Alex Bhathal: Why I’m standing in Batman

Greens candidate Alex Bhathal.

Late last year, amid the ongoing citizenship crisis engulfing several federal MPs and Senators, Labor MP David Feeney revealed that he was unable to produce documentation confirming he had renounced his citizenship of either Britain or Ireland. On February 1, Feeney announced his resignation and did not recontest the seat.

Alex Bhathal, who has run for the seat before and went close to winning from Feeney at the last federal election, is the Greens candidate.

The federal seat of Batman is in the same geographical area as the Victorian state seat of Northcote, which Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe won from Labor in late November in a byelection. The byelection for Batman will be held on March 17.

Alex Bhathal spoke to Lalitha Chelliah on Green Left Radio on February 16.

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I am standing because people from this electorate, which is Australia’s most progressive, have been let down by Labor.

The combined Greens and Labor votes over the past decade made it the safest Labor seat in the country, according to the ABC’s Vote Compass.

In 2016, the Greens’ primary vote overtook the Labor vote because the electorate’s interests are not being represented by Labor’s policies on refugees, climate change, public health, education, transport and many others.

Nationalise electricity

A couple of weeks ago, [federal Greens MP] Adam Bandt announced that the Greens are keen to get the electricity grids back into public hands where we believe it should always have stayed. We know that about half of the amount paid for electricity bills goes straight to the profits of the private owners of the grid.

One way the Greens are proposing to put electricity back into public hands is by buying the interconnectors between the states — the grid infrastructure that connects the different states.

At the moment we have six of those interconnectors around the country and just one of them is owned by an Australian company. The rest are owned by overseas multinationals.

We know they are profit gouging. We know that on high-demand days the big three private companies that run the interconnectors price gouge by waiting for the spot price to rise before they sell their electricity.

Sometimes they leave it too late and that's why we end up with blackouts — it's got nothing to do with wind power or anything else. It has everything to do with the behaviour of multinational companies.

We are committed to buy back the interconnectors. We are also interested in state and federal governments buying as much renewable energy as possible, which will also have the effect of preventing it falling into private hands.

Health

The Greens have always believed government needs to fund public health, particularly public hospitals. The Greens are the only parliamentary party committed to ending the private health insurance subsidies.

We know those subsidies haven’t made health cheaper for anyone. Instead, they have lined the pockets of large corporations which act in the interests of shareholders rather than the interests of the overall population.

Another feature of the Greens’ health policy that sets us apart from Labor is our strong focus on prevention. As a social worker I know that if people are struggling to survive and they can't feed themselves from week to week then it's impossible for them to live healthily.

The Greens want to make sure that people have well-paid jobs, with an increased minimum wage and protections for unionists so they can defend their wages and conditions.

We also want to make sure that people on income support can actually live with that money. Just last week we moved a motion to increase Newstart in parliament. Unfortunately, it was voted down by the Labor and Liberals.

We view the question of health broadly and want to have 24-hour mental health services in all the regional and capital cities so that people are not relying on understaffed CAT [Crisis Assessment and Treatment] teams.

Obviously the CAT teams are fantastic, but they are underfunded and not properly staffed and sometimes people need to be admitted into a specialist mental health clinic and that is very difficult to achieve after hours.

Asylum seekers

The reason I joined the Greens and ran for the first time in 2001 is because of the detention of asylum seekers. It is the motivating factor that compels me to keep running for parliament.

I attended the vigil outside the Broadmeadows detention centre on February 18 to protest the threatened deportation of Santharuban, a Tamil refugee. I know that gentleman as I’ve visited the Broadmeadows Detention Centre over many years.

These centres are hell holes and the Greens are committed to closing them down, which is a fundamental difference between us and, apart from some progressive independents, almost every single other parliamentarian in Canberra. When I go to Canberra, I will ask questions without notice about the conditions I've seen around the country and also on Nauru and Manus Island.

When I hear firsthand accounts of life in a detention centre, or when I visit people, or as is more often the case now, when I hear from other refugee advocates about the situation, I contact Nick McKim, the Greens spokesperson on refugees.

I also try to ring Labor and Liberal MPs.

But, if I am elected, the difference will be that you will have someone going straight into the House of Representatives and asking questions from the floor. Those questions will go into Hansard and Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten and the rest will not be able to say they didn't know.

Homelessness

Homelessness is connected to our problematic income support system. The welfare system is punitive, and it has been punitive since Labor introduced activity testing in the late 1980s.  

The system, in reality, is not about trying to move people into jobs. We have outsourced our job networks so that they operate to make a profit, rather than getting people into jobs. The minimum wage is so low, even people are who are in employment have been forced onto the streets. We have a major problem with inequality in Australia.

The Greens approach to this is, in the first instance, to increase the income support payment. But we also need to tackle the housing affordability crisis.

We can do this in two ways: by phasing out negative gearing for wealthy Australians and by phasing out the capital gains tax discount.

We have estimated that, over a 10-year period, that would put $100 billion back into the public coffers. That money could be used to build public housing stock. In the 1950s and 1960s public housing was about 20% of all housing, which is the sort of housing stock percentage that other OECD nations enjoy. But now all we have is a small amount of residual stock.

I think that’s the percentage Australia should be looking towards. We also need to build affordable housing. So it’s a supply and a demand question and at the moment we're not getting either of those things right.

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