Shireen Morris: Indigenous rights advocate walking the party line

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Shireen Morris: Indigenous rights advocate walking the party line

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A career in politics was never part of federal Labor candidate Shireen Morris’ life plan.

Growing up in North Ringwood, she worked at the local supermarket, temped as an administrative assistant and later acted and sang professionally. It was not until she was 28 years old that Morris decided to study law, eventually earning her PhD in constitutional law.

Now, with encouragement from her colleagues, Morris is running against Liberal member Michael Sukkar for the seat of Deakin, and could potentially win.

An August 2018 ReachTEL poll in the seat showed Labor leading 53 per cent to 47 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis. It was conducted just days after the second successive Liberal leadership spill, in which Sukkar supported Peter Dutton.

Shortly after this poll was published, Morris announced her candidacy.

“This is my home,” Morris said when asked why she was running. “I grew up in North Ringwood and live in Nunawading. I am passionate about our local community.      I am standing for Parliament because I’m a policy person, and I’m interested in good ideas and good policy in the sensible centre.”

What really galvanised Morris to run in the election, though, was her work in Indigenous advocacy.

Before her current campaign, Morris spent nearly eight years alongside Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson at Cape York Institute. There she promoted a First Nations voice in the Constitution, a concept later endorsed by the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Although not Indigenous herself—Morris was born in Australia to Indian and Fijian-Indian migrant parents—Pearson has called her “one of the most passionate and courageous advocates for Indigenous people”.

Morris’ advocacy work culminated in her 2018 book Radical Heart: Three Stories Make Us One, which critiqued Turnbull’s dismissal of the Uluru Statement. In Radical Heart, Morris described the dismissal as “full of lies and fear-mongering” and condemned the Turnbull Government for “lacking morally courageous leadership”.

“That’s when I felt I had to make a stand,” she said. “I realised that you have to be in Parliament to make a real difference. And not just on Indigenous constitutional recognition, but on climate change, economic and gender inequality, banking corruption all these big issues.”

Data collected by ABC’s Vote Compass this week showed that the majority of respondents are in favour of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Since announcing her run for Parliament, Morris has been comparatively quiet on her Indigenous advocacy work, instead prioritising local solutions for Deakin through Labor’s national policies.

However, last year Morris accused the Liberal Member for Pearce, Christian Porter, of backflipping on his support for an Indigenous advisory body after he was appointed Social Services Minister. She told The Australian, “Porter will go down in history, like Turnbull and Tony Abbott, as a leader who sold out Indigenous Australians, and his convictions, for his own political gain.”

Voters might then reasonably expect Morris, if elected, to keep pressing for a First Nations voice in Parliament.

But the focus of her campaign will be aligned with Labor’s key campaign script: “I will fight for these things: quality schools, better hospitals, free TAFE, and action on climate change to bring down power prices.”

With census data showing that the percentage of Deakin residents enrolled in TAFE is higher than the averages for both Victoria and Australia, voters in the seat could well find the lure of free TAFE appealing.

Labor’s other education policies designed to attract voters promise 600 hours of free early childhood education and a pledge to invest $14 billion in public education over the next 10 years. Morris says that this would lead to “$19 million extra for schools in Deakin”.

Climate change has also been a focus of her campaign. She has promoted Labor’s goals of generating 50 per cent renewable energy in the next decade and 40 per cent less pollution as well as creating more jobs within renewable energy.

Labor hopes to achieve these goals by introducing legal limits on pollution and decarbonising the energy sector through increasing government investment in renewable energy.