurated the Recognize campaign in Coburg, Melbourne. It is a project funded by Reconciliation Australia and Moreland City Council. She called on those gathered to “arm themselves with information” and begin conversations with friends, family as well as unlikely people.
Recognize is a part of Reconciliation Australia and it’s a movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.The Australian Constitution still lets States ban people from voting based on their race. This is what the campaign is aiming to fix.
This young councillor from Moreland is passionate about politics and it has to do with how many issues were discussed around the proverbial kitchen table in the family. She says there was no pressure from her family to follow any specific profession and this gave her a bit of room to choose her own path. “It helped that my two older siblings chose law and medicine,” she adds with a smile.
Getting into politics was an organic move. She realised early in life that politics was not divorced from the day-to-day issues and lives of a person on the street. Policy decisions made in faraway places could impact people’s lives in a way that could improve it or make it worse. So her studies at University of Melbourne in politics and social work led her to people who had little knowledge of policy but who were affected by it in a big way.
Thus she edged her way to politics. First joining Labor and then moving to the Greens. She made her first move to run for a seat in 2010.
In 2012, her bid for a seat on the Moreland City Council as a Greens candidate was successful and she says that she has found her niche in this position.
“A councillor’s job is part time. I work full time as a social worker. I am working on my PhD in addition to my work as councilor,” she says. “I feel that the position is a real bridge between the people and the policy decision-makers. People have the right to walk off the street and approach us about any issues,” she says, pointing out the main job of a councilor. This makes for lively debates both in and out of the office and this, according to Samantha, is something that she is familiar with. She grew up in a family that discussed social issues and politics around the dinner table.
“I have to really thank my parents for giving me a free rein on what I wanted to do,” she says, addressing the pressure that many children from migrant communities face from their parents. “Having said that I have two siblings – one is a doctor and the other is a lawyer!” Maybe Samantha just got a pass on great expecations because of them.
A product of diaspora
Samantha Ratnam says that she has lived in about three countries before she moved permanently to Australia in 1989 with her family from Toronto.
Her parents tried to stay on in Sri Lanka against the odds for a long time and only left after they were had no option. They were in the UK when she was born and then migrated to Canada.
It was not an easy decision to move countries but moving to Australia from Canada was one of the easier moves. “We really did not have close family in Canada. In Australia on the other hand, we had that. My father’s brother as well as my mother’s brother lived here,” she says. It also helped that her mother worked at the Australian embassy and saw the kind of lifestyle that was to be had here.
She says that she is also quite happy in Australia because while she faced a lot of racism and racist taunts in the school she went to in Toronto, this was not the case in the school that she joined here in Australia. “I don’t know what it is. In Toronto, there was definitely more of us so maybe that was a factor. Here, there was no mention of my difference at all. I was just accepted,” she says of her high school days in Doncaster East.
She is a Greens supporter and feels very strongly about the asylum seeker issue. One of the main challenges for the Greens is to articulate their policy and stance on the issue in the face of deliberate obfuscation by the two major parties.
Refugees and offshore processing
“In response to the question about how the Greens can communicate their policy about how we respond and treat people seeking asylum, the first task is to help people understand that people have a legitimate right to seek protection when they are fleeing war, trauma and persecution. Both the Labor and Liberal governments have demonised asylum seekers as somehow circumventing a system of so-called ‘lawful’ entry and therefore much of the Australian public believe that they are undeserving of our help and should be treated more harshly. The reality is that there are millions of people in the world seeking asylum and the overwhelming majority of people who arrive by boat and plane have been found to be genuine refugees.”
Offshore processing is something that the Greens are against and the party has been arguing for a regional centre, which would save money and provide a clearer processing timeline for both the government and the refugees.
“Offshore processing has a terrible cost in both human terms and financial ones. It’s incredibly expensive. Together, Manus Island and Nauru cost the taxpayer more than a billion dollars a year. Spending half a million dollars a year per asylum seeker to make their lives harder makes no sense. Processing them in Australia, as part of the community, would only cost a tiny fraction of that.
“In our region, we need to take a cooperative approach that works with our neighbours. A regional processing centre would give people seeking asylum more certainty about how and where to lodge their claims and more security about how long it will take to be resettled. This initiative itself would save lives. Ending offshore detention would stop us penalising people for seeking protection. As a social worker in humanitarian settlement services, I see the impact of mandatory detention and cruel policies on asylum seekers everyday. Mandatory detention causes irreparable damage to mental health and devastates people’s sense of hope. If we’re serious about saving lives at sea, we need a proper regional solution that gives people hope of an orderly resettlement. Instead, we’ve chosen a policy of despair, of making conditions worse than those they were fleeing. Now we’re seeing the consequences of that.”
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