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Speech: New South Wales State Election: Tamil Community

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Jun 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (00:24): The Greens campaign in the New South Wales state seat of Prospect in the March 2015 election involved considerable work with the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Prospect is a new seat created in the 2013 redistributions. It covers much of the previous seat of Smithfield, along with the elements of the former seat of Toongabbie. It was a marginal Liberal seat in the March New South Wales state election. The present electorate ranges from Bossley Park and Prairiewood in the south through to Pendle Hill, Toongabbie and Huntingwood in the north. It is the state seat with the most Tamil speakers in New South Wales.

The Greens New South Wales multicultural strategy identified the Tamil community as a priority for the New South Wales state election. Parramatta Greens member Sujan Selven, a young Tamil Australian, was preselected by the Greens to be the candidate for Prospect. Sujan came to Australia in 2000 as a refugee. He is a small business owner and runs a function centre in Pendle Hill. He is actively involved in the Australian Tamil community and co-founded the Voice of Tamils in 2008. Sujan is a keen cricketer with the Voice of Tamils Cricket Club in Parramatta. Over the years Sujan has been a frequent visitor to detention centres and he spends a significant amount of time advocating on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. Sujan first started working with the Greens in the 2010 election as part of the newly formed Tamils for Greens community group, a network of primarily Tamil youth.

The Prospect Greens campaign strategy in the 2015 election was twofold. It was to engage with the wider Prospect community on issues such as public transport, public education and health. Sujan attended and spoke at local community forums such as Unions New South Wales events and forums on local council amalgamations. The second part of the strategy involved working closely with Tamils for Greens to both increase the vote in the Tamil-speaking areas of Prospect and advance the Sri Lankan Tamil community's needs politically. The budget was intentionally kept to a minimum. For the Greens campaign team, it was also to understand and test an intense organising strategy with a multicultural community.

 

With regard to increasing the Greens vote in areas where the Tamil community resides the results are very significant. Booths located in areas with a large Tamil community received significant boosts, such as a 13 per cent swing at Toongabbie Public School, an 11 per cent swing at The Hills Sports High School, a 10 per cent swing at Girraween Public School and an 8 per cent swing at Pendle Hill. Although there was a small, 0.4 per cent, swing against the Greens in Prospect, this was well below the average swing of 1.5 per cent against the Greens across Western Sydney. The Greens polled an unprecedented 15 per cent at Giraween High School, which may now be the most Green voting booth of its size in Western Sydney. On election day, Sujan and his campaign team were able to mobilise 133 volunteers and staff at every booth in Prospect and a number of booths outside the electorate. On the Sunday before the election, 10 Prospect volunteers phone banked about 500 people in one evening. The overwhelming majority of volunteers had never previously helped the Greens in an election, and indeed many had previously volunteered for the Labor Party. The group was almost entirely young people.

With regard to advancing the Sri Lankan Tamil community's needs politically, the campaign team were able to put the issue of an international independent investigation into war crimes committed in Sri Lanka and the growing number of asylum seekers and refugees in Prospect on the political agenda in the electorate. I congratulate Hugh McDermott, the new MP for Prospect, and note that he has given his support to a war crimes investigation. In his first speech Mr McDermott said:

I look forward to working with you to support the Tamil community and reconciliation between all the peoples of Sri Lanka, which must include the establishment by the United Nations Human Rights Commission of an international investigation into wartime violations against the Tamil population during the civil war.
Sujan, his campaign team, volunteers and Tamils for Greens ran an amazing campaign. I warmly congratulate them, and I enjoyed joining them at some of their meetings. The Prospect campaign was vibrant and dynamic, and it was an absolute delight to see the Tamil community rally behind someone like Sujan and support the Greens. I hope that Sujan and everyone who was a part of the campaign continue to be involved in Australian politics.

I have worked closely with the Sri Lankan Tamil community in NSW for more than five years. I first met the community when I attended one of their protests at Martin Place during the 2009 war in Sri Lanka. The cries of anguish at the massacre going on in their homeland was met with deaf ears at the time by the then Labor government. Even after the war ended-it is estimated more than 100,000 Tamils in the north were killed and more than 330,000 Tamils incarcerated-and with horrific evidence of sexual abuse by government officials emerging, both Labor and the Liberals refused to acknowledge the very serious human rights emergency in Sri Lanka and suffering of the Tamils at the hands of the brutal government at that time.

Tamils for Greens were formed on the back of this by a group of young Tamils in Australia who felt betrayed by the silence of the then Labor government, the party that they as a community had largely supported. They lobbied their community through Tamil radio, social media and Tamil websites. They attended senior citizens' meetings and Tamil community gatherings to assert that the community had political capital as voters and that they needed to use it. No longer could Labor assume they had the vote of the Australian Tamil community.

The Tamil community has had to work very hard and consistently to convince Australians and the wider international community that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by the government of Sri Lanka. I congratulate the community, that despite all the stigma and difficulties, their hard work in building this international campaign is winning broad-based support.

The deep pain and sadness of the 26-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka continues. The Australian Tamil community continues to be a strong voice of justice for both the Tamils in Sri Lanka and for those fleeing to Australia as asylum seekers.

A continuing distress for the Sri Lankan community, apart from the ongoing structural genocide in their homeland, is the response of the Labor and Liberal party to the situation in Sri Lanka and to Tamil asylum seekers in Australia, which is largely aligned with the government of Sri Lanka. I acknowledge that some federal and state MPs have publicly supported their campaign for justice, but there have been far too few, and far too many have been silent. The official policy of Labor and the Liberals is quite different from the sympathetic voice of those MPs. Many in the community have told me that this campaign has shown that they can organise to hold the Labor and Liberal parties to account and that they are looking forward to the next federal election.

For the New South Wales Greens, the success of the Prospect campaign bodes well for a future strategy of working closely with multicultural communities. Our message has broadened and we continue to express solidarity with the oppressed, while taking issues of importance here in Australia: opposing racism and advocating for public education, public health and decent jobs. Working closely with a targeted community and pre-selecting someone with Greens values and a significant community profile delivers an opportunity to deliver Greens messages to non-traditional Greens voters and increase the vote. The campaign coordinator's evaluation of the campaign shows deep demographic analysis and microtargeting, and is an excellent template for organising into the next federal election.

For the Sri Lankan Tamil community in New South Wales there is significance in the federal seats of Greenway and Reid, which are both marginal seats with very high Tamil populations. Reid is held by the Liberal MP Craig Laundy and Greenway by Labor MP Michelle Rowland. The Tamils for Greens have already started planning their strategy for the upcoming federal election and future state elections. I wish them all the best and will continue to work closely with them.

I will also continue to campaign for an end to the structural genocide in the Tamil homeland and for an international independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka.

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