Few weeks ago, the proposed parachuting of Labor Senator Kristina Keneally into the federal seat of Fowler in New South Wales, one of Australia’s most diverse seats, caused a bit of a furore.
Some called it “a slap in the face for cultural diversity” given that local candidate and Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Tu Le had been shun aside for Keneally instead of being encouraged.
Suresh Rajan, president, Ethnic Communities Council of WA, North Perth, WA, says Labor had the opportunity to have Tu Le represent that diversity in Parliament but instead “have faltered when it comes to placing their actions ahead of their rhetoric, which they have circulated to this point with gay abandon”.
Rajan adds, “The ethnic diversity of Fowler has been well-documented, including by the incumbent of that seat. According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Australian ancestry accounts for about 8.1 per cent of Fowler’s population, and more than 75 per cent of its residents have both parents who were born overseas.”
The disconnect between rhetoric and reality aside, the Keneally story also has helped resurface the important issue of underrepresentation of politicians of colour in Australia and especially when compared to other western democracies such as the UK, US and Canada.
It is the conspicuous lack of Asian-Australians which is a noticeable feature of Australia’s parliaments, says Grant Wyeth in a Melbourne Asia Review report. A case in point being the 2019 federal election where only three candidates with Asian ancestry were elected to the 151-seat House of Representatives, where government is formed.
So why is Australia at the bottom when it comes to the representation of people of colour in politics?
Pradeep Taneja, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, believes parties whether Liberal or Labor are obviously looking for candidates who can win their seats. It is this winnability factor which becomes important, whereby diversity takes a backseat if the chosen candidate cannot win the seat.
There are a number of factors responsible for this underrepresentation, says Nitin Gupta, the first Indian origin person to be appointed as a full time Ministerial Adviser with Victorian government in Dec 2010. Gupta cites compulsory voting and compulsory preferences distribution where voters hardly have any control. “There is hardly a transparent option of none of the above (NOTA) for voters to show that they are not satisfied with all the political parties.”
Gupta, who resigned from the Victorian government in May 2014, after Minister Nicholas Kotsiras had moved to backbench and is now based in Atlanta (US), further adds, “Only two major parties mostly end up with preferential allocation after several rounds of preferential allocation and voters hardly have any control where their preferences may end up. So, in the end it’s up to the two major parties to allocate winnable seats to people of colour, and both parties have so far not been successful in doing so.”
So, what does this mean for Australia’s multicultural communities and its changing demography?
Australian journalist Annika Smethurst, in an article in The Age, writes, “Allowing parties to parachute careerist politicians into winnable seats will probably leave us with a generation of politicians more interested in gaining and retaining power than achieving outcomes for their communities.
But there are others who also point to certain barriers of Australians of ethnic backgrounds getting into politics.
Manoj Kumar, Chairperson of Subcontinent Friends of Labor, Victoria, and former state and federal candidate for Labor in Forest Hill and Menzies, believes political parties in Australia view people of colour only as a voting machine but when it comes to the question of representation in ethnic area, do not consider ethnic people competent enough to give them the opportunity to represent their own community and the Australian people at large.
“Many times, the great ethnic local candidates are filtered on the basis of diversity in terms of gender equality by passing the factor of ethnicity from diversity. There are top doctors, engineers, businessmen, academics, scientists, IT professionals, lawyers, etc among the ethnic communities but the political class feel they are not capable of representing their own local community?
“It is called glass ceiling to eliminate people of colour. The people of colour must come forward and stand for the fair share of representation for them. The political party must support 20 per cent of their representation as the fair share in all levels of governance. They are not just for distributing leaflets, managing booths during elections, organising campaigns and fundraising etc,” rues Kumar, who is also the international sales manager for scientific instruments and global campaigner for CATS (Clean Air To Survive) at Global Council for Environment and Health.
While it is apparent that many want to change the way things are, there is also the public cynicism about politics driven by the fact that people don’t feel their MPs represent them or their communities.
Notes Smethurst, “Much of the public’s cynicism about politics is driven by the fact they don’t feel their MPs represent them or their communities. If parties continue to parachute outsiders into winnable seats, it will reinforce the message that passionate locals shouldn’t bother fighting for their areas, especially those that lack clout or capital.”
“People always feel comfortable and engaged with those leaders who come from their own local community. However, those who come through the parachuting process by the blessing of top leaders, strong political groups, even if they win and become representative, they never reach the heart of the electorate. Only local community leaders know their community well and their day to day needs and challenges,” says Kumar.
Labor MP Peter Khalil, whose parents migrated from Egypt to Australia in the 1970s, has called for this lack of ethnic diversity within Federal Parliament to be addressed urgently if it’s to be representative of modern-day Australia. ‘‘We should not be token or just be making up the numbers.’’
However, the move to actual change will take some time, some believe.
“Unless the political parties fix a fair share in all levels of representations like gender in Australia, nothing is going to change. Our parliaments are not going to become truly diverse, inclusive and multicultural,” says Kumar.
In the same vein, Gupta notes that, “We need to raise voices everywhere for things to change at all levels. And people from colour need to support each other not just across party lines but also across other industries. Else it’s a long road to change.”
Taneja sees hope with many Indians taking active parts in politics, running for the posts of councillors and gaining their experience. “It is a matter of time before we begin to see people of Indian origin selected for relatively safe seats. At the moment, they are contesting from unwinnable seats.”
The fact remains, underrepresentation of people of colour is a stark reality in Australian politics, the narrative of which needs a change.
Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter