I wish to acknowledge the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation who are the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on. I pay my respects to their leaders, past, present and emerging. Dr Leela de Mel worked in the indigenous sector before she worked in the multicultural sector and always made this acknowledgment at every function she officiated or hosted.
It is an absolute honour and privilege to have been asked to pay tribute to Leela and I thank the family for the same. However, I was hoping that wouldn’t eventuate for succinctly summing up the significant influence that she has had on our sector is no easy task.
We often refer to the late emeritus professor Laksiri Jayasuriya as being the father of multiculturalism, and though I don’t believe in royalty, it would be fitting to describe Dr Leela de Mel as the Queen of multiculturalism. What brings us together today is not our nationality, religion, ethnicity etc. but our love and admiration of a woman whose personality, belief in human rights, and perseverance in achieving it for vulnerable sections of our community, touched our hearts and our lives in so many ways.
Our sector has been blessed with many giants and warriors but none as endearing as Leela for she was able to utilize her immense intellectual and unique interpersonal skills to articulate what needed to be achieved, with great passion, dignity and without disrespecting anyone. Social activists including me, have much to learn from her.
Leela’s splendid legacy has not been adequately acknowledged let alone celebrated by our sector. Many including me have had the good fortune to have immensely benefitted from her valuable experience, wisdom, mentoring support and advice. Anne Aly Member for Cowan in paying tribute to Leela in the House of Representatives said, and I quote “Among the public sector in WA and within multicultural communities her bravery, her vision and her tenacity will be fondly remembered”. End of quote. Anne’s tribute can be seen in full from the following link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc4du5qAhZs
Cathy Hollander a former senior staff member of OMI and the Equal Opportunity Commission and I were at Leela’s bedside two days before her passing, reminiscing about our time with Leela. One of the things Cathy shared was her response when she is praised on her written communication skills. She would say without hesitation those skills are what it is because of the guidance and support she received from Leela. She is not the only one who highly regards and appreciated the mentoring support and advice that Leela so generously gave to so many people.
Suresh Rajan, the President of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA in his FaceBook post conveyed and I quote “Leela taught me much about cultural diversity and related matters. She was undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable people (about issues of multiculturalism) that I have ever met or dealt with. No one since or before her has brought the kind of change that she did to this state to give us, the CaLD communities, a voice at the table. She was a gem of a person and one who will be sorely missed by all of us.” End of quote. Suresh’s post can be accessed from the following link https://mscwa.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Suresh-Rajan-FaceBook-Tribute-to-Leela-De-Mel.pdf
We all justifiably praise the visionary Hon. former Premier and Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Interests, Dr Geoff Gallop for his admirable multiculturalism scaffolding (comprising the Multiculturalism Charter, the Anti-Racism Strategy, the Substantive Equality and the Language Service policies) and yes, many notable people contributed to it. However, it was left to Leela to implement it within a public sector that put bluntly had little time for it and sought to vehemently resist it being put into practice. The fact that these mechanisms still remain in place is testament to the success that Leela has had.
This was well summed up by Dr Gallop and I quote "All too often those analysing and commenting on public policy focus only on the decisions themselves, who makes them and in what interest. Not surprisingly then the spotlight goes to the ministers, their offices and outside influences be they good or bad. There is of course another domain of great importance and it relates to the implementation of the decision itself; the time when it is taken into the real world both within government itself and also within the wider community. It is here that the role of the public service becomes crucial; as advocate, negotiator, influencer and perhaps even enforcer. When the policy itself breaks new ground or is controversial any slip up in implementation can be catastrophic.
When it came to the range of policies related to multiculturalism and anti-racism I was fortunate to have Leela de Mel as Executive Director of the Office of Multicultural Interests. She fully understood what it was the government intended, was resolute in her support for the policies when the inevitable challenges emerged and through all of this acted in a dignified and respectful way.
Sometimes the stresses were great but Leela worked her way through them - and with a lovely sense of humour when appropriate! If I was to think of words to describe her approach I would say "truly professional". The fact that so much of what we intended has "stuck" is because of her work within the sector.” End of quote
Leela recognized the need for strong advocacy to tackle structural inequality and discrimination and truly respected and admired ECC for the role it played in this regard. I understand from Said Padshah Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Interests who was working at OMI at that time, that Leela on more than one occasion at OMI staff meetings made it explicitly clear that she wouldn’t respond kindly to any criticism of ECCWA by OMI staff. A senior commonwealth public servant who worked for OMI when Leela was its Executive Director also endorsed the aforementioned stance of Leela in relation to ECC’s role. In hindsight, Suresh and I, when we were Presidents of ECCWA, could and should have utilized her support much better than we did.
ECCWA honoured her by presenting her the Multiculturalism Award, an honour that has been extended to just four other people since 1980. She was the first public servant on whom this honour was bestowed. A peak body honouring persons for what they did as public servants is rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth. ECCWA waited a lot longer than was necessary to bestow this honour but, in doing so, it sent a clear signal to all concerned, that former and current leaders of ECCWA and the multicultural sector at that time valued and respected Leela highly.
Professor Jayasuriya congratulated Leela on this honour and in paying tribute he acknowledged and saluted her for her tireless work and many contributions in promoting Australian multiculturalism. Laki said and I quote, “Leela was a fearless public servant willing to confront all stakeholders including her political masters in defending the values and principles of multicultural citizenship.
At this dangerous time for social inclusion and fairness we need public spirited citizens like Leela to defend and extend the social and political gains that we have made over more than three decades. It has been a great pleasure and privilege for me to have been associated with Leela in promoting the development of Australia as a multicultural society.” End of quote
The board of the Multicultural Services Centre of Western Australia (MSC) has decided to name its recently acquired Cannington office Dr Leela De Mel Centre in her honour. Regrettably they were not able to do it before her passing. Feedback from board members include, “Leela was obviously a very kind lady and had empathy for the community at large. “They say that amongst all the human qualities there is none greater than kindness” and “Leela was indeed a remarkable woman who had contributed immensely to the multicultural community. I had the pleasure of knowing her when I was working at EDAC. It’s sad we didn’t get the chance to acknowledge her good work and tell her personally how much she was appreciated”. End of quotes
In 2011, MSC won the tender to provide the Accommodation and related component of the Humanitarian Support Service and it became its single largest program. Regrettably, a very senior official in the Department of Immigration, on the basis of unsubstantiated reasons, pressured the board to change me as the Contract Manager. Many a board in our sector would have succumbed to such pressure but MSC’s highly professional and experienced board of which Leela was a member, firmly resisted the pressure that was placed on it. Leela’s views played an important role in this along with two other board members who were former senior commonwealth public servants. I cannot thank her enough for what she did in this regard and in the effective implementation of that program.
The board, staff and volunteers of MSC were the beneficiaries of Leela’s famous culinary skills on many occasions. It was not just the taste but the presentation of Leela’s exquisite dishes that will remain in our memories forever.
It was Leela’s advocacy that led to the OMI Executive Director position being upgraded from level 9 to Executive Class 1, for she was acutely aware that otherwise the views of that position wouldn’t be taken seriously by the higher echelons of the public sector. Having achieved the desired outcome, not surprisingly, Leela chose not to accept the higher level. The four people who subsequently served as Executive Directors of OMI were all appointed at Executive Class 1. Due to the unwarranted and unconscionable action of the previous Director of the Department of Local Government, Sports and Cultural Industries, the Executive Director position was downgraded to Level 9. Hopefully, Minister Buti and the new Director General of that department, Lanie Chopping, will accept the wisdom and reasoning of Leela and revert the position to Executive Class 1, as a matter of urgency.
In an email that I received from Dr. Gallop, he captured so much of Leela’s qualities and attributes, in so few words. He wrote, and I quote, “Leela will be much missed. Her wisdom born of experience and plenty of reading - and expressed firmly but gently and often with a lovely sense of humour - made her a wonderful adviser on all matters multicultural and a great friend to many”. End of quote
From what I have shared it is obvious that Leela was very much an unsung hero. She was by far the quietest achiever I have ever known. Leela richly deserves to be awarded the Order of Australia for her outstanding public sector service and I have written to the Minister for Multicultural Interests to nominate her for the same, albeit posthumously.
If the impact of her passing on people at OMI, ECC, MSC, and past and present Ministers and senior bureaucrats are anything to go by, I can only imagine what Michael, Janek and other family members must be experiencing. We thank Michael and Janek immensely for sharing Leela with us for our lives are so much richer because of it. So, let us pray for them; as well as members of their extended families, for theirs is an irretrievable loss.
In the song, Light a Candle, Daniel O’Donnell, states “we could unite the world from one tiny spark; and it is better to light a candle than curse in the dark”. Leela not just believed but practiced that message by lighting candles for many causes. Some of them still shine brightly.
This song epitomises Leela in so many ways, her substantial contribution to the multicultural sector, her love of family, her loyal and deep friendships, and her unconditional faith. She has left us a very rich legacy, which will live on in all of us. This song will inspire us to keep lighting candles just as she did and I will end my tribute with some words from it.
“Life is for giving for those who are living in love's ray of light
And life is for caring, so never stop sharing your beacon so bright
Light a candle, to start a new dawn, let it be like a prayer
And together we'll shine, in a moment of time, we can share
Light a candle, to start a new dawn
We can unite the world from one tiny spark
It’s better to light a candle than curse in the dark”
Till we meet again, Vale Dr. Leela De Mel.
Ramdas Sankaran OAM on behalf of the board and staff of MSCWA