Michelle Ananda-Rajah: Very much a modern Australian story

By Indira Laisram
Michelle Ananda-Rajah // Pic supplied

The dust has settled on the elections. And for Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, the first Labor Member of Parliament (MP) to win the seat of Higgins in its 70-plus year history, life has changed. But “it’s not very glamourous yet at the moment,” she says with a laugh. “We haven’t got an office or staff yet, so it’s very much a transitional phase.”

By her own telling, Ananda-Rajah never set out to enter politics. “It is something that happened very late in my life as a consequence of other things, the pandemic principally, but it was a real moment of clarity when I went through that. I realised you cannot ignore politics; it is incredibly important.”

Prior to the election, Ananda-Rajah was a respected infectious diseases doctor at The Alfred’s COVID-19 ward during the pandemic. According to The Age, she was one of many medical experts in the early days of the bungled vaccine rollout who had concerns over AstraZeneca.

“The pandemic activated me and what I realised during the advocacy I did then was that there was a lot of voluntary work. But what I also realised was that if you really want to drive change with the speed and the scale necessary then you really do need to step into the political ring,” she tells The Indian Sun.

While that was pretty obvious, the other thing she realised during the pandemic was that “the actions of politicians, who may not have much skin in the game, have a material impact on people in the ground such as frontline healthcare workers. So, politics is really important, it can make the lives of ordinary Australians better or worse”.

Given her credentials, Ananda-Rajah was head hunted by the Labor Party. The strategy paid off. She defeated Dr Katie Allen, a paediatrician, who retained the seat on a 2.6 per cent margin after the 2019 election. And by becoming the first candidate to successfully challenge the seat of Higgins, which had been held by the Liberal Party since its creation in 1949 and held by two former prime ministers, John Gorton and Harold Holt, Ananda-Rajah has, in a sense, made history.

She says it’s hard to pin down the party’s success on one particular factor, but “we had a very good grassroots campaign, and it was characterised by authentic connection with people in the community and the electorate. We also had a good policy offering which I think is important because, ultimately, elections are about the future and that’s what people want to know”.

Of course, Ananda-Rajah will continue to advocate for the policies that Labor campaigned for. “We are in favour of rapid renewable energy transition, this is a huge opportunity for Australia and is not a trivial undertaking. So is onshore manufacturing.”

Women owning the economic narrative is again very important for Ananda-Rajah. “I think women have been brushed out of it, we have equality and inter-generational issues, there’s a real disparity between all the asset rich classes and the young people and we need reparation for our First Nation people, that’s incredibly important,” she says.

Michelle Ananda-Rajah // Pic supplied

One particularly telling question The Indian Sun put to Ananda-Rajah, given her background, is how a modern local healthcare system should look like. “That’s a big question,” she replies. “There are a lot of great things about our healthcare system, one thing being that we have a universal healthcare that was brought in by Bob Hawke, a Labor Prime Minister. We are trying to strengthen Medicare but Medicare is under pressure mainly due to an ageing population that has multiple comorbidities. There is a much bigger piece of work that needs to be done around health reform particularly in linking up primary care and hospital, which is currently funded by two different funding bodies.”

And of course, one of the questions following Ananda-Rajah is of brown representation in Australian politics. “Look, we currently have a Parliament that is the most diverse Parliament we’ve ever had, these things have not happened by accident. There are certain structural reforms that the Labor Party brought in a long time ago, principally around gender equality. This was brought decades ago, it’s paid dividends. There are 10 women in the Cabinet today, which is extraordinary. So, there is no shortage of talent.”

However, she admits there are deeper challenges for women in general and “that’s mainly because we are still very much hampered by the motherhood penalty. We have children that is a drag on our career success and on our career trajectory, so we have a lot of work to do as a government and as a society in ensuring women can have children and still succeed in other domains in their lives”.

Anand-Rajah’s election is a turning point crashing through the racial ceiling. She says it’s an exciting time in the nation’s history seeing finally the emergence of people from culturally diverse backgrounds including from the Southeast Asian communities. “It’s been a long time coming but finally its occurred and its happened due to progressive structural changes made by a progressive party. It emphasises again why it’s so important to have progressive governments to put in place the kind of reforms needed that will pay dividends down the track,” she says.

But having been born in England, lived in Africa as a child and coming to Australia as an 11-year-old, Anand-Rajah identifies herself more as an Australian than anything else. “My parents are Sri Lankan Tamils and I am aware of my cultural heritage. I suppose I am a part of the diaspora.”

Her advice to girls and women from South Asian backgrounds who want to pursue a career in politics is: join a political party, learn the ropes, follow the rules, attain preselection and go from there. She adds there is the other unorthodox way as is her case, which is also possible.

Days after the historic win, Ananda-Rajah is trying to find some time for herself. “I don’t have a lot of time, I have always been a working mum in a work-life parenting obligation, I have two children, so I think I am very similar to a lot of working mothers out there,” she says.

Not one to rest her laurels, she is cognisant of the fact that there is a responsibility that comes with her new job. “I take delivery of what we set out to do very seriously and that’s what I intend to do. I intend to work really hard and deliver outcomes for Higgins as well as the national interest.”

Winning the seat is historic and significant on multiple levels for Ananda-Rajah. On a personal level, being a person of colour, she believes it is a testament to the promise and potential of Australia.

This is very much a modern Australian story—the migrant’s success story!

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