By Nidhi Kumari
- Coming to a foreign soil for better prospects bring with it– its share of challenges and struggles. You’ve spent more than two decades in Australia, how do you look at the time gone by?
Yes, I have actually spent more than two decades in Australia since the day I decided to call Australia home, somewhat over 26 years to be precise. As was the norm in those days, and I’m talking 1990-91, I came to Australia with a wife and two children, both girls, in tow on a skilled migration visa. Coming from the comfort zone of being, in India, in permanent employment of the Government and at a senior middle level executive engineering position, it was hard initially. That was the time of the “recession that we had to have” to quote Paul Keating. So much so that after nearly 500 applications for an engineering position, I managed to get three interviews and was not accepted me because ‘I was too highly qualified’. Left Australia, totally disappointed, after three months of first stay – on one way tickets, all four of us, vowed never to return, got my old job back near Chandigarh and tried to again fit into the daily routine of golfing, social get togethers and so on. I think I can still claim my old membership back at the Chandigarh Golf Club. The bug that bit me to migrate to Australia didn’t go away in a hurry though. Within 3 months of being in Chandigarh we packed our bags again and boarded the planes to Australia – on one way tickets! Again! The time in Australia, initially, was of common trials and tribulations that we all are so familiar with in the story of immigrants. I took up a job in the Australian Public Service at the lowest level of the food chain almost immediately on arrival the second time, quickly rose through the ranks of the Department of Social Security(later the Centrelink) and became a line manager at Hornsby outlet of Centrelink. Somewhere along the way I realized that the tall poppies in the public service were not willing to let a recent migrant rise above a certain level in the hierarchy. And my Engineering profession being close to my heart I branched off into being an independent Consulting Engineer way back in the mid nineties, after hours and on weekends, eventually putting up my hand for redundancy package from Centrelink and going full time into consulting in Engineering and Planning. Collected a few accreditations of the professional bodies as an engineer and planner.
The family life took a hit with doing multiple jobs every day, most times working through the weekends, 70 to 80 hours a week personally, My daughters went to school and Universityin Sydneyand are well settled now. I am a grandfather, most people do show surprise on learning this. My wife worked rigorous shifts in a Government job in Sydney and later became an English Teacher at High Schools in the NSW education system. I’m sure she would have her own story of struggle and hardships to tell. All up, real struggle all through. But I am happy and contented. My children have never been demanding and by God’s grace have followed the traditional and time tested good family values and have integrated into the community as true blue Australians. I am still working and have no intention of retiring as long as I am fit of body and mind.
- You have been a civil engineer and now you are a politician. How did the transition from engineering to politics happen?
My firm opinion that Civil Engineers are basically philosophers in nature is based on the fact that Civil Engineering, because of its all encompassing and wide range of community related work, makes its practitioners excellent material for being practitioners in public life.
Before migrating to Australia I worked on major infrastructure projects that required vision and foresight and a thought stream that aligns with serving the masses. I conceptualized and worked on projects that are today not only generating electric power but also providing flood mitigation and irrigation benefits to millions of people and millions of hectares of precious land that used to get devastated by floods during monsoons but had neither power to run tubewells nor canalized irrigation during the rest of the year. And I am not saying I was the only one but I feel a satisfaction and humble pride to have done that.
Now, coming to Australia in a more developed country and economy at that time, there was a chance to diversify into the public service and having seen from close quarters(being with the Social Security and Centrelink for a number of years) the miserable and, sometimes humiliating, lifestyle that at least some of the Australian community were going through. Also, for a long time in that period of time there used to be talk of someone, anyone, possibly putting up their hand to work for our own growing Indian Diaspora, in the political mainstream of Australia.
There came a time around the year 2000 that I felt a little bit comfortable in terms of earning a living, getting the children through school and Uni and so on. That was the time I started to think of joining public life from the perspective of serving the community possibly in an elected position. Eventually joined the Liberal Party and got to have a shot at being a Councillor and Deputy Mayor of Hornsby.
- To get hold of the reigns of a city, that too in aforeign soil is no cake walk. But you have served as a councillor, representing the Indian community with panache. How do you see politics in Australia (being different from India)?
My experience of being in an elected position in Australia is perhaps no different from anybody else’s here. Having said that, I must add that I had never been associated with politics or politicians even, throughout my time in India. As I see it, the political climate and the practice of politics is basically the same across the globe and loosely follows the theories propounded by Chanakya, Machiavelli or similar proponents of politics and governance. Many years ago, when there were relatively fewer Indian migrants here in Australia, India bashing used to be the favourite pastime at social gatherings and such. All that was related to perceived poor governance of the country at the time, little realizing the enormity of the task of rebuilding a unified nation of diverse people where there were zero type Bank balances in the Government vaults starting 15th August 1947. Which led to corruption in public service, tax evasion by the business communities and other related social evils. But as we have all been watching with great interest, Government policies have borne fruit and a vibrant and progressive economy has been shaped through the hard work and diligence of the Indian governance system over the last seven decades. The amount of economic progress through astute political and governance policies that we see today is in fact being built on the solid foundations laid during all of the 70 years of independence by successive Indian Governments of different political colours and hues.
We cannot rule out the bad elements taking advantage of the system and its vulnerabilities, particularly in a poor nation at the start. Such elements always tend to corrupt the entire system and sometimes do appear to gain an upper hand over a short period of time. I must say that the Indian voter is far more astute than the most accomplished politician and knows the value of their vote and has demonstrated its power in summarily dismissing the non performing politicians, entire governments, many times. It is a vibrant and breathing democratic political system.
I guess I don’t need to say much about the politics and the system of governance here in our country of choice, Australia. We have seen similar things happening, ICAC inquiries, heads rolling, backstabbing at the highest level, et al.
Not much different.
- How would you describe your experience as a councillor for Hornsby Shire?
Being elected in 2012 for the first time ever in my life through a popular vote of over 35,000 voters was actually a turning point. The job of a Councillor is perhaps the most demanding of the three different lots of elected representatives to the three tiers of Government here in Australia, the Local, the State and the Federal. And I knew this even before I put up my hand for the Council elections in that year. You see, as opposed to the State and Federal MP’s jobs, the Councillors do not get paid any significant salaries. In fact, Councillors at any Council would be lucky to receive over $25,000.00 per year, before tax.
The demand on a Councillor’s own time and resources is similar to that of a full time, nearly 24/7 job. And, hats off, most of us(including yours truly) respond to the rigours quite well. But, then, it leaves a big hole to be filled in terms of meeting the needs of yourself and your family. My case has been no different. I have had to work hard to honestly fulfil my obligations to the public that elected me, as well as the usual obligations of a person to earn and support a family and save for the retirement.
In the role of Councillor and Deputy Mayor, I was able to apply my personal knowledge as a consulting engineer and planner and, in return, earned the respect of the senior executive staff of the Council. For the public, I am always available to receive concerns, grievances, issues that affect each ratepayer of our Council area.
In return, I received respect, admiration and support at all times. My experience as a Councillor has been of joy and freedom to work for the local community and observe the positive effects of our consultative approach to the benefit of the community
- Having worked as a councillor, what have been your major contributions and what are the areas where you think work needs to be done now?
In 2012 when I was elected alongwith the rest of the Councillors(10 in all including the Mayor), Hornsby Council’s budget had been consistently in the red by millions every year in the past. Through our team effort, our Council was able to make some hard decisions and in the very first year of our Term the deficit had been turned around into a surplus. This surplus then continued annually and we were able to put that money into infrastructure for the public. The completion of the state of the art Hornsby Aquatic Centre, the footbridge from the Hornsby Railway Station connecting to the Hornsby Mall, commencement of the filling up of the Hornsby quarry and its eventual use as a most modern public recreation park. All that plus the rejuvenation of the Hornsby, Pennant Hills and Epping CBD’s, construction and upgrading of parks and open spaces and sports facilities are some of the major achievements of the period 2012-2017 when I was a Councillor and Deputy Mayor. On the humanitarian level, the Hornsby Men’s Shed and the Women’s Shelter, facility for victims of domestic violence, usually women, are two major projects that the Hornsby Council supports in one form or the other.
There is a lot more work to be done for the ratepaying community of Hornsby Shire. Support for the homeless and the destitute is a major area of concern. A lot more work still needs to be done. The rolling program of community donations and grants that supports the smaller sections of ourmulticultural community needs to be ramped up so that the seniors, the differently abled and the more vulnerable get adequate recognition, support and a fair go at normal and dignified life.
- How do you look at the political scenario at present? And also the Indo-Aussie relation?
The political scenario in terms of the participation by the Indian Diaspora in Australian politics is a natural progression of the life and times and growth of communities. Of late, there has been growing recognition amongst many of us that having a say in policy and law making is possible by any citizen of Australia. There have been, for example, a number of Indian born Australian candidates in recent elections to Councils across NSW and Victoria. Few of us have succeeded whereas majority have not. I think the overall result where some of the Indian origin Australians have been elected is a very encouraging sign for the future. However, we as a community, need to remain vigilant and wary of the plethora of the so called ‘community associations’ continuously sprouting up and their ‘leaders’ who sit at the head of a five member association then claim to represent an entire community. In the process it eventually turns out that some of us were only after some amount of public recognition within a limited sphere.
I do not understand the part about Indo Aussie relation but what I do understand is that in order to effectively participate in the law and policy making process, the political process, all those of us who wish to be recognized, still need to work our way to that point where we can hope to be recognized as potential candidates for a successful or ‘winnable’ State or Federal Parliament positions where mainstream political parties will not hesitate to support an Indian Australian candidate under their political umbrella. And for that we will firstly need to work within our own Indian Australian community to generate awareness of issues and their remedies. This work needs to be continuous, selfless and with a genuine feeling of respect and concern for the community.
- Who is that one leader/politician you are most inspired by?
Abraham Lincoln has been my all time favourite leader.
- In your words, what makes a leader?
A person who feels for their fellow beings, is able to represent the interests of the community and works for the community without fear or favour, is sensitive to the individual needs of their constituents.
- You have been a voracious reader and writer. Any plans of donning the writer’s hat professionally?
Has been a very very long time since I attempted to write. Perhaps, and if, when I retire I may write something about governance or philosophy.
I did start to write a recipe book of Indian cooking some years ago, and I have gone past all of about four recipes so far. I guess I would like to give that one a priority if I can.
- What is it that you like to do when you are not working?
As you said reading is a great pastime. I like to read English fiction, action and suspense and Hindi and Punjabi poetry. I like to experiment with cooking, Indian style. Apparently I am usually in demand at home to cook and my family enjoy being the guinea pigs for my cooking adventures.
- Last but not the least, what is it that you would like to say to the aspiring politicians from the Indian community?
Work sincerely with and within the community and show some results for your sensitivity as a potential leader and policy and lawmaker. Get to know the community that you want to represent. Find out what their expectations are and how to meet those expectations. Have a policy.
Your policies and the laws you initiate, when and if you get a chance to make some, are going to affect not only the millions of citizens of today but also the generations to come. Being in politics and aspiring for election and then being an elected representative is serious business. Do not take it lightly. Recognise your own talents, be confident. If anyone can do it, you can too. Good Luck!