Does federal parliament accurately reflect the evolving face of diverse Australia?

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP


Ask most Australians their ancestry and they can launch into a family tree which spans the globe.

Modelling based on the census data from 2016 shows about 58% of Australia’s population has an Anglo-Celtic background, meaning their ancestry stems back to the British Isles. Another 18% claim a European background. That’s topped by the 21% of the population who have a non-European background, or non-Indigenous people of colour. Three per cent of the population are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, humanity’s oldest continuous culture.

The face of Australia has continued to evolve since the early 1970s, when the Whitlam government ended the White Australia policy, but despite these changes, the nation’s representation continues to resemble a Pantone white colour chart.

Kristina Keneally’s move to the safe Labor seat of Fowler, Australia’s most multicultural electorate, has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Australia’s representation in parliament, and what political parties consider “multiculturalism” to mean.

Even a cursory glance shows the make up of the Australian parliament hasn’t shifted too far from the pre-Whitlam era. There are more women, and attempts at diversity, but by and large Australia’s MPs are white, male and on-average, over 50. Increasing diversity in the Australian parliament has largely centred on gender parity. White women have been the main beneficiaries of that focus.

A 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found just 4.1 % of MPs in Australia’s 45th parliament had a non-European background and 1.5% had an Indigenous background, both metrics that show diversity in Australian politics severely under-represents what is reflected in Australia’s population.

Map of cultural and linguistic diversity by electorate

The 2019 election did not do much to shift those figures. Ken Wyatt, an Aboriginal man, is the only minister who does not have a European or Anglo-Celtic background.

The former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Prof Tim Soutphommasane, says Australia is well behind the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand when it comes to multicultural representation.

“It’s a dismal state of affairs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but our parliament looks like it belongs in the White Australia era.”

“It’s hardly the stuff of ‘the most successful multicultural society in the world’.”

“How is it that the British Tories can get diversity, but Australian parties just can’t?”

How are the major parties doing on diversity?

Keneally’s move to the diverse western Sydney seat of Fowler came at the expense of Tu Le, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, who had grown up in the community she sought to represent.

Retiring MP Chris Hayes, who has held the seat since 2010, had thrown his full support behind Le for preselection, saying it made sense that a seat where the Vietnamese diaspora made up 23% of the electorate was represented by someone who “demonstrated the actual face of the community”.

More than half of the Fowler community were born overseas (53%), while a language other than English is spoken in almost 69% of homes.

Keneally, whose switch to the lower house became necessary for her political survival after losing a factional battle for a winnable Senate spot, was born in the United States to an Australian-born mother. The former New South Wales premier is considered “another great Australian success story of a migrant” by Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who says Labor “is the party of multiculturalism”.

“At the most senior levels, the leader of the House of Representatives is someone called Albanese and the leader in the Senate is someone called Wong,” he said.

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By that measure, other “migrant success stories” include former prime minister Julia Gillard, who was born in Wales, and Tony Abbott, who was born in England.

However that same level of success has so far eluded people with direct ancestry outside the British Isles, or Europe. Even when it comes to representing culturally and linguistically diverse electorates.

When using speaking languages other than English at home, as well as the born overseas measure from the 2016 census, Labor MPs hold 10 of the most multicultural seats in Australia: Fowler, Blaxland, Watson, Parramatta, Fraser, Barton, Bruce, Werriwa, Calwell and McMahon.

Just two of the MPs sitting in these seats were born overseas – Maria Vamvakinou, who sits in Calwell, was born in Greece, and Daniel Mulino, who sits in Fraser, was born in Italy – which place them among the 18% of Australians with European backgrounds. Linda Burney, who sits in Barton, is Indigenous, with the remainder born in Australia with predominate Anglo-Celtic/European ancestry.

Among Liberal MPs, Fiona Martin represents Reid, which ranks as the party’s most multicultural electorate, with 49.7% of residents born overseas, and 52.4% speaking a language other than English at home.

Martin too was born in Australia, and has European heritage (Greek) through her grandparents. The 10 most multicultural electorates held by Liberal MPs are: Reid, Bennelong, Banks, Chisholm, Menzies, Bradfield, Mitchell, Stirling, Swan and Sturt.

Paul Fletcher, who sits in Bradfield, was born in England, while Gladys Liu, who sits in Chisholm, was born in Hong Kong. Liu is only the MP in that list of seats with a non-European or non-Anglo-Celtic background. Alex Hawke, the minister for multiculturalism, has Greek ancestry. Labor’s shadow multicultural minister Andrew Giles, is of Anglo-Celtic/European descent.

If you flick back through the history of those seats, the communities have changed but their representation largely, has not.

Labor’s Daryl Melham, born in Sydney with Lebanese ancestry, was a notable exception, holding Banks from 1990 to 2013, when he lost to David Coleman, who now holds the seat.

Why is Australia poor at representation?

Dr Devaki Monani, an expert on multiculturalism in Australian social policy at Charles Darwin University, says it’s time Australia reflected on the question of multicultural representation.

“At what point are we able to accept people from multicultural backgrounds as ‘Australian’? At what point in our imagination are we ready to accept migrants as citizens with political agency?” she asks.

“It has surprised me that second generation Australian born individuals are recognised first by their ethnicity, immediately questioning their allegiance to Australia.

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“For example, the Vietnamese people are one of the largest migrant groups of Asian background in Australia, alongside the Chinese of course, yet, they are Vietnamese first, they are Chinese first, prior to being recognised as Australian.

“White Australians can be born in the United Kingdom and still be accepted and absorbed as Australian politicians. So yes, we have missed a huge opportunity of nurturing the political aspirations of an entire generation of multicultural Australians.”

Monani pointed to a lack of opportunities for young second-generation migrants to participate in political activities with university student unions – a springboard for many aspiring politicians who are predominantly white and male.

Research undertaken by Grant Wyeth, from the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, found structural issues contributed to the under representation of Asian Australians in politics.

At the last election only three candidates with Asian ancestry were elected to the House of Representatives: Dave Sharma (born in Canada to an Indian parent), Gladys Liu (born in Hong Kong), and Ian Goodenough (born in Singapore). In the Senate, just two Asian-Australians – Labor’s Penny Wong and the Greens Mehreen Faruqi – had winnable spots.

Yet people with Asian ancestry make up about 16% of the Australian population.

What are the structural barriers to entry?

Wyeth’s research suggests Australia’s temporary migration visa system, which denies people the rights associated with permanent residency such as voting, contributes to “a detrimental effect on people’s civic engagement and sense of belonging within Australian society, and subsequent ability to engage with political institutions”.

“Without certainty about one’s longevity in Australia, seeking political office can often not seem feasible,” he reports.

The mechanics of political party politics, particularly when it came to preselection, also don’t help, Wyeth found, with institutional power often falling on the side of those who had both allies with structural influence and social capital.

“If political parties are unwilling to demonstrate leadership on minority representation, then it is instead the blunt self-interest of parties that will enable candidates from ethnically diverse backgrounds to emerge,” he reports.

What is at stake?

“You don’t have a healthy democracy if sections of the population feel that they’re being excluded from political representation,” Soutphommasane says.

“… A lack of diversity also creates some dangerous distortions in our politics. We’ve seen this on matters of race.

“Indeed, if there had been a more representative parliament, I suspect you wouldn’t have had some of the frenzied culture war assaults on race and identity that has consumed so much political energy in recent years.”

Those who have already nudged their way through the door also don’t want to see people from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds quarantined to electorates with high levels of multicultural communities.

Labor’s Peter Khalil, who is of Egyptian ancestry, is one of those most vocal on that point.

“People kind of mix up this assumption – that you have to be of an ethnic background to represent that ethnicity is not true,” he told the ABC on Tuesday.

“… I can be a great representative of Anglo-Australians, OK. We’re talking about opening up the opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds.”

Le has been told not to give up on her ambition of representing her community. But for someone who has admitted she had previously “felt like a guest in the only place I have ever called home”, the experience has left its mark.

“Australia is our home too,” she said in a social media post. “No, we don’t need to go back to where we came from. We belong here.”

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