When I heard about Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation on Friday, I was gutted. But shock and a deep sense of disappointment were not the only emotions I felt. As a recent ‘migrant’ or ‘expat’ to the country, the news also stirred deeper feelings closely tied to my experience of being a newbie Aussie.
I moved to Australia two years ago – on a skilled visa under the ‘television journalist’ category. I spent over a decade covering India’s busy, chaotic, and murky politics in one of India’s top news channels. A news day in my country of birth looks a bit like a fast-paced thriller filled with crime, corruption, tragedy, and sometimes redemption. In comparison the news in Australia is far more… uneventful. It doesn’t give you the same thrills but does assure you that (mostly) all is well, under control and the rule of law reigns. To use a food analogy, it’s a bit like a bowl of soup – healthy, signalling general well-being and bland.
While the news may be dull, what I found refreshing was the unassuming nature of political leaders. Ask anyone coming from the subcontinent, and they will confirm that our leaders behave as if they are wearing invisible cloaks of power rendering them a higher form of existence that warrants public deference. A few months ago, when I saw Scott Morrison being shooed off in the middle of a press conference by someone who didn’t appreciate the huddle on their just-redone lawn, the incident just thrilled me to no end. My feelings for ScoMo only added to the pleasure.
While Gladys comes from the same political party and ethos, I always viewed her leadership a bit differently. Especially in the current COVID-19 times. Whether it was her handling of the state’s first brush with COVID-19 last year or now, the far worse Delta outbreak; her ability to reach out and connect with a multicultural community appeared admirable to an ‘outsider’ like me. When, at one of her early press conferences she casually mentioned she understood what it meant for families in Western Sydney to forego large gatherings because they came from a ‘similar background as her’, it may well have been a clever hack at identity politics, but the fact that it stuck in my mind and probably a lot of other voters, shows it worked.
Australia’s decision to shut down from the world in the pandemic has proved to be a double-edged sword for people like me with family overseas. We’ve been grateful for the safety the excellent health system here has provided us. Fantastic work by contact tracers, sage advice from public health experts, strong health infrastructure complemented by a comparatively small population has helped us avoid the worst horrors of the pandemic. But the isolation from our family and roots has been a heavy price to pay.
It has been a source of frustration that the Federal government and many state governments, for the longest time, did not appear to be taking into account the toll, mostly mental and emotional, this disconnect was causing to the diaspora here. There was barely any mention of it in leaders’ public comments, and definitely not enough being said or written in the mainstream media narrative. When the Federal government announced penalising Indian travellers with jail and a A$66,000 fine, it was a rude slap in the face of a community who were struggling to make sense of their guilt-ridden double-reality – of being ensconced in a safe bubble while their family back home went through the worst health crisis they’ve ever seen.
The second wave of COVID-19 in India was unimaginably brutal – most of us woke up to WhatsApp groups filled with SOS messages– friends trying to arrange oxygen cylinders for each other, rationing and sharing supplies based on whose parent was more critical and in need of it; it wasn’t a pretty picture at all. And while we were collectively angry at our failing health system back home, being human also meant we couldn’t just kick our shoes off and just be grateful that we weren’t there. You soon realize that when you live in two countries you start living in parallel realities, impossible to disconnect one from the other and stay unaffected by either.
In this background when the government here announced those draconian travel rules, it came as a cruel joke for a community that was definitely not indulging in recreational travel as those fines suggested. I saw at least 4 Indian friends here in NSW who lost one of their parents in those months – none could go back for the final rites. While no right-thinking person decried the travel restrictions, the penal action was uncalled for. And we did expect the leaders here to understand what the community was going through. Unfortunately, not much empathy was on display.
Read: Australia’s drug regulator approves India’s Covishield for incoming travellers
But in the crop, the NSW premier stood apart with her restrained speech, maturity to avoid blame games and practical approach to incoming travel. She was present at 11 o’ clock EVERY morning answering whatever questions were tossed at her, showing what accountability meant. And it did mean a lot – especially for someone whose native country’s current Prime Minister has never addressed a press conference in his 7 years in office.
Her language was measured, inclusive and unlike other state chiefs, she could rarely be accused of ‘othering’ communities en masse. One example of how not-to-do-this was on full public display just a few weeks ago when Queensland premier Anastasia Palaszczuk retorted to a press question on international travel, asking whether they ‘were going to India’. Not the best look for a premier whose state has a steadily rising number of Indian migrants – the highest after New Zealanders and English folks, making up over 1% of the population. The comment was also bemusing as data showed that that week, it was much safer to be in New Delhi than New South Wales.
Under Gladys’ leadership, NSW has continued to do the heavy lifting on incoming travellers, hotel quarantine and make the right noises about the impracticality of living in a ‘bubble’. It was the first state to carve out a plan to bring back international students, leading the way for its Federal partners to expedite the process. The plan was put on hold in the face of the Delta outbreak. More recently, when Gladys was accused of creating a division between Greater Sydney along the ‘latte line’ and creating a group of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, she was quick to respond to criticism and even out rules for Eastern and Western parts of the Sydney, again showing an inclination to include rather than marginalise.
I am in no way implying that everything Gladys was driven solely from the ‘goodness of her heart’. Were her reasons to lean towards opening-up than closing-down driven primarily by financial concerns? Yes, as many public health experts have been quick to point out. Wasn’t the return of international students meant to band aid the wound that her party and political establishment inflicted on universities and the higher education sector that they refused to support through the pandemic? Certainly. Do the current charges against her not once again reek of conflict of interest that those in power seem to take for granted world over? Sure, they do, and she must prove otherwise if not.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Gladys Berejiklian provided pragmatic, empathetic and balanced leadership at a time of unprecedented crisis. For those of us who turned to her every morning for the state update, she provided a sense of assurance that she was a leader who could straddle the interests and concerns of different sectors and communities together. At a time when other state premiers seemed to be vacillating between rigidity and carelessness, there is no other state I would have rather been in during COVID times.
Many of us who have migrated to a higher income country, concur on the sudden loss of privilege and comforts that comes with the shift initially. You suddenly find yourself in a minority; you inevitably become increasingly aware of your brown skin; your grasp over the English language no longer distinguishes you from the others, as it does in India, where the education system still wears a colonial cloak with pride. At the start you are no longer rich; despite being on its way to become the world’s third largest economy, India has one of the weakest currencies ever, rendering your notes into pithy change when you convert it to dollars. Despite your excellent resume, work experience and degrees from colleges considered the Harvard-of-India, you struggle to land your first job as you have no ‘local experience.’ Add to that, the loss of family and community networks – there’s no grandparent to take your kid off your hand for date-night; no friend within easy reach to vent a rant. Overall, it’s a humbling and alienating experience.
Over the last two years, as I grappled with all these, COVID-19 only made matters worse. When you move, you know you can always catch a flight back home if the challenges become unbearable. But now that option was off the table. Seeing friends lose parents overseas and attend funerals on video calls was overwhelming; it was surreal. In this environment, we were looking for leadership that understood this experience and factored it in their words and action. Not many leaders did that. But of the lot, I think Gladys came close. And for that, I am grateful.