Interview with Omar of The Australian Cyclists Party
- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 29 October 2013
It has been the hottest topic in Australian Cycling for the past few week as the new political party seeks to attract members in order to become official and take part in the 2015 NSW and Victorian state elections. With the launch a number of debates have started about the purpose, validity and policies including the dreaded Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL) debate. Party founder, Omar Khalifa has agreed to respond to some of the tough questions that have been raised by cyclists in the Australian Cycling Forums on BNA.
BNA: How can the Australian Cyclists Party help cycling considering existing cycling advocacy groups and existing government cycling initiatives?
Omar Khalifa: We can make sure that we can have someone in government to act on advocacy positions. To make changes or add amendments that look after the issues that affect cyclists. No advocacy group can do that without working with someone interested in government. It may not take much for someone in government to make a big difference for those who don’t usually get a look in.
I do recognise that some improvements have been made in some areas and in some large cities in particular. But most cyclists don’t see the benefits of these and the progress is often slow and reversible. Often grand plans are under-resourced and instead of championing the issues internally many times this is left to members of the community to fight for time and again through submissions or petitions and rallies. I have been involved in a number of these as CEO of Bicycle NSW and know how exhausting and disappointing the outcomes can be at the end of long and time consuming processes.
BNA: Existing state and community cycling organisations who advocate for cycling are often unable or unwilling to align themselves with political parties, how does this affect the ability of the Australian Cyclists Party gather cyclist support?
Omar Khalifa: As much as we would like the full endorsement of all cycling organisations, we understand this is not possible and can live with that. Several have already said they welcome another voice in support of cycling – that’s fair enough endorsement for us. Much the same thing is happening with Bicycle User Groups and cycling clubs. Some are taking a stronger endorsement stand. I think cyclists will make up their own minds and consider whether this is an opportunity worth backing?
BNA: Political parties for cycling haven’t taken off internationally – often cycling issues are represented by the green parties internationally – what makes Australia different?
Omar Khalifa: Australia seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp when it comes to cycling policies. Despite the growth in cyclist numbers the politicians have been slow to respond. Too often it has only been seen as a greens issue, whereas I think the majority of cyclists don’t see it as such any longer and many of our current supporters would have different political or ideological alignments.
In a number of countries no party would ignore cycling and in others it has attracted a concerted multi-party support base. Here the major parties appear to see the issue as a marginal one and can be largely ignored and have done so for decades. Some even use anti-cycling rhetoric to rile up their supporters. Perhaps that is all about to change.
BNA: When the Prime Minister Tony Abbott won the election he responded to a media question stating he will begin his first day with a bike ride. Is there any influence or positive benefit for Australia with a Prime Minister who cycles?
Omar Khalifa: It should be a great thing to have a cycling PM, but he has yet to make any statements to support cycling for the rest of us. I think our Prime Minister, by following the example of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, could make improving cycling in this country a centerpiece of his government rather than a centerpiece of his day. His personal commitment could work wonders.
BNA: The Party has been accepting new members for about about three weeks – does the response from the cycling community and the media coverage provide any suggestions as to the success of the political party? Can you share the current member numbers?
Omar Khalifa: Our support through new members has been amazing! I had no reason to expect the support we received so quickly. The media has been helpful in general though a few are still stuck seeing this as a “micro party” legitimacy issue because of the success of the Motoring Enthusiasts or some grand conspiracy by a political lobbyist.
The support is very broad-based attracting people of all ages and professions. We have over 1,000 members from across Australia. Those who want to follow our progress can do so by signing up to our Facebook or Twitter accounts through icycleivote.com
BNA: The party aims to contest in the next New South Wales and Victorian State elections, what would be your vision for success in these elections?
Omar Khalifa:We have our own benchmarks, but would aim to secure at least one Upper House seat in each. It is a very tall order but if we can make a good showing in Victoria even without winning a seat, then we stand a chance in NSW as well. If successful, the other states will then be in play too though different approaches may be taken in each. There is certainly interest brewing in all states and territories. That’s the aspiration, but let’s keep perspective, we need to have enough members in both Victoria and NSW to qualify for being on the ballot or we go no further.
BNA: The Australian Cyclists Party had its first public engagement at Ausbike in Melbourne and a week later was at the Sydney Bike Show, what kind of reception did you get from the public?
Ausbike in Melbourne was our “toe-in-the-water” low-key debut – just a couple of supportive BUG members from the Melbourne area, a website, an iPad and a poster. That’s it. I had lots of prior private discussions with knowledgeable cycling advocates but no prior publicity or press release of our launch. Nevertheless, the reaction was so positive with those that attended the show that it really made us feel that we were onto something that had broad appeal. Numbers grew on the back of a couple of articles but we were still taken by surprise by the numbers at the Sydney show where over 250 signed up over two days! Now we knew we really were in with a chance.
BNA: Who is behind the party and what are their roles? Are there any leaders yet?
I am the founder and we have a list of the people working on our committee on our website. We act as a team and split up activities based on skills and time available. None of us are paid for our work, and modest contributions have helped offset some initial travel and printing costs. I would venture that everyone working on this are doing it because they feel so passionately that much more must be done and that this may be our best opportunity to change things. I have nothing but admiration for them jumping in to help make a go of this.
BNA: Within the cycling community, Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL) is a controversial topic and your communications suggests that a party policy direction will not be created for MHL – how do you respond to comments that this is very much a cycling issue and that the party needs a formal view if they are to represent cyclists?
Omar Khalifa: Well, we don’t and we won’t. It is such divisive issue even in the cycling community that we see nothing good coming from taking an unequivocal stand on it. Leaders of the anti-MHL side like Chris Rissel has clearly indicated on our Facebook page that it was better we stay united on having a voice than to force a split that leaves nobody further advanced. Other respected leaders in cycling have echoed this view.
If some people feel so strongly about this one issue, then I understand if they would prefer to not support us and continue to pursue other avenues that they believe may be more effective.
BNA: As with any new idea – there is always criticism, some justified and some not. Which criticism has the party received that you feel is justified and are these able to be resolved or answered – likewise do you see important cycling issues that can’t be answered or addressed by the party?
Omar Khalifa: We simply started out asking the questions as to whether people were satisfied with the current state of cycling and whether having a representative in government may help? A few people who have not welcomed our entry have asked us for our detailed position on every issue of today as though this was the starting point. It can’t be. As with any party before us, we find the constituency that can get behind the issues that are most important to them. We will work from there.
If we become an official party we will begin to flesh out our position on issues we believe our members feel most strongly about prior to the election. Let’s keep in mind that even the major parties with all of the resources at their disposal will not spell out exactly what all of their policies are. Ultimately, the electorate can decide if they agree with what we do commit to and the quality of our candidate when they next go to the polls. There’s time for that.
BNA: The party constitution is a hot topic and I understand that when the party is able to formalise then this will be addressed and created to represent the views of the members. Is this correct and do you have a prognosis as to when a constitution or policy document can be published.
Our aim is certainly to use all of the community tools we can to keep everyone who wants to be engaged in the process, however, we also need to learn from the pitfalls faced by other parties and take steps to ensure we don’t fracture and factionalise. I believe our members expect that the ACP will set a reasonable and pragmatic course and to get on with the job of getting things done. It is what we should expect from any party and any representative.
We will have a constitution soon – it has to be looked at on a state by state basis to accommodate different electoral requirements in each state. Our committee will oversee this process. The constitution(s) will be published on our site when ready and submitted as part of the application to qualify to be on the ballot.
Disclaimer – Bicycles Network Australia is not aligned with the Australian Cyclists Party. The author (Christopher Jones) has applied to become a party member and is conscious that this article on Bicycles Network Australia represents fair coverage of topical cycling news and is not providing an endorsement or recommendation.