Even as the Indian population in Australia grows steadily, with the Indian-born population doubling from nearly 150,000 to nearly 300,000 people between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, their relative absence in the countryâ€™s politics is being sorely felt. In the state of Victoria, one south Indian businessman is hoping to become the first independent Indian voice in the Federal Senate.
38-year-old Karthik Arasu, born in Chennai, went to Australia to pursue a Masterâ€™s degree in Engineering at Swinburne University and in the 17 years since, has gone from working part-time in a service station for United Petroleum to successfully building a series of small businesses. For much of that time, he has also involved himself in mentoring a variety of other small business owners through his community business establishment network. â€śMy idea of community service has been to empower people so that they can not only stand for themselves but also lend a helping hand to others,â€ť he says.
But, says Karthik, there are issues and aspects of public life that can only be tackled through politics. Prime among those is the question of representation of non-white immigrant communities such as Indians. â€śWhat pains me is that Indian Australians, despite being such a dynamic and hardworking people are the most under-represented in Australian Politics. The contribution of the Indian Australian community to the economy is immense. We have integrated in the Australian system so seamlessly. However, the same doesnâ€™t reflect when it comes to the ethnic representation.â€ť
But where providing a greater voice for the Indian community is concerned, Karthikâ€™s decision seems counter-intuitive at first glance. After all, wouldnâ€™t gaining further representation in the existing party be the best way to integrate politically? Not so, he says, because the established parties have the strongest interest in maintaining the status quo, and keeping new entrants who might disturb it out of the picture.
â€śThe party in power and the opposition enter into deals to keep independents and smaller parties out of the equation. When it comes to circumventing difficult policy decisions, the major parties enter into backroom deals and join hands at the cost of the common man. It's actually the independents and smaller parties that truly hold the government to account in Australia,â€ť he says.
Indeed, claims Karthik, the high barrier raised by status quo politics of the established parties is visible in the way candidates from the Indian community are included in the party. â€śThereâ€™s hardly any representation from the Indian community in the established parties, and the handful who are in the election race from major parties are in seats which parties consider already lost. This is unfair and not inclusive in true sense of the word.â€ť
Being the voice of a specific community in the Australian Senate, adds Karthik, doesnâ€™t mean only representing the sectional interest. Rather, he says, these issues tie in with the general interest of all communities at the same time as they introduce certain culturally-specific issues. Thus, two of Karthikâ€™s campaign promises are to push for the declaration of public holidays for Diwali and Eid, and for culturally-appropriate food labelling.
But his manifesto dwells in larger part on issues of employment, education, healthcare and infrastructure, albeit with a view to the impact on South Asian communities. â€śWe are taking both migrants and indigenous population into account in our future plans. The bottom-line is that all these problems are not just problems of a certain set of people, these issues are facing the wider communities.â€ť
Thus, one of his key campaign planks is for zero income tax for new mothers for the first three years after childbirth. Womenâ€™s participation in the workforce, he says, is key not only for increasing the value addition to their individual lives but for the economy as a whole, â€śespecially Indian women who are highly educated and forced to stay home because of lack of family support in Australia as most are first generation immigrants.â€ť