All Australians have the right to participate as active citizens in shaping the society we live in. However, due to past traumatic experiences some new migrants maybe fearful of speaking up in public and do not know how our democratic processes work.
Australia has a 200 year history of civic participation.
Sydney University professor, Murray Print says Australians are used to having input into the decisions that impact on their daily lives without fear of punishment.
“Absolutely, in fact if anything, we would encourage it because it shows that people are interested in the process and they have contributions to make. They can join community organisations to assist other people – volunteer to help others. They can participate in joining political parties – all of this is open, is free, there are no repercussions if you don’t want to and there are certainly no repercussions if you do.”
Getting used to a free and frank exchange of opinions and to become engaged in community affairs is not easy for many migrants.
Davey Nguyen is a former refugee from Vietnam.
He was rescued from an asylum seeker boat when he was eight years old.
Now he is the Vice-President of the Vietnamese Community in Sydney and helps young migrant entrepreneurs start their careers in business.
Davey says a lot of new arrivals are scared of speaking up in public and taking a stand on issues.
“A lot of migrants are afraid of politics. They are scared that if they want to express their views they might get penalised because these are the kind of things they left behind in their war torn countries. But for now, they are in Australia. We have to educate migrants that in Australia there are people here who help you and guide you into the right direction.”
Davy Nguyen says younger migrants are starting to take a greater interest in having their say.
“A lot of the old school thinking is that – especially from an Asian background – a lot of parents don’t want their kids go into politics. They think that politics is not that great for a career. They prefer their kids to be doctors, accountants – anything but politics. But I think it’s changing a little bit and now I see that there is a lot of push for our younger generation to get into the political area.”
Sophie Cotsis is a member of the NSW Parliament.
A daughter of Greek migrant parents, she is currently the Labor Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism.
She acknowledges that settling in a new country is one of the most difficult challenges in anybody’s life and she is keen to hear from her constituents about what problems they’re facing.
“My parents came to Australia in the 60s. My parents came with very little English, very little opportunity and all they had was just to work hard and to build their life, and encourage us to work and get an education. There is an opportunity now because of our democracy that you can have access to your local MP and not to be afraid at all to reaching out so that we know what are some of the services that are needed in our emerging communities.”
Sophie Cotsis says that many new arrivals are seeking information from their local members about housing, health and education.
But there are other issues particularly affecting migrant women.
“Domestic violence is a big issue and it is one area where people do come to me and raise these issues with me and we work together with organisations in how we can better educate and inform new communities about reporting about support services.”
Daniel Mookhey is the first Australian of Indian origin to be elected to the NSW Parliament.
He admits that it has taken him a while to find his voice in politics.
“I have been serving now for nearly three years and in the course of that I have come to learn a lot about how to effectively talk to politicians, how to make your point, how to take a campaign into the parliament, how to make sure your voice i heard.”
Daniel Mookhey says that most days members of the community bring a variety of issues to his attention.
He says it’s important for new arrivals to realise that in Australia everybody gets treated the same, no matter how long they have lived in the country and that politicians work for them, not the other way around.
“So this morning for example, I had a group come and see me and wanting to talk about affordable power and what it means to have your electricity bills rising. Particularly if you are a new migrant who aren't used to being able to shop around and who come from a country where there is only one provider of energy. And towards the end of this week I’ll be meeting with a group of parents who are very concerned about how kids with disabilities are being treated in NSW schools, whether or not they have the same rights, the same experiences, the same level of resources as kids without disabilities.”
Having a say in Australia is not just a matter of speaking to a local member of parliament.
Professor Murray Print says it is also important for new arrivals to know who the right person is to take a complaint to and who is responsible for what area of government.
“You need to know that State Parliaments deal with certain things and Federal Parliament deals with certain other things. So there is no point going to your federal member of parliament and asking him or her about solving a problem with rubbish removal, for example. That’s the domain of local council.”
For Davey Nguyen getting involved helps emerging communities to settle successfully in Australia.
“In many ways we want to attract those people who have the heart and the passion to actually go out and make a difference in our country because at the end of the day, if our country is great, our people will be great and the overall harmony of everyone working together to achieve that goal, then to me, the end result would be that Australia is a better country for everyone.”