‘We want to re-engage with the Greek Australian community’: NSW Labor Leader, Chris Minns

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By Ikaros Kyriakou.

Since becoming NSW Labor Leader in June 2021, Chris Minns MP has hit the ground running, working with Sydney’s multicultural communities and small businesses to help them through the difficult lockdown in NSW.

In this exclusive interview, his first with a Greek medium in Australia, Mr Minns opens up about the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on these communities and businesses, as well as his plans to win back NSW Labor votes before the next state election. He also gives a strong message to the Greek Australian community stating: “we want to reengage with you.”

1. In your opinion, has the NSW Government handled the pandemic correctly? If not, what would a Labor government have done?

If I say we would have done it completely differently and we would have done it better, if I was reading that I would be sitting at home and saying, ‘they’d say that wouldn’t they.’ In reality, it’s been a very difficult period for governments around the world. I’ve been really resistant about criticising the current Premier and his predecessor about the decisions they took.

We had some really basic principles of choice. This was a health crisis not a political crisis and the government deserved out support, provided it was based on the health advice. I think the real credit belongs to frontline workers, those people that got vaccinated and in particular, I’ve got to give a big shout out to those people that were concerned about the vaccine but decided to get health advice and eventually got the vaccination anyway.

But I’m glad we’re through this period and I think the former Premier Gladys Berejiklian, in particular, we should give a debt of gratitude because she marshalled the state’s resources in a tough time.

The NSW Labor Leader has shared his thoughts on the NSW Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: David Gray / AFP via Getty Images.

2. You have been the NSW Labor Leader for almost five months now in an admittedly turbulent period for the state. How are you keeping up?

It was difficult particularly in my electorate of Kogarah, which has a very high Greek Australian community. I saw people, family, friends, people in my community, business leaders, doing it very, very difficult. So that was really hard particularly as I was in one of the locked down Local Government Areas.

Seeing my community suffer was difficult. Personally, I had a job, I’ve got a family, we were fine, but my heart went out to people who did it really tough over the last three months and in particular, small business owners that kept their staff on and tried to keep their doors open and thought of innovative ways to keep turnover going… I think it’s a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit of western Sydney and south-western Sydney.

3. During your tenure we have been advocating for small businesses and multicultural communities of West and South West Sydney that were left behind during the pandemic. What is your vision for these communities?

I’ve been largely driven in relation to that by Steve Kamper MP. He is such a huge asset for the NSW Opposition and I think politics in the state. This is somebody that’s worked for and with small businesses for 35 years and he gives a perspective to our approach to the way government deals with businesses that we don’t have, that the government doesn’t even have. He really led the Opposition’s response to business support during the pandemic.

In particular, was the support for those that have got long term leases but couldn’t have the turnover to pay those leases. We demanded that emergency payments be given to small and medium sized enterprises. The government didn’t have a plan for that.

Minns with Steve Kamper MP (left).

Most recently, we’ve been focusing on ensuring that business support be based on turnover for businesses so the economy recovering rather than vaccination rates. I think that vaccination rates will closely align with an uptick in the economy, but it’s not a given job guarantee.

We didn’t want any business to close or any jobs to be permanently lost because that business in Western Sydney did the right thing and listened to their own government’s health advice. That is completely unfair if they have to close permanently because the government said you can’t operate. They did the right thing. They needed help and support. So, I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Steve Kamper there. He’s been really good.

4. You have criticised heavily the government’s economic recovery strategy and the approach to privatisation. What would Labor do differently?

I’ve been very critical about privatisation for one simple reason. The costs are passed on to consumers and taxpayers in the long run and we’ve seen that with tolls, we’ve seen that with public transport. The Head of the ACCC has been very critical of the government’s decision to privatise what are effectively monopolies in NSW because the consumer ends up paying more.

If you look at the situation over the last two years where it’s been very difficult for everybody in NSW, I just think the tolls are up, taxes are up, fines are up. The idea that you privatise government assets so a private company can increase charges as well, it’s just more than many people can afford. We want people to start businesses and grow their bank balances and invest in their children and stimulate the economy. That can’t happen if the cost of living in Sydney in particular are through the roof.

5. What is your plan until the next state election to win back NSW Labor votes?

The Party has been spectacularly unsuccessful for the long time, particularly in NSW, and you can’t turn that around immediately. It takes time and the reason it takes time is because I think a lot of people would be sitting on the fence. Perhaps a lot of former Labor voters would say you know, ‘Am I prepared to support the Opposition? What are the things I need to see?’

What they need to see is a disciplined outfit, one that uses a lot of common sense, one that is not radical but focused on bringing people together and finding solutions to the problems, and one that is listening to them.

I am firmly of the view that the Liberals and Nationals after 11 years in office, 12 years in office by the time of the next election, asking for 16 years in office at the next election, it’s too long for one political party to be in power. I think we’ve got the freshness and the energy to drive the state forward. I genuinely believe that so we’ve got a big challenge. We have to climb Everest but you know, I think we’re up to the task.

6. There’s a few by elections coming up very shortly. How do you feel about them and will Labor contest them all?

We’ve made a decision about Bega that we are going to contest it. I have to make a decision based on two things. Firstly, resourcing. We have the general election in twelve months’ time, we have to contest 93 seats across NSW. It’s extremely expensive and we have to raise money for it. The temptation is to save your pennies for the general election which is obviously the one that will determine the government, but also the people in those communities deserve a choice and they deserve a choice between the government and the Opposition. So it’s competing pressures on me to make that decision.

Minns outlines his plan for the next state election.

We’ve made the decision in relation to be Bega. The community needs a choice. We’ve got to make a call on Monaro and Willoughby in the coming weeks. Although interestingly, none of the members of Parliament who have indicated that they’re leaving have submitted their resignations yet. So I don’t even know when the by-election date will be so we’ve got a bit of time up our sleeve.

7. In 2019, you supported the decriminalisation of abortion however, you have publicly indicated that you will vote against the voluntary assisted dying bill. Don’t you think people with terminal illnesses, who will die within six months or 12 months, need to have this choice?

That’s a very good point and I respect people who will be supporting the legislation. I’m in the minority inside the Labor Party against it. They’ll be overwhelming support inside the Parliamentary Caucus. It’s a conscience vote for Labor MPs. I’ll never change that. It’s up to every individual MP to make that decision so I’m not going to impose my views on my colleagues.

My concern with the legislation is that I don’t think you can codify the bill for a vulnerable person who feels that they’re a burden on their family and friends and decides to opt for euthanasia because they think that they’re a burden on their loved ones. I don’t think that you can find a form of words to eliminate that risk. That’s always been my view but I expect the legislation to pass the Legislative Assembly.

8. Thousands of members of the Greek community have been impacted by the government’s proposed taxi licence reforms and, although the government has promised further action to assist many families, still live with uncertainty. What is Labor planning to assist those families?

The first thing Labor did when I was Shadow Transport Minister was ensuring that the $1 surcharge remain in place so that provides a revenue source for a potential compensation package in the future.

READ MORE: Greek community rallies against proposed taxi licence reforms in NSW.

The NSW government paid $20,000 per license. It was taxed so in the end, many taxi plate owners received $12,000. There was no sense that for many people they invested in taxi licenses in lieu of property or shares or some kind of other asset thinking, that the government will protect their investment because the government was the one issuing the licenses. They’ve given them effectively nothing for the value of these plates, particularly if you own multiple plates and we need to give fair compensation to those communities.

The main thing I wanted to do is ensure that there was a revenue stream to make sure that we could pay that and Uber and ride sharing companies attempted to extinguish that $1.10 surcharge so we demanded that it stay in place, which the government reluctantly agreed to. So a compensation package needs to be generous and fair and we’re working on a package to take to the next election. But to be honest with you, I hope the government gazumps us and comes up with their own independent compensation package before the next election because for many taxi club owners, they can’t afford to wait.

READ MORE: Greek community continues to speak out against proposed taxi licence reforms in NSW.

9. In your opinion, how fair is that $50,000 compensation that the government is willing to pay the owners of taxi plates?

I’m not even sure they’re prepared to offer $50,000. There was a consultation paper that suggested that $50,000 would be the figure. The Victorians package was $100,000 and it’s nowhere near enough to cover the costs.

We’ve been talking closely with the Taxi Council and other independent taxi associations about the best way forward. It’s very hard to negotiate with the industry from Opposition because we just don’t have the resources of government. But I’m aware that we need to have a package in place to take to the next election so that the community can have some certainty about what Labor would offer. You know, I think it’s also worth pointing out that the Liberal Party, which is supposed to be the Party for small businesses, have left these communities high and dry.

10. The Greek community has been a strong supporter of the Labor Party for many decades. What is your message to the Greek community as we approach the next elections?

My message to the Greek community is that over many decades, the Greek community in Australia has built this wonderful country that we live in, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide. They’re the hard-working backbone of so many industries, whether it’s retail, fine dining and dining, property sector, media, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude going back many generations.

I think the Labor Party is desperate, I’ll say that, to reengage with the Greek Australian community so that they can see us as the Party of opportunity, the Party that respects and supports the Greek diaspora in Australia, and that we have a vision for a dynamic, exciting future. I’ve sensed a bit of a drift from the Greek community away from Labor in recent years. Would that be fair? You know, I’m determined to put a flag in the ground and work hard for those votes and I’ll never ever take anything for granted. We want them back and we want the community back and we’re prepared to work very hard to do that.

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