Calwell’s Labor MP focuses on migrant wellbeing

The sitting Labor MP for Calwell said she will prioritise lowering the electorate’s high unemployment rates and improving underfunded social services ahead of the federal election. 

Maria Vamvakinou, who has held the seat since 2001, said these issues typically affected the electorate’s large migrant community. Being a migrant herself, she said issues of “identity and integration” were key to her political career. 

“That community is quite large here now, and it’s establishing itself,” she said. “Buying housing, establishing families. That community, predominantly Iraqi and Syrian, are going through those first processes at the moment.” 

Calwell’s level of unemployment have typically been high: 2021 figures showed Hume, the major local government area in the electorate, having a 9.5 per cent unemployment rate in 2021 compared to Greater Melbourne at 5.4 per cent. 

Vamvakinou said Labor’s priority was to boost local manufacturing to increase access to jobs. 

“Our agenda … through the election period will be about trying to reinvest and reinvigorate and transform manufacturing,” she said. “Australian-made manufacturing creates jobs and certainly we’re committed to investing in that.” 

However, even with more jobs, she said that without adequately funded social programs, many people would still struggle to find work.  

Dr Karen Block from The University of Melbourne, whose research focuses on migrant integration, said migrants faced “all sorts of barriers to entering the workforce”. 

She added, “Even if people are fluent in English, even if they’re quite highly educated, then there’s a lot of discrimination that happens. And it’s not necessarily always conscious discrimination, there’s a lot of unconscious bias as well.” 

More funding for employment programs 

For Vamvakinou, tackling the “social disadvantage” that migrants faced was key to improving access to jobs.  

One method of helping migrants find work involved funding programs that connected unemployed individuals with jobs matching their skillset. 

She raised concerns, however, that social programs were underfunded as Calwell had often been left behind in Coalition budgets. 

In a parliamentary speech in 2021, she said, “This is a budget full of lost opportunities and one which, yet again – it’s not for the first time – leaves the people of my electorate worse off.” 

In a subsequent interview with The Junction, she explained that a Labor government would address the inequity and prioritise spending so people weren’t left behind. She highlighted free childcare as a way of improving people’s wellbeing, calling it “the epitome of a very civilised society”. 

“You’ve got a lot of newly arrived who are struggling. And if they can’t get their kids sorted in a way that allows them to work, as well as the mum to work, then they’re going to have difficulties.” 

Sidra Shahab, migrant consultant with Brilliant Migration Club in Craigieburn, an organisation that assists migrants in obtaining visas, said that migrants in Victoria are “discriminated” against under the Liberal government. 

Shahab said it takes “nine to 12 months” for applicants to have skilled migration visas approved in Victoria, much longer than in other states. 

She said Vamvakinou’s policies were “very good in respect to the immigrants … [Labor] really want to see a multicultural Victoria over here.” 

Australia’s challenging “job culture” 

Shahab said trade was a very common route for migrants as they often struggled to adapt to Australia’s “job culture”, leading to many starting their careers over. 

“They are not, you know, able to find the jobs which is according to their experience level … so what most of the immigrants, like, you know, do when they come over here, they have to start their careers I would say from scratch.” 

Vamvakinou said children of migrants often experienced pressure from parents to go to university, even if that option might not suit them. 

She wanted to increase access to vocational training to help remove barriers to employment, especially for young people that don’t want to pursue an academic career, calling it “a traditional area of interest”. 

It’s of concern to many in Calwell that the electorate had the highest ‘No’ vote of all Victorian electorates in the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite at 56.8 per cent 

One journalist, writing for The Guardian, described growing up gay in the electorate as “insufferable”. 

Vamvakinou said “I can’t speak for everyone in this electorate, but I think you can’t draw the conclusions that because they voted against marriage equality they’re homophobic.” 

She said that while it was “difficult” to change people’s attitudes regarding homosexuality, “the community will eventually get there”. 

Vamvakinou said she was interested to see how Calwell residents voted as the political climate had changed with the rise of the United Australia Party. 

She said the party, which capitalised on resistance to lockdowns over the pandemic, would appeal to the “disaffected [and] aggrieved”, although she did not know how big that group would be. 

“There’s still a strong sense of ‘the Labor Party is better for us’ in this electorate … But it is changing. It’s changing everywhere, not just in Calwell.”