Need of the hour: A mix that matches

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Lisa Singh, the only Senator with Indian heritage, explains why the Australian parliament needs more people from South Asian and Asian backgrounds

Further representation at the political level is important and should come forward into the future especially because there are 450,000 people of Indian-origin in Australia now

Indian-origin people need more “political level” representation in Australia, according to Lisa Singh, the only Senator with Indian heritage in the country.

Speaking to the Indian Sun, the Labor Party Senator for Tasmania said Australia’s political leadership no longer matches society’s expectations. “My generation now expects to see more people of South Asian and Asian backgrounds coming forward [in politics],” said Ms Singh, who was born in Tasmania to an English-Australian mother and Fijian-Indian father. “Only 1.7 per cent of the entire Australian parliament has an Asian background.”

When it comes to recognising Indian-origin people, Ms Singh said many of the world’s biggest developed democracies, including Canada, New Zealand, the US and UK, are “leaps and bounds ahead of Australia’s parliament”.

“I’ve always advocated that — especially because there are 450,000 people of Indian-origin in Australia now — further representation at the political level is important and should come forward into the future,” said Ms Singh, a longstanding advocate for multiculturalism.

But political watchers don’t see representation increasing any time soon, rather the opposite. Ms Singh is expected to lose her Senate seat in the next federal election, since a Labor Party pre-selection ballot saw her relegated to an ‘unwinnable’ fourth position.

Ms Singh said she was disappointed with the ballot outcome, calling it “unexpected”. “People in Australia as well as my parliamentarian colleagues have been shocked and disappointed with what has taken place,” she said.

She said the result highlighted the “challenge” for the Australian Labor Party to re-think pre-selection formulas, saying: “I don’t think factional deals do anybody any good”.

The Indian Sun spoke with Ms Singh shortly after she travelled to India to attend the Australia India Institute’s inaugural Australia India Leadership Dialogue, in November. The senator has contributed to tie-building initiatives between Australia and India since joining the Senate in 2011. Last year, her efforts were rewarded when she received one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

Currently, Australia’s foreign relations lens is honed on securing a free trade deal with India – which Trade Minister Andrew Robb recently said was on track to be clinched before the end of 2015.

Asked about the influence Indian Diaspora small businesses have on trade negotiations, Senator Singh agreed they tended to be overshadowed by big companies.

“I guess it’s done at that higher level end, which can actually omit the importance that small business plays,” said Ms Singh, adding that she didn’t believe the government was ignoring small business. “Indian Diaspora businesses need to be included in the India Australia relationship,” she added.

Ms Singh said Indian Diaspora small businesses were “thriving in Australia,” and naturally placed to build ties with India.

“A lot of these Diaspora small businesses continue to have a strong connect with their mother India, perhaps because family is still there, and they haven’t lost sight of their heritage,” said Ms Singh. “I’ve been so heartened over the many years now to meet Indian Diaspora small business entrepreneurs, who are doing so much to ensure that they’re supporting their family, and also being part of the broader Australian community.”

Ms Singh said there were many opportunities for Diaspora small business in India, particularly in the areas of food and beverage, water and waste management, agriculture, and mining.

She’s also optimistic that Australia’s two-way trade with India will catch up to China, thanks to India’s pro-business Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We know that the trade figures with China are much stronger but I think over time India will start to really, really catch up in that space,” she said.

If she doesn’t win a seat come next election, Ms Singh hopes to continue building Australia-India ties, saying: “I care deeply about our multicultural country and also the growth of our Australia India relationship – I think it is such a key plank for our future, especially with this being the Asian Centenary.”

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