Why Diversity Seems Easier Said Than Done in Politics

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Recently, I’ve been reporting on the controversy over Labor’s pick to represent Fowler, where Tu Le, a young lawyer and the daughter of Vietnamese migrants, was passed over, with the party instead choosing Kristina Keneally, a party leader and white woman. I’ve been using it as a starting point to examine why Australia’s Parliament lags behind other English-speaking countries when it comes to cultural diversity.

I’ve talked to people from across the political spectrum, including many young people of color within the Labor Party who have led the debate. For them, the controversy is just the latest example of the dissonance between a country that claims to be the most successful nation when it comes to multiculturalism and a governing elite that is reluctant to address diversity at the cost of political convenience.

What I wasn’t able to go into much in my article (coming soon) was the details that party members shared about the barriers they faced on every rung of the political ladder. It all added up to a picture of a two-tiered political system that sees people of color as fine community representatives or liaisons but not cut out for higher leadership positions, and treats immigrant communities as expandable membership bases or voting blocs.

A few caveats: they had differing views about the Fowler preselection. They had nothing against Kristina Keneally and her qualifications for office. They stressed that underrepresentation is a problem across all parties, not unique to Labor — it’s just particularly disappointing when the party that purports to champion diversity doesn’t make good on its promise.

Ethnically diverse members regularly have their worth tied to their communities, said Joseph Haweil, 30, mayor of Hume City in Melbourne. “Very often there’s a feeling if you’re someone from a multicultural background and you walk into a branch meeting without already having signed up five or 10 people from your community, you’re a nobody.”

Migrant communities are courted for fund-raising and to build a base for internal power struggles, but afforded little genuine engagement, said Tu Le. “When you go to a Cabramatta branch meeting, half the people there have no idea what you’re talking about, they’re just there because someone signed them up,” she said. “How parties engage with local communities — it’s one-sided, it’s not participatory.”

There’s a huge pool of untapped talent within the Labor party, she added, that gets overlooked because “we’re just seen or categorized in certain ways that don’t let people see our full potential.”

“There’s two different set of rules,” said Kun Huang, 30, a Cumberland councilor in Sydney. A person of color needs to simultaneously demonstrate that “you can bring along your community” and that they have appeal to those outside their own ethnicity, he said, but if you’re not a minority, “you just need to know the right set of people and you’re in.”

The system privileges party insiders who spend their time around other party members, shoring up support for internal preselections and ballots, said Charishma Kaliyanda, 33, a Liverpool councilor in Sydney. If you’re busy engaging with or volunteering for cultural or community organizations, “you have less time to do the organizational work that you need to do to build up that support.”

“There’s a really disjointed relationship between the skills you may have being from a different cultural background or being a community advocate, and how they’re valued in a political sense,” she added.

The other question I’ve been asking is: what needs to change?

It seems that the first step is acknowledging the issue. In N.S.W., party members are putting forward a platform change at the next state Labor conference to formally recognize the underrepresentation of racial minorities in leadership positions, including Parliament, and commit to improving representation in the party.

Party members also said change needs to happen at every level — from how members are recruited, to who is given staff positions, to who gets preselected.

I don’t want to see a situation where the party just randomly picks, say, a Chinese Australian so that it fulfills the diversity image,” said Mr. Huang. “I want the party to select good local candidates who have been contributing to the party and who have been active.”

If there aren’t candidates who fulfill both those criteria, he added, “our job is to recruit more culturally diverse members into the party.”

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former racial discrimination commissioner, theorized that we may be starting to see two different understandings of “multiculturalism.” There’s the one celebrated by the majority of the political class that “would see things as pretty good the way they are and would understand any underrepresentation as an issue that’d be fixed with time,” he said.

Then, there’s a more political form that sees underrepresentation as a matter of urgency and asks: “If we really are the most successful multicultural country in the world, why does the leadership of our society look much like it did during the era of White Australia?”

“The lesson here should be clear,” he added. “Multicultural voices will need to be more assertive. Power is rarely shared or gifted. It needs to be contested and won. But that’s not easy, especially when there is a strong social pressure for our multiculturalism to be nice, polite, compliant — anything basically but disruptive.”

My article about why Australia’s halls of power don’t look like our population will be out in the next few days.

In the meantime, here are our stories of the week:

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