July 22, 2016 at 2:18 am

Does Alex Bhathal represent us?

Does Alex Bhathal represent us?

By Ruchira Talukdar


It’s been two weeks since a close and confusing federal election vote. My electorate of Batman in north-east Melbourne is still decked in large green corflutes with the smiling face of Alex Bhathal, a second generation Sikh Immigrant and a long-running Greens candidate for this seat.

After two weeks of patiently watching the counting process, this Monday Bhathal finally conceded defeat to Labor’s David Feeney, but not before winning the primary vote and achieving a historic 9.5% swing away from Labor in what used to once be the major party’s safest seat in the entire country.


The Greens will have to wait till the next elections to re-attempt a win, but winds of change have definitely begun blowing in Batman, which at the present moment is a curious mix of recently arrived multicultural migrant communities, blue collars, and young professionals and students, whose spread northwards from Fitzroy, has to a large extent driven this change in the electorate’s voting habits.


Apart from representing the interests of this mixed, progressive electorate with the Greens’ policy emphasis on tackling climate change, focus on refugees and Australia’s immigration policies more generally, as well as moving away from extractive industries to create jobs in a hi-tech and renewable economy, Alex regards herself a “representative for the Indian community across Australia”.


But does the roughly 680,000 strong Indian community identify with Bhathal’s Green-left approach? Does she represent the interests and issues relevant to Australia’s Indian diaspora?


Indians are now the largest growing immigrant group in Australia, having officially overtaken the UK in the number of permanent migrations per year. Even though the most recent arrivals are ineligible to vote, their issues – jobs, settling in a multicultural society, and seeking and finding opportunities without discrimination – make for a politically relevant focus for parties or candidates interested in the Indian vote.


Out of the two major parties, Labor has traditionally been seen as welcoming of migrant communities, appreciative of multiculturalism over assimilation, and non-racist in its outlook compared to the conservative Liberal Coalition and its once hostile approach towards non-white immigration.


But similar to a trend amongst Indians in the United States, a shift in preferences from Democrats to the Republicans as a result of the increase in wealth, sections of the Australian Indian diaspora now closely associate with the Liberal Party. This ‘friendship’ became more visible since Narendra Modi’s election and the forging of strategic cooperation between Prime Ministers Modi and Tony Abbott.


At the same time, there is a different trend emerging in Australia. The last two elections make it evident that Indians, who are keen to participate in politics, have not limited themselves to the two major parties; Alex Bhathal running for the Greens in the seat of Batman is not an exception but represents an emerging pattern in the political life of the Indian diaspora.


The 2013 elections were remarkable not only in terms of the highest number of South Asian candidates ever, at a total of 25 (with Indians being the vast majority), but also in that most candidates chose not to run for either Labor or Coalition.


Four South Asian candidates ran for the Greens, equaled by the Liberals while Labor trailed behind with three candidates. The remaining 14 candidates either ran as independents or single issue parties.


This election has seen fewer South Asians, but the trend has continued. The only candidate of Indian heritage to enter the fray from Queensland chose the Xenophon team over either major party. But the Greens deserve the most credit for creating a prominent place for South Asians, otherwise virtually absent in the Australian political leadership, in their party.


This election not only saw Bhathal being backed by extensive party resources for the important seat of Batman, Wills, the high profile electorate next door renowned for its cultural diversity witnessed Sri Lankan, Samantha Ratman, take on Labor in another highly resourced Greens campaign. Outside the federal circuit, Pakistan-born Dr Mehreen Faruqi, the first Muslim woman in Australian parliament, has been a Greens Member of the Legislative Council in NSW since 2013.


In a society that lacks cultural diversity across institutions and in leadership positions, three South Asian women in prominent positions in the Green party heralds a positive new trend. And it calls for a serious consideration of the party’s policies by the Indian diaspora, the fastest growing immigrant group and the largest South Asian community in Australia.


While the cultural and gender goodwill can act as motivations for considering the Greens policies, climate change is the most critical reason why Indians in Australia should take this party seriously.


Australia is closer to India than all the other rich nations with influential Indian diaspora. Australia’s leadership, action-taking, and honest collaboration on the threat of climate change and its associated threats of human displacement is likely to bear an impact of the Indian Ocean region.


Climate change predictions for the Indian subcontinent are dire, with water shortages, catastrophic weather events, food shortages, and rapid glacier melts predicted with rising temperatures. In the Sunderbans, one of the world’s climate hotspots, the sea is rising twice as fast as the global average, hastening the fate of millions who populate the mangrove islands on the brink of India and Bangladesh, towards that of refugees.


Meanwhile, the Australian economy has been reluctant in shifting towards renewables and away from carbon intensive fossil fuels, owing to the political backlash to the carbon price and the disproportionate influence of the fossil fuel extraction sector on both major parties. A significant section of the Australian population is still mired in climate skepticism, a luxury South Asia simply cannot afford. Climate denialism, a veritable risk to the future of the region, is unfortunately set to make a comeback into Australian politics.


Creating a social climate for drastically reducing emissions in Australia, assisting India’s burgeoning economy to decarbonize as per the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and fostering understanding of everyday climate impacts in South Asia such as the rapidly rising waters in the Sunderbans, are imperatives for the future of the region.


Making its host society a caring and non-polluting place that appreciates its neighbours’ challenges is a bigger imperative for the Indian diaspora in Australia than its narrowly opportunistic counterpart in the distant United States which has openly endorsed Donald Trump, a xenophobic Republican and a climate skeptic.


By supporting the growth of Australia’s renewable industry quickly while simultaneously reducing its dependency on fossil fuels, the Greens have proved themselves head and shoulders above both major parties. They, as opposed to either Labor or the Liberals, want to see Australia contribute its fair share under the Green Climate fund, under which, as per the Paris Agreement, developed countries assist others to adapt and mitigate under climate change. Fulfilling this commitment will maintain climate justice in the Indian Ocean region and honour the agreement on which the survival of future generations depends.


Another relevant issue that the greens support is the humane treatment of asylum seekers. By asking for asylum claims to be processed onshore and for the closure of offshore detention centres, the Greens have acted as the voice of conscience where both major parties have failed. This is what motivated Alex Bhathal to abandon her cynicism of the major parties and reenter politics as a Greens candidate for Batman in 2000.


While Tasmanian Labor Senator Lisa Singh, the first person of Indian heritage to make it to federal parliament, had to break ranks with her party in order to stand up against fossil fuel subsidies and offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, Bhathal’s party policies are naturally geared towards addressing these challenges.


Further, as a migrant voice for the Greens, Bhathal can bring a more global, to be precise, developing world, perspective on the climate change and refugee challenge to the political table, perspectives that the majority of privileged Australian voters and their representatives are unlikely to share.


As a diasporic community whose rise to prominence in public life is a more recent phenomenon than that of longer settled diasporas in the United States, the UK and Canada, Indians in Australia might be on the verge of setting a refreshingly different political trend.


Already, a tendency towards joining minor parties or running as independents over joining the major parties is evident, indicating an appetite for experimentation and a desire to create alternative forums to represent the community’s interests.


The prominence given to Alex Bhathal, Samantha Ratnam and Mehreen Faruqi in the Green party exemplifies this trend. At the same time it also proves another important point: that prominent South Asians in Australia no longer consider green-left issues as fringe matters; instead, they see climate change, refugees and issues relating to transforming the economy as central challenges to address.

While we have to wait another election cycle to rekindle hopes of Batman changing from red to green, in the meantime, the burgeoning Indian diaspora can consider the various ways in which the policies of the Australian Greens respond to some of the biggest challenges facing the South Asian region in the near to mid term future.


And in doing so, perhaps it will agree that a future Greens Federal MP from the Indian community, far from representing fringe issues, has the potential to sincerely represent their interests.


Image source: The New Daily


Ruchira Talukdar is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research compares the discourses of environmental politics in developed and developing countries. She comes from an environmental NGO background, across India and Australia, where over the last ten years she has worked to address a range of environmental challenges from climate change, genetically modified food crops, toxic waste pollution, river restoration and oceans protection. She is also a nature lover and never misses a chance to take a long walk in the mountains.

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