Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become a politician?
I grew up in Lahore in Punjab in Pakistan. Lahoris are very proud of who they are. There’s a saying which is very popular in Lahore: “Those who haven’t seen Lahore haven’t been born yet”. That’s the kind of love that they have for their city. I grew up in a middle-class family with three other siblings and our mum and dad. I did grow up learning quite early about inequality and particularly about gender inequality. My mum often reminds me that when I was very young I used to argue with her incessantly about the things that my two older brothers were allowed to do which I wasn’t. Those were things that girls just didn’t do at that time, like flying kites from the rooftop of our home, or playing cricket in the street with the other kids. And so I started fighting those battles of justice and equality early on in life.
Part of me wanting to be a civil engineer was part of that fight. Engineering was a very male-dominated profession — and it still is in Pakistan. I was surprised when I moved to Australia that it is here as well. Choosing that career was not so much about the love for engineering. It was really about proving the point that women should and can do anything that others can do.
In 1992 my husband and I brought our one year old son and our two suitcases to Sydney. Mine is a very typical migrant story! I spent the next 20 years of my life in Australia working in local government, in consulting firms and then teaching at the University of New South Wales, in Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering. My teaching speciality was environmental management and sustainability.
When I was a child and someone asked me what I wanted to be, I would always say a teacher because teaching is a very highly respected profession in Pakistan. My dad was a teacher. I always wanted to teach at university and that drove me to do a Masters and a PhD. I started the PhD the day after I arrived in Australia. Teaching and research has always been my passion and I think that they will always be my first love. When I entered politics, I took all of my professional experience over two continents plus an open heart and mind. But I wasn’t prepared for what politics really was.
I definitely agree with you: we still have a long way to go within the Asian Australian community and it’s very ingrained in the generations between people as well. That’s something that needs to be actively fought against and unfortunately, I think people tend to think that it will just fade away.
When I was growing up in Pakistan I always thought gender inequality was a really big issue in my culture and in the place that I was growing up. But when I moved to Australia you realise that the issue of gender inequality is pretty universal and it is about power and patriarchy. Just like with any community. Look at our parliament and our decision-making places. Look at the epidemic level of gendered violence in this country. You realise that so much needs to be done to change the culture and the root causes of this violence if we are to actually achieve gender equality in every sense of the word.
And representation is one part of that, so getting more women of colour or women in general into parliament would be a big step towards trying to manage gender equality.
So, my next question is how did you get into politics?
Mehreen: Growing up in Pakistan, everyone talks about politics. Whether it’s the person selling samosas on the street, or you go into a shop and you talk politics to the shopkeeper, so I grew up in a household where our family and extended family around the dinner table, always talk politics. A lot of it actually was about the corruption in politics that’s actually setting in Pakistan. At the time I was in my teens and I remember my parents and my aunts and uncles remembering the days where they parents had sacrificed to basically kick the colonialist British Raj out of India and try to rebuild again but were quite disappointed with the nature of politics.
So politics was never far from my mind. That said, being elected as a politician was never on the list of things to do for me.
Becoming a politician really was never on the agenda because politicians are so often thought of as corrupt, self-serving, and not really caring about the community. Who would want to enter that world? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be in NSW parliament, and now in the Australian Senate.
But also I think there’s another aspect to it as well. When you come in here as a first-generation migrant, it takes a long time to find your feet and settle in. At the time I came, there were more support structures to help migrants settle in than there are now. But even then it took me and my husband a good ten years to find jobs, to find our feet and then it was time for me to get involved in the community, as I had been in Pakistan. That time came in Port Macquarie, which is a small coastal town in the north of New South Wales. My husband and I and two kids had moved there to get out of the hustle and bustle of life in a big city like Sydney – and to also see a bit more of Australia. That’s where I really got the time to help out in the refugee support groups, bushcare and Landcare, and I was also working as an environmental engineer for the local council at that time. That’s also where I got involved with the Greens.
” I never did have any aspirations to actually be in parliament because for me, making change is not necessarily about becoming an MP. It is about working with like-minded people, and getting active and organised to create that change from a grassroots level. “Mehreen Faruqi
I found the Greens to be a political movement whose values aligned quite deeply with my values on the climate crisis, sustainability and protecting the environment, but also more deeply on removing discrimination and racism from society and standing up for multicultural communities and refugees. I appreciated a party which was bold and courageous enough to put things on the table even when they didn’t have the so-called ‘numbers’ that you need to get legislation changed in parliaments, but to actually raise important conversations like the cruelty of treatment to asylum seekers and refugees for instance. The Greens also tackled the racism that multicultural communities face and the Islamophobia that has become quite rampant in our society. So that’s what got me to join the Greens. But I never did have any aspirations to actually be in parliament because for me, making change is not necessarily about becoming an MP. It is about working with like-minded people, and getting active and organised to create that change from a grassroots level.
My family moved back to Sydney. One thing led to another and here I was in Parliament! The one thing I do remember that showed me that politicians and MPs who truly represent their communities can be a pretty powerful force for change was door-knocking. My party had pre-selected me to run in one of the state elections. It was not a winnable spot: it was a very safe Labor seat where I lived. But we still ran a good grassroots campaign, based on door-knocking every other afternoon. I would come home from a full-time job and a group of us would go out in the community, knock on doors, and ask people what they wanted Australia to be like. It really felt like such privilege to me to open up someone’s front gate, knock on their door and actually have this conversation with them. It was truly exhilarating. I saw that this was, for me, the best of politics: actually talking to people, face-to-face, without any barriers or focus groups or polling. Then you could, if you were in parliament, take those views and those voices to Parliament with you and try to make an impact so Australia is a better place for everyone. So that’s how I ended up in politics, and I’m still here eight years on!
Whenever people talk about the Greens, it’s described as a political movement rather than a party. The way that you involve ordinary people is amazing, and I think it really shows that anyone can become a politician if they wanted to. I definitely agree with talking to voters because I wish my local MP was as open as you, doing door-knocking and generally being accessible.
Mehreen: What I have heard from people over and over was that they had lived in their community for years and no-one had ever knocked on their door before. I think for people it’s such a breath of fresh air. It restored my confidence in humanity because people are generally so nice. There were a few doors shut down on me because people thought, “You’re not even from around here. Why are you even involved in politics?” But by-and-large I got cups of tea, and cold water on hot days. Someone even gave me a plant when I pointed out to them that it was one of my Dad’s favourite plants! So, it is such an incredible experience having those conversations, unhindered as I said by focus groups and polling that political parties are so keen on doing when they’re trying to find out what people are thinking.
I think nowadays that genuine person- to-person connection can be missed especially when, at times, parliament doesn’t necessarily reflect the majority interests of people.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in entering the political scene?
That is such an interesting question because when I joined the Greens in 2004, the party was very white. For one, I lived in Port Macquarie which is pretty monocultural. I think my husband and I were the first brown people to ever have worked in Port Macquarie in the history of that council. So understandably there weren’t many ethnically diverse people in the local Greens. But even in Sydney it was still a very white kind of party. So, I guess you are a bit of an outsider in that sense, but I have to say I did get a lot of support from members in the Greens, and that’s one of the reasons why I have stayed on. It is truly a member-driven movement. Members vote to preselect you as a candidate for a particular seat and I did get a lot of support. And I won preselection, to be in state parliament and then in the Senate. So I did get a lot of support and love from the members.
However there were no real systems or structures set around helping a woman of colour. Some of my friends tell me I have this triple whammy of being a woman of colour and a Muslim woman. These days, that’s not an easy thing to be, given what’s happening in our society. So there were no actual structures in the Greens to support me as an elected MP to deal with the toxic mix of racism and sexism that I receive on a daily basis. It’s considered just part of the rough-and-tumble of politics. But I think people do forget that it’s quite different facing hate as the result of a policy or because people might not like what the Greens have said, as opposed to being hated and abused and attacked for your identity: for being brown, for being South Asian, for being Muslim, for being a migrant from a country which people might not think is progressive. I think parties need to do much better. We are still very far away from getting enough people in parliaments who represent the amazing diversity that lives in our country. But then even after they are elected, we need them to be able to do their work without feeling such huge daily pressure and stress just because of who they are.
I agree. I think some people tend to be “colourblind” towards the barriers and structures that prevent minority communities from actively participating in our community and doing their jobs. Some people tend to be colourblind in the sense of, “Oh, I don’t look at race or gender, I treat everyone the same”. I think it’s very hard to prove that, especially if you don’t have lived experience of those identities. So I do agree with you that it is hard to put structures and systems in place because it does mean that the majority white, and male, population will have to see that they are in a position of power and then to have a means to give up that power. That’s a difficult conversation to have.
That is so true. I think we have to have those conversations. The Greens just released a policy for the election for mandatory anti-racism training for all Federal MPs and Commonwealth staff, no matter what department they work in. It will force people to come to the table and actually confront and challenge their white privilege. This idea of “colour-blindness” does trickle down into policy and legislation making. It is not just one-on-one racism and white privilege that impacts people of colour in this country.
How would you explain the lack of Asian Australians in Parliament, given how large the community is?
I sit in the Senate every day and I look around. It is so different from the world I live in, my street and my suburb. It really astounds me that Parliament is so under-representative of the people that live in this country. But politics in Australia is a bit of a club. It is, you could say, a white boys club. Yes, there are more women now in the Australian Parliament but it is still mainly white women. There are tried-and-tested pathways of coming into politics, for example, becoming a student politician, or working for a politician. Then you have the right networks and the right connections. But I didn’t have access to any of these pathways having not grown up in this country. And even if I had grown up here, being a person of colour, you are kind of locked out: you are an outsider. So I think that is one big reason why there aren’t more people of colour because we literally are locked out.
I think another big reason why I could never think I would become a politician is that I saw no one like me in politics. There were no role models. It’s very hard to be someone when there isn’t anyone to look up to, or feel like you can actually be in those places. It is a pretty tightly controlled, white-washed world of politics and it is hard to break in. We spoke earlier about support structures. It is not just that there are no support structures or no real inclination, especially for the two big parties, to support and help people of colour, or Asian Australians, in a winnable spot for an election, but there are actually barriers put in place for ethnically-diverse people. I will not forget what has happened in this election in Western Sydney in the seats of Fowler and Parramatta, which are some of the most ethnically, culturally diverse areas in Australia. In those seats, the Labor party has parachuted in white candidates who don’t live there, who aren’t part of the community, completely bypassing people that could have represented their community in Parliament. So there are many barriers put in place.
The pathway to politics is never easy for anyone, but for ethnically diverse candidates there are these added systemic barriers which are linked to racism, xenophobia and stereotypes of who we are and how much agency we might have. Some people see a Muslim woman and wonder how she could think for herself. Surely, it’s her father or her husband or the men in her life who are turning her in different ways. So for me, I do feel pressure to make the journey easier for others like me. It is a real privilege to be the first, but it also means that you are really careful of not stuffing up. You are held to a much higher standard. I feel like if I fail, it will make it harder for others like me to be in this place. That shouldn’t be the case, but that’s where we are at the moment.
That’s true and I think, for every ethnically diverse person, there is a higher standard that we’ve had to hold up to in this country to prove that we are Australian, and productive members of society, so I’m sorry that you had to go through that. At the same time, you are one of the only, I think the only, South Asian representation in politics, in the Federal Parliament, so you are paving the way for other Asians and South Asians to go into politics, so we definitely have to thank you for that, despite the hard journey that you have made.
It is all worthwhile. When I see younger Asian Australian women come up to me and say that they see themselves reflected in me, that they can connect to what I say about who they are, it makes it all worthwhile, it really does.
In this election I think there is a significant number of South Asian candidates running as well, which is great to see in general, even if they may or may not get elected, because just existing is already a win in terms of representation. And I think a lot of them come from the Greens as well – which is a positive.
If you had to introduce one aspect of Pakistani – or Lahori – culture, to the broader, non-Asian community, what would it be?
One very specific thing about Lahori culture is an open house and generosity. My family’s door was never locked. People came in and out all day. No one would call you and set up an appointment to visit you. If you came at lunch or dinner time, you were invited to the table, no matter what food you had, or didn’t have, you just made do. There would always be cups of tea, or cold drinks on a hot day, I loved that.
When my kids were younger and we used to go back to Pakistan every year, they were just amazed that people would just knock on the door and be invited in. When she was four or five, my daughter said to me, “Mama, do you know everyone in Pakistan?”, because there was a string of people in and out. I think that’s just the generosity of Lahoris, and more specifically my mum as well. My mum used to say that to be generous, you don’t need room in your house, but room in your heart. I think that’s something that I would love more of in Australia.