We have the courage to stand up for migrants: Alex Bhathal

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We have the courage to stand up for migrants: Alex Bhathal
Jospephs Gate

In her fifth run at the seat of Batman, Greens candidate Alex Bhathal has a good shot at winning. And it’s one that will make her the first Sikh Australian to be elected to Parliament

Bhathal was first inspired by politics as an eight-year-old girl – when she witnessed the end to the White Australia Policy after Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972. “I saw the change that it meant for my family and my own father, in terms of being more fully accepted by the country we belong too, and I realised the power a government can have on people’s lives”

The small vestige of public opinion which is anti-multicultural and anti-migration are probably always going to be there to a certain extent but they by no means represent any kind of mainstream view in Australia any longer

Is Australia about to see the first Sikh Australian elected to parliament?

Greens Party candidate Alex Bhathal is optimistic. The 51-year-old social worker, whose father hails from Punjab, has noticed a significant change in her North Melbourne electorate. “This is my fifth candidacy in the seat of Batman and I can see this time the massive difference,” says Bhathal, speaking to the Indian Sun. “There is an overwhelming show of support from the members of this electorate.”

Watch Alex Bhathal Speak

Bhathal isn’t the only one optimistic about her chances in the upcoming federal election. Political commentators say she has a good shot at winning, considering the Greens primary vote has grown from 11.6 per cent in 2001 to 26.4 per cent in 2013, within striking reach of the Labor Party.

The seat is currently held by Labor frontbencher David Feeney, who recently came under fire for failing to disclose a $2.3 million Northcote property – another blow rained down when media published photos of the residence, a placard supporting Bhathal prominently stood in the garden.

What’s driving the change? Bhathal believes voters are attracted to Greens Leader Richard Di Natale’s “hardworking and common sense approach to politics”. “Richard is proving himself as a very strong parliamentary leader – a lot of people are attracted,” says Bhathal.

It likely helps that the Green’s Party has strong policies on several hot button issues in this election, including climate change and asylum seekers. On asylum seekers, Bhathal says voters are harbouring a “mass of anger” against the Coalition government and Labor Party for “targeting vulnerable people for political reasons”.

On top of that, the looming threat of climate change is “keeping people awake at night – they’re looking for a party that has solutions and is prepared to act,” says Bhathal, a human rights advocate, who regularly visits immigration detention centres and has undertaken research as a PhD candidate at Curtin University’s Centre for Human Rights Education.

Bhathal was first inspired by politics as an eight-year-old girl – when she witnessed the end to the White Australia Policy after Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972. “I saw the change that it meant for my family and my own father, in terms of being more fully accepted by the country we belong too, and I realised the power a government can have on people’s lives,” says Bhathal.

Now more the four decades since White Australia was abolished, and Bhathal was “angered” but unsurprised when the refugee debate dug up tired stereotypes – Coalition Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said “illiterate” refugees would take Australian jobs. Bhathal blasts this idea as “ridiculous”. “Look at the exceptionally large amount of skills that so many migrants bring with them to this country… a lot of Indians grow up speaking English as a second and in some cases as a first tongue – it just shows how little he knows about migration, as the immigration minister!”

However, Bhathal is optimistic the Australian public has moved on from being swayed by “nasty, divisive and denigratory” politics. “The small vestige of public opinion which is anti-multicultural and anti-migration are probably always going to be there to a certain extent but they by no means represent any kind of mainstream view in Australia any longer,” she says.

More than ever before, in this election the multicultural make-up of many marginal electorates will impact who wins seats. Among the top concerns for multicultural voters, according to sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz, is: the place of Muslims in society, the role of the heavily criticised Australian Multicultural Council, whether Australia should follow Canada and pass a national Multicultural Australia Act, the whiteness of mainstream media, and whether religious beliefs should be protected from vilification.

Jakubowicz, writing in the Conversation, highlighted the Greens’ focus is on human rights and strong opposition to mooted changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and the ending of the Migrant Community Employment Fund as the key attractions for multicultural voters.

Bhathal believes the party’s stance on migration may bring more multicultural votes. “If people look at our immigration policies they will find we’re a party that has the courage to stand up for their rights as migrants – particularly for newly arrived migrants.”

She attacked the current immigration system as being “based on a business model” rather than family values, saying: “The Greens’ is the party which is prepared to turn that around. The Greens would seek to restore Australia’s family reunion migration program. We know we need to fix our problem with family reunions.”

She adds that young people who start families find themselves stranded without support, and having to … they have to pay large fees for parent visas, to bring family over to meet children and support family.” The Greens also oppose recent changes to citizenship laws, which will strip citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorist acts, whereas those holding only Australian citizenship will be entitled to remain in the country. In Bhathal’s opinion, all Australians should be treated equally under the law. “They’re treating migrant Australians differently from other Australians… and eroding the rights of all Australians to hold dual citizenship” she said.

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