Australia is in the final days of a
national election campaign.
However, something none of the political parties are offering are candidates that reflect Australia’s ever growing cultural diversity.
Asia Calling’s Jarni Blakkarly tries to find out why.
In Australia you’ll often hear political leaders declare the country the most successful, multicultural society in the world.
It’s true, acts of racial violence are extremely rare here. And the days of the white-Australia policy are long over.
But Australian society is far from equal. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, for example, experience significantly higher levels of poverty and imprisonment.
There is also a distinct lack of cultural diversity in politics.
“The reason that we need diversity in parliament is that diversity is symptomatic of the health of the system. And the health of the political system and the way that democracy works,” Jen Kwok explains.
Kwok is a research fellow at the University of Queensland and founder member of the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus, a group lobbying for increased cultural diversity in parliament.
Asian Australians account for almost 10 percent of the county, but only 2 percent in parliament. Indigenous Australians, account for just 1 percent of politicians in Canberra.
The lack of diversity is a reflection of a broader social dynamic, says Kwok.
“Political parties are the gatekeepers to modes of political engagement in Australia. Those political parties are more clubs than civic institutions, they have a particular culture, they have a particular set of priorities,” Kwok explains.
“And that contributes to the modes of disengagement, not only from Asian Australian populations, or migrant populations but entire very large groups of Australians who do not satisfy the kinds of pre-requests those parties need to push someone through political careers or into their committees.”
Jen isn’t the only one hoping for change. Wesa Chau and Jieh-Yung Lo are members of the Australian Labor Party, one of Australia’s two major parties.
Last year they established the group Poliversity to push for more cultural diversity within their Party.
Wesa, who ran in the previous election, says Australian political parties need to change the way their think about cultural diversity.
“When we think about multiculturalism we think of welfare and that needs to change. The more we can engage both the better it will get,” Wesa stated.
Jieh-Yung says that for many migrants when they first establish themselves in a new country, politics is far from their minds, but that won’t be the case for their children.
“For a lot of second or third generation people from a multicultural background, like all of us, we are aspirational individuals we are individuals that can offer a lot more than just multicultural affairs and I think the Labor party need to develop a stronger understanding of diversity within cultural diversity and to do that they need to actively engage,” Jieh Yung says.
“We are just starting that.”
But how to go about increasing diversity is another question.
Affirmative action, or quotas, has been used in the past to boost women’s representation in the Labour Party.
But there is little interest in replicating that to achieve greater cultural diversity – and academics like Jen question whether that would work anyway.
Alex Bhathal, is from the Greens, a left-wing party that is now the third-largest in Australia’s political scene.
She says regulations that make it more difficult for families to migrate together also undermines that goal.
“We have trashed our family reunion migration program in this country, so now when people arrive from South Asia or other countries they can’t have the support of their families, which is makes building a strong track record of contribution to the party difficult,” Bhathal explains.
She is unsure about a quota system for representatives from the migrant community, but Bhathal says it could be positive for Indigenous candidates, and it has had some success in neighbouring New Zealand.
“The Greens and every other party in Australia has a long way to go in terms of creating a level playing field for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their structures and within their parties,” Bhathal admits.
“Australia is lacking a great contribution from those people, a really important voice missing from parliament if we can’t get those people in there,” concludes Bhathal.
And the issue isn’t getting any better. After this upcoming federal election, there is likely to be very few representatives of diverse backgrounds.