The great granddaughter of an indentured labourer who arrived at Fiji from Calcutta to work on the sugarcane fields in 1902. Senator Lisa Singh, a self-proclaimed Rajput descent, is believed to be the first and only person of south-Asian descent in the Australian Parliament. Born and raised in Hobart, Tasmania, Lisa is the granddaughter of Ram Jati Singh who was a MP in the Fiji parliament in 1960s and 1970s and is known to have led Fiji’s push for independence.
“My father came to Australia to study in 1963. I grew up as the daughter of an Indo-Fijian father and an Anglo-Australian mother. I grew up with an understanding of both Hindu and Catholic religions,” says Lisa.
She was made Hobart Citizen of the year in 2004 for her activism against the 2003 war in Iraq. A mother of two, Lisa completed Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Social Geography from the University of Tasmania and Master of International Relations from Macquarie University.
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Lisa adds that she has always been passionate about trying to help people and improve their lives and was driven into roles being an advocate for people. She was also the Director of the Tasmanian Working Women’s Centre, campaigning for paid parental leave and equal pay.
She has also served as President of the United Nations Association and the YWCA Tasmania.”I was active in the women’s movement and served as the board member of the Hobart Women’s Health Centre and the state government’s women’s advisory council,” says Lisa.
Speaking of joining the Australian Labor Party, she says that someone with progressive values regarding equality, fairness, social justice, and sustainability, the party was a natural transgression.
Lisa served as a Minister in the Tasmanian State Parliament. In 2011, Lisa began serving on the front bench in the Senate as a Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Environment, and Water (the level just below being a Minister).
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“I’ve served on several parliamentary committees and participated in inquiries, including the rights of women and girls in the Indo-Pacific, multiculturalism in Australia and the role of the private sector in Aid and Development. I was the caucus liaison coordinator for the Gillard Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper,” says Lisa.
She has also served the Indian diaspora based in Australia by participating in various Indian festivals including Diwali, Holi, and Navratri. During the Gillard government she chaired the subcontinent ministerial committee to discuss issues facing the Indian diaspora based in Australia.
Lisa has also served on the Lowy Institute and Australia-India Institute and Australia-India Roundtable in India and Australia. “I visited India with Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, last year to have high level meetings about the Australia-India relationship,” says Lisa.
While her list of achievements is long, Lisa has had a fair share of challenges to deal with. She says that raising two young boys while both studying and building a career was a challenge that required determination and discipline. Another challenge was being a part of a political party and facing challenges, when her views have been different to the party policy – such as refugee policy.
She says that another challenge is being in a parliamentary system that still has more men than women. While the gender biases aren’t overt, Lisa says that it’s fair to say that a glass ceiling does exist, and makes political recognition more difficult for women than men.
“Continuing to push for gender equality and equal opportunity is an important part of my political mission. My own party is passionate about gender equality and promoting the role of women. Presently, The Australian Labor Party comprises 45 per cent women in the parliament compared to 22 per cent for the Liberal party.
Lisa is also working on India-Australia relations. She adds that as a multi-cultural nation, it’s important for Australia’s Parliament to be diverse. Lisa adds, “I’m very aware and honoured to know that many Indian Australians (and several other south-Asian communities) regard me as their voice in Australian politics, and a role-model representing their culture and community. I’ve been an active participant in India-Australia relations, which I see as an important part of building cross-cultural appreciation and co-operation.”
Last year, Lisa received one of India’s highest civilian honours – the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award – for exceptional service in fostering friendly relations between India and Australia. She believes that Australia and India have a bright future, which has been strengthened under Prime Minister Gillard’s bilateral alignment with India.
Being passionate about social and economic equality, fighting poverty, climate change action, the rights of refugees, a sustainable environment and nuclear disarmament, Lisa aims to continue fighting for these issues. She also wants to mentor people of diverse backgrounds to stand and run for parliament. She says next year is an election year. Whether or not she is in politics next year, she will certainly be looking to make a strong ongoing contribution to public life.
“As a woman of Indian descent, I’m proud of the career and contribution I’ve been able to achieve, and hope it serves as an example to other ethnic women with strong aspirations,” says Lisa.