There are more than 150,000 people of Indian heritage in NSW, and 500,000 people from an Indian background Australia-wide. The Indian community is becoming an increasingly important force in Australian politics. In the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, there are constituencies where Indian Australians constitute more than 10% of the total vote. Today, the Indian vote can decide the outcome in many marginal seats.
It shouldn’t surprise us that political parties are actively reaching out to the Indian Australian community. It started with Parliamentary Friends of India during the previous NSW governments led by Nathan Rees/Kristina Keneally, followed by Liberal Friends of India formed about a year ago. Similar groupings are in existence federally, and in Victoria in some shape or form.
While there is no doubt that the Indian community in Australia is important electorally, the thrust from political parties has been to deal with Indians on a purely symbolic level, and not substantively. Except for the recent pre-selection of an Indian Australian in Seven Hills, there has been no sign from any political party to preselect a candidate from the Indian community for a safe seat. If any Indian gets preselected, it is generally for those seats where there is no chance of winning. The ALP’s Harmohan Walia contesting the safe Liberal seat of Mitchell some years ago and the inclusion of Bhupinder Chhibber in the Senate list from ALP last year, albeit at a lower and unwinnable spot, are two classic examples. There was no chance of them winning. The Liberal party too has been playing this game of giving Indians losing seats. These are examples of tokenism.
However, in recent years, the Indian community dynamics have been changing. Indians have been migrating to Australia in big numbers. India has been the top source of migrants over the last few years. Many Indians have been joining political parties too, but not in sufficient numbers.
Prior to the 1990s, Indians were big on supporting the ALP. Smart marketing and outreach by ALP created an impression that the ALP was more favourable and friendly to ethnic immigrants. Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were liked by Indians and other ethnic communities. Liberal Party leader John Howard, before he became the Prime Minister, had the baggage of his comments against Asian immigration in the 1980s, which created some significant concerns regarding his stand towards ethnic immigrants. It lingered on even after he admitted that his statement was a mistake. Unfortunately, this impression was further reinforced in the minds of Indians following Australia’s harsh response towards India after the 1998 nuclear tests. Indian army officers were expelled from Australia overnight. The tone and the content of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s statements were particularly terse. This issue strained India-Australia relations. Things changed quite favourably for the Liberal party though when PM John Howard declared that Australia would sell Uranium to India in 2007, while the ALP persisted with its policy of a ban on the sale of Uranium to India, until the Martin Ferguson- and PM Gillard-led campaign to reverse the ban succeeded at the end of 2012.
Today, the Indian community probably has an equal number of supporters for the ALP and the Liberal Party, although ALP supporters may have an edge. This support has been determined by a variety of factors, including the Uranium issue. With the changed dynamics in the community now, economic management, asylum seekers and business-friendly policies are playing a big role in shaping Indian attitudes towards political parties. Quite a good number of Indians are in small business. The younger members of the community are more influenced by free market economics than any socialist ideas. After all, India has been an open and market-based economy since 1991, which has exposed a whole generation of young Indians, before they migrated, to a free market and open economy.
ALP and the Indian community
In NSW, there is a significant contingent of ALP supporters in the Indian community, based largely in Sydney’s western suburbs. They take part in ALP events through the year and during elections. ALP premiers used to take some community members with them as part of their trade delegations to India, thus giving an impression of inclusion. Subcontinent Friends of Labor was an initiative from the NSW ALP HQ, which enjoyed the blessings of ALP’s top leadership so as to make it known and popular in the community.
Grants to various temples and community groups was one of the strategies adopted and promoted by this group to win the support of the community. This has its advantages and disadvantages. This group is not as strong now as it was during ALP Govts in NSW and Canberra for obvious reasons. Its biggest drawback was its attempts to go against sub-continental candidates like Susai Benjamin, due to the Right faction Vs Left faction battle. This was seen too during the Bill Shorten vs Anthony Albanese ALP leadership contest last year. This was not smart by any means, because it weakened and divided ALP members from the Indian sub-continent significantly.
On the positive side, the ALP, at least in NSW, has a better strategy to communicate its stand and policies by emails to not only ALP members, but also other community members who are not ALP members. As Indians constitute a very big proportion of the Indian sub-continental people in NSW and since the interests of India are quite different from the interests of other countries in the Indian sub-continent, it is better, in my view, to have a Labor Friends of India. Utopian socialist ideas of Indian sub-continental unity or brotherhood are impractical.
The Liberal Party and the Indian Community
Prior to 2011 NSW State elections, then Leader of Opposition, Barry O’Farrell, was seen literally at every community event, but it changed dramatically after the Liberal Party formed the government. Premier Barry O’Farrell chose to rely only on one Indian who, in effect, had hardly any networking within the community, and did not help Liberals get many votes. Until the election, he was virtually unknown. Indians were perplexed as to why the Liberals were relying on individuals who had no support or base in the community. Premier O’Farrell went even further and ignored the Australia India Business Council (AIBC) when visiting India with trade delegations. There was a widespread concern within the community that Indians were being kept at a distance either due to some strategic mistake or deliberately. This situation gave rise to substantial ill-will towards the Liberal Party and NSW Govt. This was conveyed to local MPs, but they were either unwilling or unable to do anything about it because everything was driven from the former Premier’s office.
Fortunately the current Premier, Mike Baird, is much more inclusive. A lot more, however, needs to be done to overcome the damage of the party’s past political short-sightedness. Time will tell whether there is a real directional change under the current Premier. The Liberal Friends of India (LFI) is a good initiative but it has lost its charm or enthusiasm lately. It needs to be reinvigorated. It also needs participation from top ministers and must allow membership of even those community members who are Liberal-minded but are not members of the Liberal party. It should not just be a mechanism to raise funds for the party. Its Chairman should be a key minister; the LFI should also have an executive committee comprising key Liberal-inclined community members, irrespective of their Liberal Party membership status. The LFI needs reform.
An initiative of the Keneally NSW Labor Govt, Parramasala is indeed a good idea, and I am happy to see that the current Liberal NSW Govt has decided to continue funding it. I went to its launch only a few days ago, and noticed things which could have been done better. The Ministerial Consultative Committee (MCC) for the Indian community has been dissolved, like other MCCs, but there is a need to have some form of advisory body from the community for regular consultations between the Indian community and the Govt.
NSW Friends of India
Like the USA and some European countries, there is a need for such a group in Australia. It should be bipartisan, with key ministers, MPs, journalists, business and community members, with year-round activities involving lectures, debates and discussions. A group like this may not get official support, but the community should push for it. After all, there are bonafide pro-India people in all political parties, businesses and media.
It is also true that Indians do not join political parties in sufficient numbers. This should change. Australia is our country too, and we ought to take part in all its social and political processes. We get a chance to do so pretty actively if we are part of political parties. Only then will we be able to go for pre-selections and elections for Parliaments. The quota system is not a good idea generally, and it is better to compete fairly and frankly. If we are not inclined to join the main political parties, we can consider forming or being a part of issues-based groups like “Voice of the West” focusing on Sydney’s Western suburbs to advance our political interests and ideas.
Dr Yadu Singh is a Sydney-based Cardiologist and is an active member of the community. He is active in social media and writes in his Blog www.yadusingh.wordpress.com