When I think about the values I bring to parliament, I think about my upbringing and the experiences I had as a child. For each of us, it’s typically those early experiences that are pieced together to form our adult selves. It’s funny what you remember from your childhood that hasn’t healed or faded with time. When I reflect on growing up in Australia, what’s really stayed with me is always feeling the lesser. I remember what that’s like and I don’t want anybody else to feel that way. I don’t want any Australian to feel less than anybody else.
There were times when I was a child when other children wouldn’t play with me and called me ‘Blackie’, even though I’m not black and I’m not Aboriginal. I was often mistaken for being Aboriginal, which gave me empathy for indigenous Australians. If that was what it was like for me, I imagined what it must have been like for them? That was Sydney in the 1970s. As I got older I continued to cop a lot of abuse when people realised I was Muslim and an Arab. I had nowhere to turn and no one to stand up for me. I’m not angry or bitter about it, but rather I’m mobilised to lift people up. I’m motivated to ensure that there really is true and substantive equality in our society. That’s the kind of society I want to live in, it’s the society that I want my children and grandchildren to live in, and it’s the kind of society that I wish I’d grown up in.
When I reflect on growing up in Australia, what’s really stayed with me is always feeling the lesser. I remember what that’s like and I don’t want anybody else to feel that way.
Despite these childhood experiences, which are far from unique, I look back now and recognise that I had many privileges too. Privilege comes in different shades and many different forms so I avoid terms like ‘white privilege’. I see that my childhood was more stable and in many ways more privileged than those who come from broken or dysfunctional homes that have been wrecked by alcohol and violence. In Canberra, the obsession with party-to-party combat detracts from the privilege of representing your community through being a parliamentarian. It’s a privilege to do this job but not because you get to work in Parliament House. It’s not that you’re chauffeur driven and get to sit in fancy airport lounges. That’s not the privilege of this life. The privilege is having people open up to you and share with you parts of their lives where they may be experiencing difficulty, giving you the opportunity to help them. Recently, I visited a school for special educational needs and met students with intellectual disabilities and autism. In preparation for my visit the children made me a wooden jewellery tree, drilling the holes and assembling the pieces themselves. Watching the faces of these beautiful children as they proudly gave me a gift they’d made, that’s the real privilege of my position.
There’s a rhythm to political life, a pace you set for yourself between the three elements of your role. At different times you’re: a politician, which is the role the public sees, participating in the argy-bargy of Question Time; a parliamentarian, where you’re involved in the machinery of government and policy committees; and a community advocate. Of those three roles the one where I feel most at home is with the community; being an advocate for my constituents, meeting with people and being their voice in parliament. I’ve quickly taken to my role as a parliamentarian because I love the contribution I’m able to make to policy committees. I’m not an economist but nevertheless, working on policy has given me a perspective on the falsehood of trickle-down economics, a spurious notion that if you look after the top end of town and business owners, the benefits will ‘trickle down’ and everybody will be better off. We should always be cognisant of who we’re benefitting when we set policy so as to ensure that everybody has a chance to partake in that benefit. The role that I’m least comfortable with – in fact I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with it – is the combat role, attacking our political opponents. I’m not naturally inclined to attack people. I like that about me and I’m not looking to change. While some people live for the politics, I’ve found that you can be an effective politician by focusing on community and policy. Through both of those roles I exercise my passion for standing up for people, especially those who feel that they’ve been without a voice in parliament until now.
While some people live for the politics, I’ve found that you can be an effective politician by focusing on community and policy. Through both of those roles I exercise my passion for standing up for people.
Before I entered parliament I was an academic, specialising in counter-terrorism and alternative narratives to terrorism. I’d reached the top of my field, advising governments globally, however I became disillusioned in terms of activating change and seeing the differences that I wanted to see. I decided that an alternative approach was to get into the system and change it from within. I decided that if I didn’t do that, then I was leaving it up to others, and those people were already well represented. I came into politics with open eyes, looking to find a way that works for me. I like to call myself a pragmatic idealist. I’m realistic that change happens slowly. I’m realistic that we live in an environment where populism has done enormous damage to the ability of people to relate positively to politics and to politicians, and that there are people who play on that. That’s why we need to encourage participation rather than use grievance and anger to mobilise voters away from the political establishment as the populists do. Our aim should be to re-establish trust in politicians and in policy based on research, evidence and expertise.
Years ago, I would’ve looked at Parliament and thought there was no place for me there. Even now I walk through the halls and see the big paintings of those white men staring at me, seemingly asking, “Who let you in?”. I still get that feeling, even though I know full well who let me in. It’s disruptive to have someone who looks like me in Parliament. It’s disruptive to have someone who looks like Linda Burney or Peter Khalil or Malarndirri McCarthy. It’s disruptive to have us in parliament because it makes people think twice about what a parliamentarian looks like, but that’s good because perhaps now a few more Australians will think we look like them.