Why is the large Indian-Australian community under-represented in Parliament?

Though Indians are among the largest immigrant groups in Australia, they remain under-represented in the parliament. The May 18 polls were no exception.

Why is the large Indian-Australian community under-represented in Parliament?
The Liberal Party, part of Australia’s ruling coalition, was left red-faced days before the May 18 federal elections when Gurpal Singh, its candidate from Scullin in Victoria, made homophobic and misogynistic comments.

The party asked him to resign as candidate. The episode also embarrassed the large Indian-Australian community as very few Indians run for elections or are visible in Australia’s public life.

“The number of Australians born in India is growing rapidly,” says James Button, a former journalist and speechwriter to former prime minister Kevin Rudd. “Indians are now the largest migrant group coming to Australia each year, and the fourth largest group of overseas-born Australians.


But few Indians are running for the Parliament and the biggest reason is that most Indians have arrived here recently. It is too early to expect them in large numbers in the Parliament, reflecting their growing numbers in the country.”

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Slow Start
The Indian-Australians who did make it to the Parliament are few and far between, but the numbers are slowly growing.

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In March, Gurmesh Singh, a third-generation Indian immigrant and farmer, was elected to the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament from Coffs Harbour. He represents the National Party of Australia.

Labor Party’s Nitin Daniel Mookhey, whose parents immigrated to Australia from Punjab, has been a member of the NSW Legislative Council since 2015 and was the first parliamentarian in Australia to be sworn into office on the Bhagavad Gita.

The current Labor senator from Tasmania, Lisa Singh, is of Indian-Fijian origin. Shireen Morris, who contested the latest elections for the opposition Labor Party from Deakin in Victoria, is also Indian-Fijian.

An actor, singer, writer and lawyer, Morris was seen as a strong contender. The other high-profile candidate of Indian origin was the Liberal Party’s Devanand (Dave) Sharma from Wentworth in New South Wales. He has held top public positions, including a stint as Australia’s envoy to Israel.

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Binoy Kampmark, who contested for a senate seat from Victoria for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party in 2013, says that most major parties (Labor, Liberal and National) fielded Indian-origin people in “unwinnable” seats, with the exception of the United Australia Party.

“While the parties are yet to embrace Indian candidates in a significant way in this federal election, Clive Palmer’s pro-mining and nationalist United Australia Party fielded the largest number of Indians. Some Indians were also contesting from smaller parties,” says Kampmark, a lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne.

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Ganesh Loke, who arrived in Australia 20 years ago as a student with only $500, contested as a United Australia Party candidate from Parramatta in 2013. He contested again this time. “Life as a student in Australia was challenging and those experiences helped shape my election campaign,” says the film producer, writer and actor, who is also an active social worker in Parramatta.

Another Indian, Sunny Pratap Chandra, ran as an independent candidate for a senate seat from Victoria this time. But the IIT Kanpur alumnus and an entrepreneur, says he was disappointed at the lack of support for his campaign from the Indian-Australian community.

Having worked as a migration agent, Chandra campaigned for more immigration and against the “ceiling” of 160,000 on permanent residence visas authorised to be granted per year.

The fact likely to have impacted his chances of winning was that many of his supporters are Indians who are in Australia on temporary resident or student visas and thus cannot vote. “Whether I win or not, I hope others too will take up the cause of immigration. It is a cause for our community and our children,” he told ET Magazine.

The Big Divide
Tim Soutphommasane, a professor at the University of Sydney, says that when compared to the UK, Canada and the US, there are few politicians from Indian background at the federal level in Australia because minorities fear their families may become exposed to racist attacks if they contest. “In this election campaign, there have been numerous incidents of candidates being subjected to racist abuse and threats.”

Even those who are brave enough to have run campaigns have faced an uphill task.

Pallavi Sinha, a lawyer, who recently contested in the NSW Legislative Council elections as a Liberal candidate, feels learning how to navigate the political system in Australia and secure a candidacy with a major party are big challenges for people like her.

“My parents and I had little or no political connections or experience with the political system in Australia. I did not consider politics until later in life. So I had not formed political networks or connections.” Her doctor parents immigrated from Uttar Pradesh to Australia four decades back.

While the profile of the average Indian immigrant in Australia is that of a newbie who has been there for only a few decades, an unacknowledged racial divide and discrimination also comes in the way of them becoming part of politics and public life.

“But things are changing and in the federal elections, we have have seen some faces from an Indian background making a difference and gaining high visibility,” says Amarinder Bajwa, vice-president of National Sikh Council of Australia and a Labour party supporter from Sydney.

(The writer was in Sydney for the 2019 Jefferson Fellowships of the East-West Center, Honolulu)
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