Celebrating Lisa Singh: Former Senator, Advocate, and Humanitarian
In 2011, a memorial was unveiled at one of the ghats on River Hooghly, Kolkata to commemorate the harrowing journey of thousands of indentured labourers who had crossed several thousand nautical miles to work in the British colonies in search of a better life.
For Lisa Singh, Walk Free’s Head of Government Advocacy, this memorial is a powerful reminder of why she strives for tougher laws to end human trafficking and modern slavery every day, it’s personal. “Going to Calcutta and seeing that memorial really left an impact on me. The journey of leaving your home country to embark on a month-long voyage on a crowded ship for a better life, and arriving in a new unknown land to work hard labour on sugarcane field must have been so daunting …” said Lisa, whose Indian great-grandfather was also an indentured labourer in Fiji.
The indentured labourer scheme was a system of forced labour, under which more than 60,000 Indians were exploited in slave-like conditions. Mortality rates were high due to inhumane work conditions, but against the odds. Lisa’s great-grandfather, Laxman, survived this ordeal. Her great-grandfather’s story inspired and motivated Lisa to champion the cause of eradicating modern slavery, a reality for almost 40.3 million people enslaved within the global supply chains of goods and services that we, as Australians, use every day. As part of Walk Free, Lisa’s major project has been supporting the New Zealand government to introduce a Modern Slavery Act which requires entities to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains and actions to address those risks.
“We want to end slavery and trafficking throughout the world,” she said and quietly laughs, drawing levity to our understandably heavy conversation, given her ancestral connection to this important issue. In speaking with Lisa, there’s also an acknowledgement of the hardwork needed to achieve this goal, which must seem challenging and impossible at times, but it’s one that she’s making an impact on through her advocacy to reform laws and push for change within governments.
Over the course of her career, Lisa Singh served as a Tasmanian Member of Parliament and Minister in the Tasmanian Government. She represented Tasmania as an Australian Senator from 2011 until 2019 and was the first Tasmanian woman of South Asian heritage to be elected to the Australian Federal Parliament. Despite all the hard work undertaken to achieve the title of Senator, when meeting with Daizy she explained that she always preferred being addressed as ‘Lisa’.
“It was too formal for me,” she said, still laughing.
During her tenure as Corrections Minister, Lisa started a ten-year reform cycle of the Tasmanian prison system that focused on a restorative justice approach to stop the high recidivism rate (reoffending after serving time) as well as to give people, who had committed crimes the opportunity to give back to the community. The corrections system was called, ‘Breaking the Cycle Plan’, which was aimed at providing rehabilitation and reintegration services to offenders.
“As soon as someone goes to prison on a short sentence, they have to give up their rental accommodation; they lose custody of their children, their whole life, sort of, unravels. Then when they come out three months later they have to create all of those social structures again. They have to integrate back into the community, which is often really hard so they get trapped in the cycle of going back to prison,” Lisa said. Seeing this play out within her community in Hobart encouraged Lisa to promote and support reforms to the criminal justice system that would improve outcomes for the whole community.
Lisa’s desire to create positive change through public office was highlighted in her first speech to the Australian Senate on 16 August 2011 where she realised the connection between public decision-makers and their ‘capacity […] as leaders to effect change through law.’
During her 8 years in the Australian Senate, she was embraced by Australia’s South Asian diaspora and connected to those she represented. She continues to represent them and recently gave diaspora families a national voice in trying to bring their children, who were stranded in India, home.
Currently, Lisa is the Head of Government Advocacy, Australia – Pacific at the Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free Initiative and the Deputy Chair of the Australian Government’s Australia-India Council. “The Australia-India Council started in 2012. Its main focus is to build Australia-India relations through foreign policy and trade,” she said. “The Council is also about making sure that diaspora leaders’ voices are heard to build our people to people links. I think we still have a long way to go on that.”
In 2014, the President of India awarded Lisa the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award (PBSA) for her exceptional and meritorious public service as a person of Indian heritage in fostering friendly relations between India and Australia. Lisa has also been awarded Hobart Citizen of the Year in recognition of her work in the peace movement and drawing attention to the disproportionate suffering of women and children during these conflicts.
A Peaceful Childhood
Lisa was born and raised in Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania. In a candid conversation with Daizy, she talked about what it was like to grow up in Hobart when ethnic diversity was, and still is, quite low.
“[In the] 70s and 80s Hobart was not a time when multiculturalism in Australia was on display,” she shared. “I was the only brown-skinned girl in class. But I have to say that I went to a school that made me feel equal and inclusive to everyone else. I did not experience racism. In that sense, I was cocooned.”
Lisa’s childhood was one filled with fun. She would watch football or cricket on Saturday afternoons with her dad, Upendra ‘Uppi’ Singh. “My dad tried to integrate into the “Aussie” life. He embraced Australian sports through football and cricket. To this day, he is one of the biggest fans of the North Melbourne Football Club,” she said. Uppi, now in his seventies, still goes to watch cricket and football with his mates.
Outside of her professional life, Lisa enjoys art, reading, ethical and sustainable fashion, and baking. Lisa is a mother to two adult sons, who live in Sydney and Canberra, and has a partner, who is a documentary filmmaker. Lisa has a beautiful cat called Benny, and many of his adventures can be found on Lisa’s personal Instagram account along with updates of her flourishing garden, ongoing work and causes she’s passionate about.
Lisa’s illustrious career demonstrates an incredible path marked with years of service and dedication to the community by advocating for change, both during her time in and outside of office. Lisa exemplifies what we need more of in our society: the courage to speak up for what we believe in, persistence in advocating for what’s right and having compassion and regard for all people from all walks of life.
The Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC) views Lisa Singh as a trailblazer and an inspiration, particularly for young Australian South Asian women and girls interested in politics, law reform, human rights and advocacy. Being one of the first women of South Asian heritage elected to Australian Federal Parliament is an incredible achievement, and we hope that she is the first of many, many talented, ambitious, and thoughtful women to grace our nation’s capital and to advocate for the betterment of all people. Lisa’s journey offers hope and one pathway into public office. ASAC hopes that by amplifying Lisa’s journey, it inspires current and future generations to pursue their own careers in public life.
This blog post is the first of five in the Australian Stellar South Asian Women 2021 series, recognising five exemplary emerging and established South Asian creatives, activists, founders and leaders whose voices and work are a force of good. They’re women who are not only successful, but are generous and supportive of those around them, and are paving the way for the next generation of South Asian community leaders.
This series is part of the global South Asian Heritage Month (18 July – 17 August) during which we will be celebrating and reclaiming the history and identity of South Asians.
Today we’re amplifying the incredible public contributions of Lisa Singh.
If you enjoyed this post follow us on Instagram to be kept in the loop as we share the next four profiles in the Australian Stellar South Asian Women 2021 series during South Asian Heritage Month. If you’d like to be a part of our community of ambitious South Asian women then sign up for our paid membership!
Edited by: Erika Menezes