Having spent four years in the Tasmanian parliament as both backbencher and Minister in the Lennon and Bartlett Labor governments, Lisa Singh’s election to the federal Senate reignites her political career.
Tasmania’s lower house is elected via a proportional voting system whereas the upper house uses preferential voting. Effectively it’s the reverse of the federal system. In the Tasmanian parliament, Singh served alongside four others for the division of Denison. With her transition from State lower house to Federal upper house, Singh will have now twice been elected to office thanks to proportional voting. Placed third on the Tasmanian Labor Senate ticket at the 2010 Federal election, Singh took a spot from a Tasmanian Liberal when she nabbed the state’s sixth and last available Senate spot.
Born and educated in Tasmania, Singh is a republican who is the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the Federal Parliament. Naming Gandhi and Arundhati Roy as her inspirations, in her first speech to the Tasmanian parliament Singh said that she was attracted to politics as advocacy because "it allows me to give a voice to someone who might otherwise go unheard". The switch and swap from state to federal and from lower to upper house will give Singh’s voice a far greater reach.
What was notable about Singh’s tenure in the Tasmanian parliament was her stance on the controversial Gunns pulp mill bill back in 2007. The proposal — and current continuing saga — by Gunns to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley at the Bell Bay area came before the state parliament for approval and attracted the scrutiny of the federal parliament. While the Tasmanian parliament ultimately approved the bill, it was Singh who called for a conscience vote among her Labor colleagues on the issue.
This wasn’t granted but Singh abstained from voting on the bill, joining only a select few — and no Labor colleagues — in either abstaining or voting against the bill. At the time speculation abounded that her stance on this issue may have delayed her promotion into cabinet. Yet what this one issue does highlight that will be important in Canberra is the new senator’s environmental values — and furthermore her willingness to eschew the party line on principled grounds.
Once she entered the Tasmanian Cabinet, Singh was first the minister for corrections and consumer protection and then the minister for workplace relations. Later she was the minister assisting the premier on climate change. With this kind of experience, Singh should be a capable performer in Canberra. Indeed, there’s reason to hope she’ll act like an old-style Labor politician — passionate about social justice issues and not afraid of confrontation nor controversy.
Still, it might take some time for her to hit her stripes now that she’s moved to Canberra. She’ll be the lowest ranked Labor Senator from Tasmania, joining the re-elected Senator Helen Polley and former unionist Anne Urquhart in the class of 2011.
Before entering state politics, Singh was active in the Tasmanian United Nations Association and she was involved with the state’s Republican movement. She also helped launch the Tassie YWCA. She has championed women’s issues before. When she entered the Tasmanian parliament she declared she was proud of Tasmania’s record on women’s suffrage, paying tribute to Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman in Australia to be elected to Federal Parliament. As one of six new female senators, Singh will no doubt be happy with the level of female representation in the new Senate.
Between getting knocked back at state level in March 2010, election to the Senate in October 2010, and taking her place in the new Senate, Singh has not been idle — nor did she enter the cruisy corporate advisory world. Instead she spent the interlude initiating the Asbestos Free Tasmania Foundation (AFTF), and becoming the first CEO of the advocacy group. Acting as a support structure for asbestos sufferers, the AFTF’s mission is to both minimise those affected, and to help those already suffering. Entering the Senate has necessarily seen her step down from this role.
As she now represents all Tasmanians in Canberra, it remains to be seen what Singh’s switch and swap will mean. Is she a good political operator that Labor really did not want to let go? Or is it the case that the Senate is a place where those with previous careers go, perhaps just because they can? Tasmanians and all Australians should hope Singh proves to be the former.
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