AL Andrew Leigh
JD Jihad Dib
JD There’s that undercurrent of racism that runs that a lot of people don’t know. And if you raise it, they go, oh, come on, mate, toughen up. But when you walk in somebody’s shoes, then you know it.
AL Good day, and welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on smarts but not enough on wisdom. So this podcast seeks out wise people who can share their insights on passion, grit, love and empathy. We’ll discuss everything from sport to parenting, and hear the stories of some of the world’s wisest souls. If you enjoy the podcast, let your friends know so they can share the insights. Now let’s dive in to today’s conversation.
Jihad Dib is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. With the big smile and the ready laugh, he genuinely seems to like everyone he comes in contact with. It’s a trait that served him well for the seven years he spent as Principal of Punchbowl Boys High School, where he turned around the attitudes, test scores and physical character of a challenging school.
That led to Jihad assisting the Federal Government with the Empowering Local Schools programme, receiving a Pride in Australia Award and entering politics in 2015 as the member for Lakemba, the first Muslim MP to serve in the New South Wales Lower House. Aged 46, Jihad is married to Erin, a Japanese teacher, and the couple have three children. Jihad, welcome to The Good Life podcast.
JD Well, thanks so much, Andrew. Thanks for inviting me on the podcast and for making it all the way to Sydney.
AL Absolute pleasure.
JD Great stuff.
AL So Jihad is a word people would be familiar with, not so much as a name.
JD Yes, well…
AL What’s the name?
JD Yes. Well, obviously, my parents didn’t think I was going to be a politician in Australia when they named me. But…
AL The Barack Obama effect.
JD Yes. So the name actually itself is an Arabic word that means strive and to struggle and to support people. It’s actually quite a beautiful word. And it’s not exclusively an Islamic name. It’s a name that’s used by people of different faiths in the Arabic world. And it’s to achieve your very best and to help others, charity. All that sort of stuff is Jihad.
Of course, what we’ve seen is people, particularly in the 90s, used it in the wrong way because they used that term of struggle for a form of a holy war. And the interesting story is, when it came to politics, for example, there were some recommendations that maybe I change my name. And it was a line that I just drew. I said there’s no way that I’ll change my name.
And I told the story in my inaugural speech about it, how it was actually my grandfather’s name. And the custom is that you name your eldest son after your father. So that’s what it was, so it was pretty special. And I wore my grandfather’s watch that I had fixed by a watch repairer and it was really special, because I said, when I was given that name, it didn’t have the same sentiment that people thought of at that particular time.
So it’s presented me with some problems. Going through the airport is always an interesting challenge, especially when you’re overseas. But your name is your identity, it’s what you were given as a kid, and it’s all part of my history and my roots.
AL Your parents, Ali and Ahlam, are both Lebanese. You were born in Lebanon, came to Australia when you were two. What does your Lebanese background bring to you? How has it shaped you?
JD Well, look, it’s all part of who you are, isn’t it? And I talk about this a lot, particularly with young people who are from diverse backgrounds, whatever that may be, to say this is part of your heritage, it’s your roots, it’s your story, it’s your grandparents’ story. I’m really lucky. I get to take the best of both cultures and to be able to say, what’s the best that I can be?
But there was a lot of times, especially in my teenage years, when you weren’t sure where you belonged. You didn’t belong in a Lebanese culture. You certainly didn’t feel like you belonged in Australia and mainstream Australian culture. So you were kind of sitting on the edge of two worlds. And it’s very easy then to feel disengaged or that nobody really values who you are as a person.
But I’ll tell you what I take probably from the Lebanese thing. Eating. I love food. I can’t help the sweets. I love the sweets. I love all of that sort of thing. But in every culture, there’s the ideas of respect, there’s the idea of family, there’s the idea of supporting each other. So if I was to say this is a purely Lebanese thing, it isn’t. It’s just a good values thing across the world. But certainly that concept of family and having a billion cousins is certainly very much a Lebanese thing.
AL You grew up in Sutherland Shire, where your parents had the corner store in Engadine. And by coincidence, I was living in Waterfall, a little bit down the road, although I don’t think we ever crossed paths there. How did you find that period of growing up at Hurstville Boys and at Heathcote High? Was there much racism you felt directed towards you and your parents?
JD Completely different places. Hurstville Boys, extremely multicultural. There were people from everywhere, of course your Anglos, your Celts, your everybody, right through to the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Lebanese, the Turks, the Vietnamese. It was actually a great multicultural school.
Then we moved to Engadine because my parents bought a corner shop. That’s the shop with the house on the back. And that was really the first real property we ever owned. And I remember they bought it cheap and that became the thing that we all worked in. That’s where I think our work ethic came from. At the time, I probably didn’t think…
AL Tough job running a corner store.
JD Mate, tough job. And I remember working it out one day. I think we were working for about $2.70 an hour or something. It was tough, and to the point where I would go and work part-time in other places. Because I just couldn’t take chocolate from there or anything. I’d just feel guilty. And dad would say, don’t be crazy, this is your shop. Real hard work.
But those days were really important days because I think what we did is we worked really well together as a family. We all took responsibility. So it wasn’t mum or dad doing the job. It was all of us. And in many ways then, you felt guilty if you were out having fun and you knew that your brother or your mum or your dad were there in the shop.
The racism stuff, yes, there was some racism there. But I’ve always been a glass-half-full person, Andrew. If I go through all the things that happened in terms of racism, I’d think this would be the worst place in the world. But with the things of racism, there were also some really good things.
And I’d like to imagine that I’m a comedian. One of the funniest things that I remember was somebody had once spraypainted on our fence, wogs go home. And we were heartbroken. That absolutely broke mum and dad’s heart, and my brother’s and me. And I just remember this as clear as day. I was going, hang on a second, they’ve spelt it wrong. They’ve spelt wogs, W O G E S. So not only are they telling me to go home, they can’t even spell. And then, of course, the irony is I became an English teacher. But yes, there were…
AL So you corrected their English on the wall there?
JD Yes, we…
AL Marked them down.
JD We painted over it. If it was in the day of today, like Instagram or Twitter, I’d take a photo of that and just go, you idiots, you don’t even know how to spell. I would say, racists, go to school. But, yes, we’ve had lots of experiences of racism. There’s that undercurrent racism that runs that a lot of people don’t know. And if you raise it, they go, oh, come on, mate, toughen up. But when you walk in somebody’s shoes, then you know it.
I remember at the time of the Gulf War and mum was walking in the shopping centre and someone tore her hijab off. And that absolutely just… I don’t know. I was furious because I thought, you cowardly bastards. Here is a lady who is just walking in the shopping centre and you’ve taken her hijab off just because you don’t know anything about her. You don’t know the loving person she is, the generous person she is, the kind person she is.
There’s lots of things. People make those judgements. But there’s two ways to face it. You can either say, oh, this is racism and I want to hate everybody because everyone hates me, or you could just say, well, I’m just going to be me. And people will change, which then goes back to that idea of why I didn’t change my name. Because if you get to know me as a person, you’ll forget about the name. If you get to know me as an individual, you’ll forget about my faith. If you get to know me for the things that I do, you won’t be looking at my culture.
What you’ll actually say, what I really want you to say is, you know what? That Jihad Dib bloke, he’s all right. He tells bad jokes, but he’s all right. And that’s not, oh, that Muslim bloke or that Lebanese bloke, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m as Aussie as you can get.
And I remember, a little while ago, somebody put something on my Twitter. I did something about Anzac Day or Remembrance Day, I think it was. And some smart aleck, like the keyboard cowards, tweeted, oh, do you actually support our armed forces? And so I just thought… Normally, I let these things slide, but I thought, no, I’m going to comment on this one.
And I remember really clearly, I said, mate, when you’ve been on the Sandakan track, when you've been to Gallipoli, when you trekked Kokoda, when you've been on the Black Cat Track, and when you’ve been to Gallipoli, then you come back and talk to me. Because I just thought, I’m going to call you out because you’ve probably, mate, never done anything.
But it’s just those things. You’ve got to let some things slide, but there’s some things you’ve got to pull up. And I did that earlier, when something happened to my daughter, and I pulled it up because I thought, this is not fair. I hate racism. I hate racism and discrimination of any form. I think it’s so wrong.
We need to look beyond that. And it’s not trying to sound airy-fairy and nice. Every person is valuable and every person is important and everybody has got the capacity to love and to feel valued and important and a sense of belonging. But when you make people feel like they don’t belong, well, then how can you say you’re part of our journey, if you’re excluding them from your journey?
AL Family is incredibly important to you, I know. You’re the eldest of seven children. I was struck in one newspaper profile, when he was tempted to win back his featherweight world championship belt, your brother, Billy, talking about you as a hero, as a role model of his. That’s pretty special for one brother to say of another. Tell me about how you get on as a family, and what has made those bonds so strong.
JD It’s the most important thing to us, family. I think family is… Getting all emotional now, thinking about that. Family is there for you, no matter what. In our family, they don’t care that I’m Jihad Dib, Member of Parliament, or Jihad Dib, the Principal, or Billy was the former boxing champion or Emaid has done something really spectacular in business or what Mohamad does. What we care about is just that we’re siblings.
And we’re each other. There’s no airs of grace. We go to our parents’ place. And we were only there the other day. We all had breakfast together. And I made a cheeky comment to mum because there was all this lovely food, but all of a sudden then, she started putting lemon and mint in water. And I go, what’s going on? We’re getting all fancy.
As for Billy, I’m not a fan of boxing but he’s my brother and I was with him every single step of the way, and any time I ever took off was basically to go and support him. And I could never give him any technical advice on boxing, but I was just there to make sure that when things were good, to be there to humble him a bit, because humility is so important. And when things were bad, like when he lost his world title, he said to me, he said, you were the first person that was there when I turned around in the ring.
That’s what you do. That’s what you do for people that you love. I don’t love what he does but I love him and so I’ll be there for him, and just as I’m there for my other brothers and my sister and my nephews and my nieces, and they’re there for me. It’s important. And to me, it goes back to that shop.
AL But before we go to the shop, that is pretty extraordinary, because you flew to the other side of the world for some of these bouts. And Billy was up against some pretty serious people. One of the guys who he fought, a competitor had died a few months after the bout. So this is serious stuff. It must be hard to be ringside, watching your brother get hit.
JD It’s awful. It’s absolutely awful. And he might listen to this podcast and go, oh, Jihad, you never told me that. I’ve told him all the time. Dad would come. Mum can’t watch the fights. I remember once, mum came to his first world title. And the poor thing, she spent most of the time outside, just throwing up because of just the nervous things.
And you don’t want to see someone you love getting hit. On the same token, you don’t want to see somebody hit somebody else. So it’s really funny because he’s a real gentle kind of a guy, and then he gets in the ring and you go, how can you hit people? I don’t get it. I don’t see the sport.
I would fly overseas. The trips that I went to America were because of Billy, the trips I went to Macau and different places. And the funniest thing is I would never actually go there and enjoy the place. I’d literally fly in and I would fly out. So if he was fighting, say, on a Saturday in America, it’s a Sunday in Australia.
So I would take leave on a Friday. I’d take long service leave, whatever it was, literally fly there, get there the equivalent of Friday morning their time, be there for the fight, fly out Sunday. I’d be back at work on Tuesday morning. So I never got to experience the really nice things about New York or Macau or Connecticut or LA, all of those things, but you just do it.
And I know that they would do it for me. They would. They’re the first ones that are there for me, especially when things are tough or I need a hand. And it's what we try and teach our kids as well. I want our kids to be the same as we are with our brothers and sister. And yes, it’s love, it’s crazy, but that’s family. And you’ve got to be there, they’ve got to know that you’re there, and you’ve got to stand by them.
AL When you graduated from teachers’ college, you went first to Ulladulla High, but then requested a transfer to a more challenging school. Why was that?
JD Ulladulla High school was like Summer Bay. Seriously, I went there 30 years too early. If that had been the school that I was going to at the 30-year point, it would’ve been a great school to finish up in, because beautiful lifestyle, beautiful spot. For those who don’t know, it’s a seaside town. It’s just absolutely beautiful. And I loved it. I think Erin and I spent about six years there. Erin later on became my wife, spent six years there.
But about that sixth year, I just thought, you know what? I don’t know that I’m actually… I went into teaching because I wanted to help people. I went into teaching because I want to make a difference. I went into teaching because I want to give more than just standing in front of a classroom. And I was doing all of that at Ulladulla and the kids were good and we had a great time and we were doing amazing things.
But at the same time, I was hearing in Sydney about, particularly, Arabic boys who were getting themselves into a lot of trouble. So we had the issues around the gang rapes, we had the issues around the drug gangs, we had the issues around the violence and the issues about kids who were just giving up. And I kept thinking, where are their role models?
And then I started to feel this sense of guilt. Here I am, driving past a beach, looking at dolphins in the morning, playing golf three times a week. Oh. Now I want to give all of that up to be able to go and do something that is going to make my heart sing? And it was. I was always alive at Ulladulla, but this was different. This was just coming alive because I could see the changes.
And the kids there… I remember one of the kids. And later on… It was at Punchbowl. And the assumption was, we’re going to go to jail. I’m just going to be… I’m just going to do this, I’m just going to work in this. They didn’t have the aspiration. They had the ability, but they didn’t have the aspiration. But people didn’t believe in them and so they stopped believing in themselves. They didn’t see those positive male role models particularly who looked like them, who sounded like them, who understood them.
And so maybe it was a little bit of an inflated ego, that I thought, oh, I could do something here, but that was the reason. And, geez, it was tough. It was so tough, so different to Ulladulla. So different. But I’d go home every day, I’d be completely exhausted, but I felt, you know what? I did something today. I did something for this one kid that changed his day for the better.
AL Well, let’s talk about some of the things you did at the school. You instituted a process of welcoming students as they arrived. How did you do that, and why was that important?
JD So that started at Belmore and then I moved over to Punchbowl and became the Principal. Punchbowl Boys’ High School had this history, had been known in the media as the worst school in Australia, which I can’t believe they would say that about a school. How are you going to get kids to go there when that’s what you say? It had the inward-facing barbed wire. It was just rough as. And I thought, we’ve just got to connect with these kids.
So it was. It was standing out the front. And where I saw that was I once went to Japan and I visited a school, because my wife is a Japanese teacher so we went to a school in Japan, and the principal was greeting the kids. And I thought, you know what? This is something that I’d love to do. And I started it. And before you know it, I then asked the deputies to come out, then other teachers would come out, and as the years went on, the captains and the prefects.
And it was like this, hi, mate, we’re shaking hands, this is the start of our day. And at the end of the day, the same thing. I’d jokingly say… One of the kids goes, sir, why are you always standing out here at the end of the day? I go, mate, just to make sure you’re not taking a computer, right? And he goes, sir, you can’t say that. I go, you know I’m only joking. But that was that connection.
But the other thing too that was really important, Andrew, is it showed them, I’m with you on this trip, because they didn’t believe that anybody was with them on that trip. And I go back to that point that for a long time, they’d been told, you’re nothing, and so that’s all they aspired to.
And I remember the heartbreak of this kid on my second day. And I won’t swear because this is a family show. But a kid seeing me in the playground goes, why would you come to this beep-beep-beep-beep-beep school? And I said, mate, because I think we’re going to do something good. And he goes, this is an effing, effing, effing, effing school. I go, well, okay, we’re going to change it.
Long story short, that kid went on to become a teacher and he worked at the school as one of the casual teachers. And I used to ask him to constantly work with kids who needed a bit more guidance and a bit more support. So we went from a place where kids didn’t believe in themselves to a place where it just changed.
And a lot of that is that connection, standing at the front, seeing the parents, saying to the parents, I’ve got your kid today. I’m going to look after your kid as if it’s my kid. So the handshake was one thing. Going down to the railway station to make sure they got to school was another good thing. One, I got to see what their behaviour was like, but two, it was like rounding them up. Okay, boys, let’s go to school. I’m going to walk back to school with you. Then they would see me pick up rubbish along the way. And so I role modelled that and they would do the same.
And what I’m really proud of is the number of principals who come up to me now and just say, I do what you did, and how important it is. But in building that relationship, whether it was with the kids or with the parents, it meant that when there was a problem, we were talking to the parents as though they were part of our school family.
It wasn’t, hi, it’s Jihad Dib, the principal. Your son, I don’t know, Ahmed, your son, Ahmed, has just done something wrong, and it’s confrontational. It’s, oh, hello, Mr Dib. I’m really sorry. Okay, whatever you decide to do, we’ll accept. They were part of that because they knew that I loved those kids like I would love my own kids. And they saw that, the kids saw that, the teachers saw that, and we went from being one of the roughest schools to one of the most loving schools.
And people don’t use the word, loving schools. But a lot of those kids actually just needed a bit love. They needed someone, they needed you to be firm. I wasn’t a soft touch, but they needed to know that when things hit the fan, I was going to be there with them, but I had expectations of them as well. Mate, we used to have graffiti everywhere. We used to have things get torn, broken. That all stopped. That all stopped. And it’s because they felt like it was their school.
And I remember standing up in the assembly once and saying, okay, boys, we’re going to become the best school in Australia. And I’m not sure who laughed first, the kids or the teachers, but that was the mindset. And I said, no, we’re going to be the best. We’re going to be the best at community. So we started the community dinners which now at least 50 other schools do. We started…
AL What’s a community dinner?
JD So we tied it in with Ramadan because there was a big Muslim population there. So Ramadan is when you’re fasting. I remember walking down to a station one day with a kid in Ramadan. And about 3:30 in the afternoon, you’re starting to feel… You’ve got the growly stomach. So I was starting to talk with this kid about what I’m going to be eating for dinner.
And I said, oh, we’re going to have this and this and this. And I said, what are you having? He said, I’m going to have chicken. I go, oh, nice, I like chicken, the barbecued chicken. He said, yes, sir, that’s what we had yesterday and that’s what we’ll have. And I go, so who is in your family? And he said, it’s just me and mum.
And I went back to school and I thought, you know what? We’re going to do a dinner where we’re going to make it a community dinner. But it’s not just for the Muslim kids and it’s not for the teacher. It’s for all of the kids together. It started off with about 50 or 60 people, the year I left, 700 people. Well, we only had 400 kids in the school so I don’t know where the seven… But the parents would come.
And it was literally the big feast. Everyone would bring food. And so instead of calling it, say, the Iftar, I just called it the community dinner. And I knew that the Muslim kids would come, but I went out of my way to invite the non-Muslim kids, because I said this is not for one particular group. This is for all of us. It’s a chance to get together. But that sense of community, that’s what we had. And when you’ve got that, you can pretty much do anything in a school, when they start believing in themselves.
They are still boys that still do boys’ things. Boys have got the X… What is it? The X chromosome, the Y chromosome and a stupid chromosome. They’re just… Tell them, why’d you do that? Oh, I don’t know. And they really didn’t. They really didn’t know. But what I wanted them to do was to learn that you’ve got to change your behaviour.
So that’s the concept of being out the front. If a kid didn’t come with his right uniform, we’d have a spare uniform for them. Rather than send them or they get in trouble or something like that, here you go, no worries, here’s a jumper, here’s a shirt, at the end of the day, you get this back, so that you could feel like you belonged. Too many people say, no, you’re not in the right uniform, you’ve got to go. If that kid is not in school, there’s a good chance they may get themselves into trouble.
AL Tell us the story of Omar.
JD Omar was a Year 8 kid, big boy. And big boy, probably a 14-year-old kid in about an 18-year-old body, and at that stage, probably a mental capacity, I reckon… I’d joke with him and say, mate, you’re probably about five years old in the brains. I’d joke around like that. But an angry young man, really, really angry young man.
And when you actually understood his background story, you’d understand why he's angry. Here’s a kid who had had a horrific home life. And his day pretty much started with shouting, screaming, carrying on, a bit of violence. He’d come to school and he would just lose it, because he couldn’t let that rage out at home because then he’d just get belted harder. But he’d lose it at school.
And he would just do these just terrible… I remember he’d throw things around. He’d pick up furniture. Once, he actually threw a desk and it hit a kid. And it was because a kid cracked a joke with him. But he just was so angry that the smallest thing would make him go off. All sorts of things.
So every single day, this guy became my shadow, because I knew that if I was going to send him back home, he’s going to get in trouble. So he never got away with anything. We would do alternative things. So instead of suspension, I’d have him in in-school suspension. Then in the afternoon, we’d clean graffiti together. So I became the best graffiti cleaner in all of Sydney. I learned all of the stuff, what’s the good material, what isn’t.
But there was one particular time I remember when he just went… I can’t remember what it was, but it was just over the top, and I got his mum to come in. And his mum struggled. And I used to just say, mate, you shouldn’t do this to your mum. Your mum has got a hard enough life. She doesn’t need you adding to it.
So a little bit of guilting him but also a bit of a big brother thing. And I said, your mum needs you to be the man around the house. Your mum needs you to be the person she can rely on. How much do you think it hurts her when I ring her up and say, you need to come in?
And he sat in my office and I had to actually sit on the ground at the door so that he couldn’t open the door, because he wanted to just go out the door. And I don’t know what he was going to do, whether he was going to belt someone or just wanted to go away. But he’d say things like, oh, I just want you to effing expel me. Why don’t you effing expel me? Effing expel me, you effing… Anyway, he didn’t hold back.
Now, that’s enough to get him expelled, but that’s what he wanted and I knew that wasn’t the right thing for him. So I just sat there calmly, calmly sweating bullets and going, is this kid going to…? And his mum. And I said, have a look at your mum. And as soon as I said that, he just looked for a moment, and I said, that’s the person that you’re breaking more than me, your mum.
And we worked through it. We worked through so hard with this kid. We eventually made the change. It took years. We made the change. And in Year 12, he had a really bad car accident. And I think that finally woke him up. Because I went and visited him in the hospital, and I think he was shocked that I would go and visit him. I go, of course I’m going to visit you. I know you think I don’t like you, mate, but I do. And plus, I’m getting bored at school. I’ve got no one to talk to now. No one wants to talk to me. I’m missing you.
The best thing about it? So he ended up becoming a podiatrist. And he didn’t do it the easy way. He did it the hard way. And about six months ago, I was at the chiro’s and they’ve got a podiatrist there. And lo and behold, it’s Omar. And I go, oh my god, I’m so embarrassed. He said, no, sir. He was so genuine. He goes, sir, it would be my honour to do your feet. And I said, mate, you haven’t seen my feet. I’ve been wearing my shoes all day. But then we just had this great chat and then he invited me to his wedding.
So I go to so many of my ex-students’ weddings. I’m constantly going to weddings. I don’t know how many former principals get invited to weddings of their students. It would’ve driven them nuts. But that kid, that kid, we could’ve given up on him when he was in Year 8, and I’m sure he would’ve ended up in the juvenile justice system and he would’ve graduated to the prison system. Have a look at him now, married, working as a podiatrist, a true gentleman. And his mum, his mum was so proud.
And I remember, at his wedding, he kissed his mother’s feet. Now, culturally, that’s such an important thing. And he kissed his mother’s feet. And I actually gave him a big hug and I said, that makes me more proud than anything you’ve ever done before, because you’ve really learnt.
So there are so many Omar-type stories that I went through, and it’s just because someone believed in them. As I said, it’s easy to give up on kids, so easy to give up on kids, and you do much more than you need to, but you have to because you just think, if I don’t do this, who is going to look out for this kid? Of course I would’ve liked him out of my hair. Of course the teachers would have. But I know where he would’ve gone down, which path he would’ve gone down.
So then, of course, the other bit to that is how do you make sure that you’re supporting teachers, because you can’t have this kid doing what he was doing and the teachers feeling like, well, there’s no consequence.
So one of the lines I often used with the teachers is tell me what you want. Do you want revenge or do you actually want a change in the behaviour? Because if you want revenge, that’s just a short-term thing. But we need to be changing behaviour. And his was a great story. There’s so many stories. Whenever I feel down, I think of those stories.
AL Talking about sustaining teachers, you instituted awards for teachers. How did you do that, and how did it operate?
JD So about three years in… I always think if you tell people what they’re doing well, they really appreciate it. Because we’re really good at picking up what people do badly. We’re really good at picking up when people stuff things up. We’re really good at picking up and criticising. That’s just a social thing. And so as a result of that, we’re not actually identifying anything that someone does that’s good.
And so we did it with the students. We started going, let’s have a look at this positive behaviour intervention strategy. You’re not going to get away with doing the wrong thing, but you know what? I’m going to say, hey, Henry, you did really well today, here’s a little certificate. You get ten of these, you’re going… It’s like a little reward system.
But it’s also an acknowledgement, so that when you do the wrong thing and I say, Andrew, you’ve done the wrong thing, you don’t turn around and say, as the boys do, sir, you’re always picking on me, you only ever pick on me, you only ever… So the best comeback is, well, hang on a second. I gave you an award a couple of weeks ago. I don’t pick… When you do the right thing, I acknowledge you. And that just completely disarms them.
And then I thought, with our teachers, they do it tough. And it was tough and it still is tough there. And so I would do this green sheet, so this newsletter every single week. It was my Sunday night ritual. And I would put it individually in people’s pigeonholes. So I’d go into school on a Sunday night and I’d print it off, put it in there, and I would always acknowledge the good things that were happening.
Then we developed this thing called a Good on You award for teachers. And it was just good on you. And it was good on you, not for things like turning up to your playground duty, because that’s what you have to do, but good on you for taking a debating team, good on you for giving up your time to help this particular kid, good on you for the great art exhibition, things that they were doing that when you’re feeling a bit low in a place, you go, no one ever appreciates what I do so I’m just going to stop doing it.
But just like the kids were at first, oh, don’t give me the award, don’t give me the award… Because I remember kids didn’t want their award on assembly. Then they’d come up to me and go, sir, I was meant to get an award on assembly today, why didn’t you give it to me? I thought, wow, I remember I couldn’t get anyone up on assembly because it was too cool.
Same with the teachers. But what I would do is I would then make sure that with those, I would go and personally deliver them to the teacher in their classroom, in front of their students, and say a little bit about why I was giving that award. So I would interrupt the class.
The teacher at first would be a bit embarrassed, but it was about showing the kids in the class, hey, you know the same thing that we expect of you, we expect of our teachers, and you need to know that your teacher is a pretty decent person and they’re doing things like that.
So it was like this constantly pepping them up, recognising what you’re doing, looking at what you do well. We had such good morale that there was never a problem in finding people to run a barbecue outside of school hours, never a problem finding people to help after the assembly clean-up, never a problem in finding anybody to give up any extra time.
That’s the difference between good morale and bad morale, when the morale… When I first started, the bell would ring at 3:05. There were people out in the car park before three o’clock. Towards the end, people just wouldn’t leave. And we kept on talking this concept of family. We’re all family together here. I coined that phrase, the school family, and it’s so good to hear that other people do it because we all belong.
And so where I used to have this issue with teachers, basically I’m not sure if they’re going to last a day or a week, I was so proud when we’d put out job ads and we’d get 20-30 applicants. Mate, we used to, before that, have to ring people around and beg them to just come, just temporary, just try it out. And the morale had changed and everything had changed. And it’s that recognition.
And I expected the same of my leaders, so whether the deputies or the head teachers, all the teachers. I expected the same of everybody as I would give myself. And I’d be the first one in the line. I wasn’t an ivory tower-ist. I was constantly out of my office. You could never find me in my office because I was just constantly around the school. You needed to do that.
AL In 2015, you moved from being a principal to being a politician. How have you found that transition? What’s a good day as an opposition politician compared to a good day as a principal?
JD Well, let’s say, it’s hard being an opposition. But there are some good things that happened. There are really good things. People often see what happens in the chamber and they think that that’s what it’s all about, but it actually isn’t. Only last week, I ran a programme with a member from the government, where we took some kids from Western Sydney out to one of the beaches so they can learn some basic surf skills, because I know that they’re the same kids that would struggle later. They’re the nice things.
Sometimes, there are problems with politics. I go, you spend most of your day in politics trying to put people down, against each other, whereas in schools, you’re constantly pulling people up. I think that’s a hard one. People go, oh, you’re too nice. Being nice is not a bad thing. Being a decent person is not a bad thing. And most of the people in parliament and in politics are in there for the right reason, regardless of the party they represent.
But is it something I love? Yes. Yes, it’s different. I really like it. It’s different, because it gives you different opportunities. Especially if you’re in a shadow ministry, and I was in an area of education which was my passion and my love, you’re able to think, okay, how could I implement some of those things across a grander scale? While I was able to help 500 kids at Punchbowl, how can I make it better for 800,000 kids or 1.2 million across the state, across all the sectors? They’re the really important things.
But the nicest thing is when you get your constituents just coming up to you and talking to you. And I pretty much almost run my politics like I did the school. I like to be out and about. My staff get annoyed with me forever because I’m just constantly out and about.
And I go to every little event, not because you want to be seen or because of a photograph, because I don’t do that much of that, but because you go, you know what? I just want you to know that I value what you’re doing and I want you to know that what you’re doing is really important.
So I don’t look at it in terms of how many votes and how many whatever. I look at it in terms of, is this important for our community? And in the same way that we made positive kids by being good role models, I’m seeing a lot more people now becoming engaged in the political process in our area. Where before, they were really apathetic and had the lowest expectation, we expect highly of each other.
So a good day in opposition is obviously when you’re making some progress, when you get some good policies that get up. There’s times when you attack the government. I’m not a fan of the cheap attacks. Go policy, go where we could do things better. Of course, sometimes, you get caught up in a moment.
But I think the good day in politics is when someone who is not normally engaged with politics says, you know what? You’re doing good. You’re doing a good job. Because we collectively, as politicians across the nation, have to look at why people are disinterested in politics. And I think part of the reason is because of the way that sometimes politics is perceived and the way that it’s conducted.
AL Couldn’t agree more. Lots of people have their Jihad Dib is a nice guy stories. Mine actually comes from the…
JD Don’t believe it. Don’t believe it.
AL Well, mine comes from the first time we were due to do this podcast. We’d had an exchange of messages where we’d arranged for me to come to Sydney and do a podcast interview. And at some point, I had decided that it would be better if that conversation was a preparatory one for the final interview. But I never realised I’d never communicated that to you.
So I arrived. You were fully expecting to do an interview. You’d gotten a quiet room. You’d gotten some chocolate. It had gone completely out of my head that this was going to be the interview. I just thought we were sitting down to chat. And you were gracious for an entire hour. You just chatted away. It must have become clear to you at some point that I was not actually doing an interview, but you never once said anything. It wasn’t until I got home and was about to get into bed that night, I suddenly realised my extraordinary rudeness through it.
But that graciousness was also in us walking around New South Wales Parliament House, with you spending time chatting away, chatting away with the security guards and the people on the front desk and so on. You do seem to have a pretty different style in politics. Do you think that holds you back or do you think that becomes infectious?
JD I was wondering whether you were secretly recording that conversation behind me, because I thought, hang on a second, I…
AL I can’t imagine another politician, Jihad, who would not have at some point said, hey, what are you wasting my time for?
AL You told me this is going to be an interview. You were extraordinarily gracious.
JD Thank you. Well, thank you, mate. Look, you’re being too nice. I think, no, it was lovely. It was a good conversation. It was a really good chat. And whether we were going to have the interview or not, it doesn’t matter. No conversation is ever wasted, in my opinion.
And I think if there’s… We walked round for an hour and I learned a lot about you, you learned a lot about me. We had lots of laughs. You took the chocolate. Now, you should’ve given it back to me if you weren’t going to do an interview. But I see you brought me some chocolate.
AL I had to, right?
JD I absolutely…
AL Food is important to you. I can remember Bob Carr telling me that you will frequently have food at meetings with people when you get to come into the office because you think it changes the character of the conversation.
JD It calms things down and people need to sit and eat and feel comfortable. I’ll answer that and then I’ll go back to the first thing. We used to have P&C meetings, for example, and we had 40 parents turn up to a P&C meeting. Parents don’t turn up to P&C meetings.
We would do it because we did it differently. We did it during the day. And I would make sure that we always had some food of some sort. It wasn’t much but there was always some food because I didn’t want people to feel that they were coming here and it was a chore. So it became more of a… I think people relax around food and I love having food from different cultures all on the same table. You just pick away at it and enjoy.
As to the other bit, mum and dad always said be respectful, and I am and that’s how I conduct myself. There are times when I think, oh, I could’ve been more respectful. I’m a bit conscious of that. But you lose nothing by being good to people. You lose nothing by being nice.
Sometimes people think that, oh, nice, it’s a weakness. It’s not a weakness. When did niceness actually become a problem? When did respect become a problem? When did valuing somebody else become a problem? And so it’s that whole narrative that I think is completely wrong.
In its purest form, politics is actually public service. That’s what it is. It’s about being a servant for the people. And being a servant for the people doesn’t mean you sit there and say, oh, mate, why aren’t you recording me? Do you know who I am? People don’t give two hoots about that.
I don’t walk around saying I’m the local member of parliament, because I want people to go, I can be that guy, I want to be that guy. And when I get people that say I want to be like you, I say, no, I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to be better than me. I want you to learn from me and be better, see the mistakes that I make.
So I’ll tell you one thing around the parliament is, and I hope this is true, this is what people tell me, but I’ve earned my respect here. I’ve earned my respect because I won’t back away from a fight when I need to, as you do as a shadow minister, but I won’t pick a fight for no reason and I’ll stand my ground. And I don’t play the cheap politics.
And in my speeches, I try to tell people stories. I tell the stories. This is what we’re here for. We here to tell the stories, not only of our community but of our nation, because our nation has 25 million stories. Each one of them is really important. So I’m not the most important person in the world.
But my parents, I still kiss my father’s hand when I see him, and my mother’s hand. And it’s a respect thing, not because, if I don’t do that, I’m going to get in trouble. That’s just what I would do. And if somebody talks to me, no matter who they are, I treat them with respect. If it’s a person who is older than me, I will talk to them with respect, as I would with a person who is younger than me, get down to their same level. I’m no better than anybody else. I just do a different job. And that’s that thing about humility. If you’ve got humility, then that’s all you need.
There’s too many egos around the world. I don’t need to be another one. Of course, people say I’ve got an ego, everyone has a bit of an ego, but I don’t see that as the valuable thing. And in fact, it’s the biggest turn off that I find, when somebody is disrespectful.
I’ll just give you a really good example, a quick one. It only happened last week for… I don’t know. This is not a plug for McHappy Day, but at McHappy Day. So I worked on a drive-through in Lakemba. And I was there on the window and all that sort of stuff.
And afterwards, one of the junior managers said, oh, Jihad, we just thought you were going to come and take a photo. I said, no, we’ll take a photo, but I’m actually here because I want to experience what you’re experiencing. And she said, what do you think? I said, well, I couldn’t believe how many people were rude. I couldn’t believe.
And I remember one lady, I took out her chips to her. Obviously, you don’t know who I am? She didn’t know who I was. Apparently, she asked later. And the chips weren’t warm enough. And she said, these chips aren’t warm enough. And I said, oh, okay, look, I’ll take them back, I’ll work it out. And bring some salt.
And I just looked at her straight in the eyes. I said, a thank-you would be good. And it just absolutely completely disempowered her. I said, I’ll do what you want, but just show a little bit of respect. And I thought, wow, if they’re saying that to me as a 40-something, what are they saying to the 15-year-old kid?
JD And we’re no better than anybody else. So it’s really a problem. But thank you so much for those kind words. It’s be respectful. If we’re all respectful, this is a better place. Don’t be weak. Don’t be soft. Be respectful. Be courteous. Be happy. Man, we’re alive, for goodness sake. People who are unhappy, go, how lucky are we? We live in the greatest country in the world.
AL Jihad, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
JD Don’t try and crack so many jokes. I don’t know. I think, well, I wish I worked out a bit more when I was a kid. Just do what you do, I think. I’ve lived a blessed life. I’ve had the luckiest… I had so many challenges, but I’d never see them as challenges. I just see them as everything is an opportunity.
You could look at my side of the story and go, oh, man, this guy had a really awful life. He kept going back and forth from country to country for the first ten years of his life. He went to school and couldn’t speak English. We didn’t have money. We had three of us in a bedroom. I never had a bedroom until I moved out of home. But I look at it and go, wow, I had family, I had love, I had support.
And so I think, continue to be grateful for what you have, maybe work a bit harder at school, don’t run away from Arabic School because your parents will catch you, and stick to what you believe in, which I always have. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your principles, even when it is hard.
I’d look back at my younger self now and say, I’m proud of you for doing what you did, for standing up when it was tough, when you were the only Arabic kid at Heathcote High School. I stood up for myself, and not in a fighty sort of way. I’d just go, hey, you get to know me. If you think I’m an idiot, that’s fine, but don’t think I’m an idiot just because I’m different to you, because I look different, because I sound different, because my mum makes me sandwiches with smelly food in it.
AL When are you most happy?
JD Family. Family for sure. I love them. Just my family and my friends are really important. In the job that you and I both do, we meet thousands and thousands of people and everybody takes a piece of us, and we give them a piece of us, without question. But they see us at the end, they see you as a member of parliament, they see me as a member parliament.
My family sees me, my kids see me as dad, as the bloke who is in the car and he sings in the car and he doesn’t know what Snapchat is. My dad sees me as his son, my mum sees me as her son who goes to visit every second day. I make sure. Even if it’s for ten minutes, I go past and make sure that I go to my parents. And my friends who knew me before politics, who will still be my friends well after politics, who don’t even like politics, some of my best mates can’t stand politics, but I’m their best mate in the same way that I would support my brother.
So it’s when I’m me, camping, family, barbecues, having a laugh, when I’m with the people who know me as Jihad Dib. Not Jihad Dib, the MP, Jihad Dib, the former principal, Jihad Dib, the guy you see on telly. Just Jihad Dib, that guy who is just like us.
AL What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
JD I’d like to get more sleep. I don’t. But hanging out with my friends is really important and we don’t get much time. But one of the things that I do is I might go home late, but I’ll make sure, as much as I can, that when I finally get home, that I’m not taking work with me, that I’m actually at home and I’m present and I’m in the moment. And those things are really important.
I love wearing… Sometimes, when I go through the local area on a… So infrequently you get a Sunday off. So I’ll wear jeans and maybe a pair of thongs. And I think people look at me and go, oh my god, oh my god, he’s wearing jeans. Quick, I’ve got to take a photo of that. I’m happiest when I’m me. I’m happiest when I’m with the people I love. I’m happiest.
And to rest and look after myself. I generally eat well. I love eating non-healthy food, but I eat an incredible amount of healthy food. I crack jokes. That’s my thing. I keep my humility. That’s how I look after myself and my mental wellbeing. And if I’m feeling really bad, I’ll go to the beach. The beach, for me, and just throwing myself in the waves, it’s almost like this cathartic thing. Just throw yourself in the waves and just let them pummel you a bit. I love it. That’s the thing.
So, I don’t know, just find the things that you do. I don’t have a specific thing. But just live life. Enjoy life. We have this saying. It’s called Alhamdulillah, which means thanks to God. And I would just say thanks to god, Alhamdulillah, for everything. Even when things are bad, just go, Alhamdulillah, because there’s someone who has got it worse than me, someone who has got it tougher than me. And look what I have. For everything that I have, how can I ever complain? And so, Alhamdulillah.
AL And Jihad, finally, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
JD I loved Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. And there’s one particular line, and I used it in my inaugural and I use it a lot. It’s the, I’m a part of all I’ve met. It’s hard to pick one particular person because we take a bit of everybody, in the same way that people take a little bit of me and a little bit of you.
It’s mum. It’s dad. It’s my friends. It’s people like Bob Carr. I was really struggling, whether I wanted to make way up to go into politics or not. And in the end, he said, I think you’d be good for it. I just needed someone to tell me that. It’s the lady that I helped with the housing commission issue. It’s the pastor. It’s the clerics. It’s all sorts of things that come together.
But I think if I look at the real significant moments in my life, it’s when I actually just stopped and thought, wow. I look back and I go, this was pretty good. This was pretty good. If you hang around good people, you’d like to think that you’re going to be a good person. If you learn from good people, you definitely become a good person. And I think just as much as you do that, you’ve got to also know what the traps are and you’ve got to know who is not out for your best interests or whose habits are not good ones to pick up on.
But yes, I know it sounds weird, but everybody that I’ve ever met, it’s that part of all that I’ve met. My English teacher, Mr Milgram, loved that guy. The most eccentric teacher I’ve ever had, but I loved him. He was such a good teacher. People either loved him or hated him. I loved him. He was the one who inspired me to become a teacher. And I’ve tried to chase him down but I don’t think… I’m not sure whether he’s with us or not anymore. I just can’t find him at the moment.
But yes, everybody. The corner shop, wow, it’s like a moment in history. And I think your life is ever-evolving and your experiences are ever-evolving. And what you need to do is that every single person that you meet and every experience that you have, you’ve got to take the best out of it and say, that was pretty special.
Because there’s a lot of special moments in our lives, and if you can just put them down to one or two, then I don’t think you’re looking at your life through a glass-half-full approach.
AL Jihad Dib, thank you for sharing your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.
JD Thank you, mate. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me. Thank you.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed our chat today, I reckon you’ll love past conversations with Jamil Jivani, Louise Taylor and Morris Gleitzman. We appreciate getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. It really helps others find the show. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.