Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become/run as a politician?
I’m Sri Lankan – my parents migrated to Australia in 2000 with my sister and I. at the time I was only 18 months. My dad got a job here – better opportunities. Prior to entering into politics, I’d been heavily involved in humanitarian affairs, human rights, and civil society since I was 15. Prior to that, I always had a passion in human rights – the voices of vulnerable peoples heard has always been a passion of mine. That I have to thank for my cultural background for. That’s how I was able to integrate my cultural background – by looking at the weaknesses of where I came from, applying that in Australia, and making sure that our country sustains the rule of law and so on because it it is because of that that we are living in a country that we should be thankful for in terms of opportunities. That’s how I was able to integrate myself into Australian culture – by looking upon my background and working from that.
At 15, I went to the United Nations. It was an eye-opening experience for me at the time because I was exposed to all these cultures. I was travelling a lot at a young age, up until COVID hit, but that really opened my eyes and allowed me to respect culture a lot more. I am really thankful for my experiences.
Years later I established The Dona Faith Alliance (TDFA), which is a human rights organisation that empowers and advocates for human rights. We have a special focus on empowering young people. From my own journey, I really had to work hard to make sure my voice was being heard and I don’t want other young people to go through the same process. It shouldn’t be so hard to have your voices heard. And that’s usually when the frustration hits. I was really involved in human rights internationally, and human rights development and policy reform.
Straight after COVID hit, which made me rethink my perspectives and schedule – I was focusing a lot on representing Australia internationally – It made me turn my focus to TDFA and what was happening in my own backyard. I was doing a lot at the grassroots level through TDFA. towards the end of 2020, early 2021, I asked myself whether I should enter into politics. That was actually something several community members had asked me, “Shenali, would you consider running for the 2022 federal election?” The first answer was “no”, for family reasons. Being a human rights activist, human rights and politics clash a lot of the time because sometimes, not all the time, politics does not prioritise human rights and needs. Sometimes it comes down to obligations etc. Usually I found that I was more productive working and poking the bear externally. And that was my comfort zone. And I also had a negative preconception about politics, like a lot of Asian Australians, from my experiences of seeing how governments can work. So I didn’t want to be involved. But I was studying law at the time. I decided to study law because I knew how significant the law can be when it comes to having an impact on peoples’ rights and needs.
So I gave it a good thought. After I said no to running, I realised that that’s part of the problem. Part of the problem is that we, as constituents, have a negative connotation against government. We should be comfortable to speak to our representatives and have trust in our government that we are in good hands. But the reality is that we are not. In my electorate, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to my representative, I didn’t feel my voice was being heard.
That’s when I said “yes” – I need to change that.
How does your cultural background shaped the way you engaged/looked with Australian politics
Considering the country that I come from (Sri Lanka), I have a lot more respect towards Australian politics and that was what I conducted. In Sri Lanka, the political situation is not well, which is a result of significant corruption. And that’s an insult to the rule of law and we’re seeing politicians entering into parliament with significant criminal history or have engaged in criminal conduct. And that’s what happens when we don’t have the right leaders in place. We, as constituents, have the obligation to elect the right people into parliament. This is because in the Australian Constitution, the Parliament has the power to change our laws. I look back to my own country, the history of our world, and how it’s evolved. The law once legalised slavery. So the law is not always right. It comes down to who we choose in Parliament. It’s made me appreciate politics, rule of law, and the fundamentals of democracy a lot more. We didn’t have democracy in Sri Lanka. While I didn’t spend my life there, my aunties and uncle would tell me about what was happening and it made me appreciate it a lot more. It also gave me the sense of obligation that, as a person that came to Australia for better opportunities and life, I had to protect Australia and the democratic values of our country. The corruption and lack of freedoms and rights in Sri Lanka made me view politics in Australia in a different light – to be more appreciative, to be more active, and make sure there is a moral compass in Australian politics.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in/contending to be part of the political scene?
I am grateful for the community. First of all, they were the ones who made me rethink my preconceptions about entering politics and really pushed me. I have to thank my family and friends – if i didn’t have a good support mechanism, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The Hume electorate is not extremely diverse in culture. It’s only starting to get there now with the boom in housing and development. There definitely needs to be a lot of improvement in terms of acceptance, which is not to say that the Hume electorate is a bad place. Rather, I’ve felt so comfortable and welcomed by the community to allow me to mould myself into Australian politics. The community has been a massive part in how I was able to embrace my culture in moulding myself into Australian politics. There have been numerous times where I’ve been to community engagements and consultations where people feel refreshed to see someone from a different culture background in the [Hume] electorate running as a candidate. The community has had open arms. My family as well, are always reassuring me that “you need to embrace yourself and not be afraid to express yourself.” And also my passion and drive – you didn’t need to be a certain type of person to enter into politics. You need to rattle the cage. The Hume electorate has not had a candidate like myself before – a young, female, brown candidate. It’s the first, and certainly won’t be the last. And I really want to set that precedent.
How would you explain the lack of Asian Australian representation in Parliament/why is there such a lack of Asian Australian representation, given how large the community is?
I can definitely say that one of the policies that I have developed from the canvassing that I have done in the Hume electorate, which spans from areas in Liverpool all the way down to Crookwell, it takes a lot to make sure we cover those areas.
One of the pillars I stand for is respect and diversity. There is a massive absence of it in our current Parliament. Simple things like the treatment of women has been a massive issue in Parliament. Just when you think you can be safe, in what we perceive to be the safest building in Australia and you’re not safe there – that’s a problem and that does not set a good outlook for the rest of Australia. Rather, it creates a bad mindset. I want to make sure that people from different backgrounds and cultures feel comfortable in parliament and to voice their opinions without judgement on the basis of their race, ethnic background, gender, and identity. While the Hume electorate is predominately white Australian, there is certainly an influx in multiculturalism. From my own canvassing, there are a handful of constituents that are not so accepting, but my campaign is really trying to break those stereotypes and to have a broader concept and understanding of acceptance. It is a big statement being the first from an Asian background to stand up. I feel that the current government is not creating an atmosphere for people like myself to feel comfortable in parliament.
There are also the negative connotations surrounding Section 44 of the Constitution on dual citizenship where a lot of parliamentarians were called out for having dual citizenship. While it is looked upon negatively, there isn’t really a negative side to it. It’s to make sure that parliamentarians are thinking in the interest of Australia and do not have a biassed opinion. Essentially, parliamentarians should be neutral. Some people don’t see it as a good thing and the potential bias makes people feel uncomfortable. I had to go through that process recently where I had to declare that I had no affiliations with any other countries. That can be looked upon negatively, but it’s not a negative thing. I’m trying to convey that while it’s easily looked upon as negative, it’s to make sure there’s no bias in conducting oneself as a parliamentarian. This is not to say that there is no bias in Parliament. There is significant bias, underlying bias, and strains of bias. I’m standing to eradicate those things. A lot of people say that’s too far-fetched and unachievable. But racism and an inability to accept different cultures is a learnt characteristic. It’s not something we are born with. Where you can learn negative things, you can learn positive things.
That’s what I’m trying to do and utilise this platform for – I can’t change you but I can give you a really good reason to change.
Were/Are there any barriers you’ve had to face? And what were they?
Plenty of barriers. Funny enough, my gender was brought into play. It’s always a handful of people. My age was a big thing. My age, race, and gender are often tied together – “she’s a brown, young female.” it was never looked at in an isolated way. Those were barriers in terms of the demographics of the Hume. and I’m painting the Hume in a specific way. But there are always a handful of people, as with other places. When you’re the first young, brown person to contest, you will have to face the biggest barriers to set the precedents to make it easier for your successors. My predecessors were always white male or female. So there were a lot of barriers standing in the way of setting that precedent but it was for a good cause.
” When you’re the first young, brown person to contest, you will have to face the biggest barriers to set the precedents to make it easier for your successors. “Sheneli Dona
There was the usual smearing campaign against me and my personal life. From speaking to colleagues in this field, it’s really common. I’m a lawyer by background and will be practising soon, and I’m a humanitarian. So my career became a barrier. For example, people would say “she’s connected to the United Nations…” and so on. While there is a negative connotation of the United nations, I advise international governments, organisations, and civil society. When I am seen in those roles, it’s not because I agree with them, it’s actually because I disagree with them. Me entering into politics is not because I agree with everything they do and say, it’s because there is something significantly wrong and I need to change it.
Politics can be a very dirty game, for some reason it’s about “lets attack that person now”, instead of “how many people can we help?”, so we can bring them down and up our votes. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be a platform where we represent our constituents.
What would you say to Asian Australians who are voting for the first time in this election?
Take your vote extremely seriously. Voting is not just picking you a pen and scribbling over paper. Voting is picking up a pen and deciding what future you want to walk into. Your vote will count. We’re at a point in life where our futures are being compromised. Everyone knows about climate change right now, and there are scientific facts to show how serious it is getting. Think about who we’re voting for, do your research, and think about how those politics will impact the future. You deserve the same opportunities the previous generation have. You have the power to change the future. We’re at a point where it’s now or never. Really take it seriously. I’m doing this because I realise as well that we are at a pivotal moment. Make an informed and educated decision. Vote for a government that you want your future to rely on.
If you had to introduce one aspect of Indian culture to the broader non-Asian what would it be?
Food. The food is amazing. When I tell people I’m Sri Lankan, a lot of people say “I love Sri Lankan curry.” More than the culture itself, people know Sri Lanka for the food. It’s a lot different from Indian food in that we heavily rely on our spices. And definitely our hospitality. `Growing up, we’re always taught to be kind and welcoming towards people in our homes. That sense of family and food is a big part of my culture. My friends who’ve visited Sri Lanka, come back saying the hospitality and the food is amazing. Those are the things that spark a sense of curiosity about the culture.