Lisa Singh was the first woman of Indian origin elected to the Australian Parliament as a senator from the state of Tasmania in the federal election in August 2010. A member of the Australian Labor Party, she was earlier a member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly from 2006 to 2010. Proud of her Indo-Fijian political heritage as the grand-daughter of a member of the parliament of Fiji; Singh, who is now the director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne; is an advocate for a deeper relationship between India and Australia.
Throughout her career in Parliament and outside, Singh has focussed on advocacy on protection of human rights, justice, foreign affairs, multiculturalism, the environment and climate change. From the pandemic restrictions in Australia and the impact on Indian students to the journey of her great-grandparents from Kolkata to work in the British-owned sugarcane fields of Fiji. She spoke to TOI on a wide range of topics. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You were the first woman of Indian heritage elected to the Australian parliament as senator for Tasmania – what were the challenges that you faced during the journey?
When I joined the Australian senate in 2011, I was shocked to find that I was the first person of Indian origin elected to the parliament of Australia. There is a vibrant and growing Indian diaspora of over 700,000, including many second and third generation members of the Indian Australian community. The community has rapidly grown over the past two decades and I would have thought there would be more representation. I was breaking two glass ceilings – not just as a person of Indian heritage but also as a woman.
However, I didn’t let my minority status become an issue; people had elected me because they wanted to see diversity in the parliament. It highlighted that Australia has become a multicultural society with strong democratic institutions. I was from a state which is one of the least culturally diverse in Australia – the number of people of Indian origin in Tasmania would fit into one family home. Back then, the only way that I could connect with my Indian heritage was internally when I was spending time at home with my dad; I wanted to be more Australian and less Indian.

Lisa Singh receiving the Pravasi Samman, India’s highest civilian honour for global Indians.

There was a time when I denying my Indian heritage and that part of my cultural identity and it took me a while to have courage to stand for leadership roles and look for ways to contribute. In the senate, often I have been the only woman of colour in the room. Attitudes to race and prejudice played out in my election campaign in 2006, my posters were defaced with red dots painted on my face. One of the candidates was encouraging people not to vote for me because I was of Indian origin. I developed a thick skin along the journey and I knew what I could bring to the political stage. I just worked that little bit harder. I have fought five elections and was in parliament for 12 years. People elected me for who I was and I thank my community because they wanted greater diversity and we are not any more a racist community in Australia. Besides women in politics have now gained a more critical mass and we’re breaking barriers. There have been changes and there are trailblazers who have made the path easier. Society has become more diverse thanks to migrants settling outside large cities.
Your political journey started in the Australian state of Tasmania as a member of the House of assembly; what was the inspiration behind your entry into public life?
In my own family, I have grown up with a role model – my grandfather Ram Jati Singh, who was a member of the legislature in Fiji in the 1960s and 1970s when the archipelago was still under the British rule. He, along with others, had pushed for the independence of Fiji and sought the support of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for this movement. I have learnt a lot from this courageous advocacy effort by a small island state which had a strong Indian diaspora. My great-grandfather, too, has an inspiring story of having left Gwalior when he was just 19 on a tough month-long journey through the Kolkata port to Fiji to work in the sugarcane fields of the British empire under slave like conditions. These are the stories of fighting for justice and freedom that have helped shape public advocacy roles that I have taken up.
I was born in 1972, the years when the White Australia policy came to an end and along with it the lack of acceptance for minorities. When I was elected to the Tasmanian parliament, I was the only Indian origin member and later in the Australian parliament, I was only one of four Asians. In my present job too, as director of the Australia India Institute, I find that business leadership plays an important role in recognising diversity. My journey has been towards contributing to the democratic system and inspiring more diverse representation across politics, business and non-government sectors. Those in leadership positions have an important role to play in inspiring the next generation of Indian Australians to come forward and contribute to a society where different cultures are now widely accepted even while living in a broader Australian context.
In your current role as the director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, how are you helping strengthen India-Australia ties?
The ‘on-again-off-again’ Australia-India relationship is now definitely ‘on’. The year 2021 will be remembered as one when the Australia-India relationship soared to a new high with long term gains in the areas of a stronger foreign policy; peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region; and maritime security on both sides. While there has been an elevation of the Australia-India comprehensive strategic partnership; the ongoing challenges from the Covid19 pandemic, and now the new variant of the virus, have created diplomatic challenges for both the countries.
The fallout of the temporary travel ban by Australia last year prevented many Indian students from returning to study and that cannot be ignored. There was also a lot of frustration among Indian diaspora families many of who couldn’t return to their homes and Australia seemed very insular for them. We have to ensure that we provide research and policy advice to both the Indian and Australian governments, for the future, to tackle such crisis situations should they occur again.
Indian students and young professionals in Australia have been hard hit by the pandemic; are you supporting any relief measures for them?
It has been incredibly tough for Indian students in Australia during the pandemic. However, with the right policies, Australia will bounce back as a favourable destination for Indian and other international students. While the plans to welcome students back have already been launched, the arrival policies need to be pushed through policy measures. The Study Melbourne Hubs initiative, launched during the lockdown, was an example of supporting international students during difficult times.
The government of the state of Victoria has also supported bursaries at universities and provided emergency relief funds for international students to help them during the lockdowns and restrictions since they were not able to go out to work. The travel ban and Fortress Australia had a very negative effect on the Indian diaspora and in future this should never happen again. Indians form a large part of the diaspora in Australia and the bilateral and social connections between the two countries should be respected through flexible policies. On immigration policy, while we want Indian students to come and study in Australia, there is no clear pathway to post study work and migration so that they can contribute in Australia through their skills and knowledge. More policy development is needed in this area.
Do you have any connections with India and do you follow any Indian traditions at home?
I follow many Indian traditions including celebrating Diwali by lighting lamps and Holi with colours. I am also trying to re-start my journey of learning Hindi so that I can put it to practise when I travel to India. The cultural understanding about India was not just a part of my growing up but also a part of being a politician. Different groups across Australia have often invited me to be part of their celebrations of festivals and these have been uplifting experiences. But more needs to be done to promote a deeper understanding about India in Australia especially at the business level. For a more vibrant multicultural community here, we need to promote India literacy in Australia so that people understand who Indians are and what their contributions are. At the Australia India Institute, we follow an Indian cultural calendar and don’t miss out on any of the festivals.
Do you visit India often?
Prior to the pandemic, I have visited often for work and now I plan to travel to India again next month. My very first trip to India was a cultural backpacking journey across Rajasthan but later I have become more interested in seeking out my family heritage and connections. A very significant trip to India was in 2018 when I visited the Kidderpore port in Kolkata from where my great-grandparents had migrated. I saw the monument built there to honour the incredible journey of the girmitiyas (indentured labourers) and experienced some special moments there on the banks of the Hooghly River. I hope, on my next trip, to visit Gwalior where my family came from. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event in 2015 in Gandhinagar was very special too because of the incredible honour of receiving the Pravasi Samman and meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several Indian ministers. I have also had the privilege of visiting the home of legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in Mumbai a few years back and discussed with him opportunities for Bollywood in Australia.
Do you see an increasing number of young Indian Australians choosing public life and politics as a career?
Countries such as the US, Canada and the UK have gone a long way to enable members of the Indian diaspora to rise to leadership roles in public life and we in Australia need to learn from there about policy mechanisms to ensure better representation. Australia has a newer diaspora and we still have a long way to go and I don’t see young Indian Australian coming into public life and politics at the Australian federal parliament level. While that needs to change, I have mentored young members of the community at the local government and council levels. The major Australian political parties have a role to play and a lot to learn from the US and the administration of President Joe Biden on tapping the Indian diaspora; while Vice President Kamala Harris is a role model, there are several other Indian Americans in senior positions in the US government too.


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