We need different faces in Parliament

Australia likes to think of itself as a diverse, multicultural, egalitarian country. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has even described Australia as the “most successful multicultural nation in the world”. The reality, however, is that we are still far from it.

The revisited Leading for Change report issued by the Human Rights Commission this year shows there continues to be a lack of cultural diversity within senior positions in Australian businesses, politics, the public sector and universities.

As an Asian Australian and a long-time political party member, the data on under-representation in politics was not a surprise but still a depressing read.

While we have some federal MPs with non-European heritage such as Penny Wong, Anne Aly and Lucy Gichuhi, they are the exception rather than the rule. Currently, no federal ministers are from a non-European background and only 4.1 per cent of members of the federal Parliament are from a non-European background. This compared to an estimated 21 per cent of the Australian population which has a non-European background.

Merit does not explain the extent of the under-representation of Australians with a non-European background. Australia does far worse than comparable Westminster democracies such as Britain, New Zealand and Canada when it comes to parliamentary representation.

In the United Kingdom, 7.8 per cent of MPs are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. In Canada, 13.6 per cent of federal MPs are from a “visible minority”. In New Zealand, a third of MPs have non-European heritage, with 6 per cent of MPs having Asian heritage.

More Australians have non-European heritage as a proportion of the population than the Westminster democracies we compare ourselves to but that is not reflected in our federal Parliament. The diversity of electoral systems across these countries shows it is a lack of action by our political parties, not our parliamentary or electoral systems, that is holding back a Parliament that is truly representative of the community.

Fixing this under-representation requires two things: better data and a genuine commitment to improve representation.

Sadly it is only what gets measured that gets improved and Australia does not have definitive data on cultural diversity. There are no official statistics on the ethnic or cultural composition of the Australian population and Australia’s cultural diversity is often underestimated. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should review existing measures of cultural diversity and develop a similar demographic category to “visible minority” used by Statistics Canada.

Parties also must take improving cultural diversity in parliaments as seriously as improving women’s representation. All political parties should look at adopting targets. The fact is targets work. The experience of affirmative action for women in the Labor party shows that the introduction of targets will lead to a more representative Parliament.

In 1994, when affirmative action was adopted, 14.5 per cent of federal ALP parliamentarians were women. Today, women make up 47 per cent of federal ALP MPs. At the time, the Liberals had a similar number of female federal MPs (13.9 per cent) but it has lagged behind and now its female representation stands at only 22.6 per cent.

In all political parties there needs to be serious discussion about lifting the representation of Australians with non-European heritage in our Parliament. Unless action is taken now, Australia’s Parliament will become even less representative. Data from the 2016 Census suggests that already one in four Australians between the ages of 20 and 34 have Asian ancestry. The proportion of Australians with non-European heritage will grow.

If we truly want Australia to be the egalitarian, most successful multicultural nation in the world, then it is essential the faces we see in Question Time reflect our wider society.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 April 2018

Advertisements

Speaking out about racism does not show disdain for Australia

Australia has a problem when it comes to talking about issues of race and racism, particularly when it is done by people of colour. It is clear when you compare the public treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied and the reaction to Red Symons interview of Beverley Wang to the relative silence about comments by Rowan Dean about Tim Soutphomassane and Prue MacSween about Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Right-wing critics of “identity politics” such as Rowan Dean, Mark Latham and co seem to think that when people of colour speak out about racism and underrepresentation, it is a complaint that comes from a disdain of Australia. People of colour are essentially told to “love it or leave”. These critics could not be further from the truth.

For so many people of colour, Australia is their home and the only one they have known. It comes from a wish for the image of Australia to reflect how it really is, where people of colour are a part of it. Every time there is a pushback with not even coded racist language, it reinforces a sense that people of colour are not allowed a say and will never truly be accepted as Australians. What makes it worse is when you see comparable nations like Canada doing far better. Canada is not perfect but on basic representation in institutions like in Parliament or even measuring the representation of ‘visible minorities’, it is far ahead of Australia.

Those who think it is funny obviously have never experienced the exhaustion, the second guessing and the frustration of it all. To top it off, people of colour are expected to cop it and be servile, to accept it and be grateful they do not live in an underdeveloped country ravaged by the legacy of colonialism. I do not know whether it is a fear of people of colour or malice towards individuals or just a belief they have it good so they should not complain but this is our home as much as theirs.

Personally I do not want white guilt about this situation, I do not even want commentators fired, I just want it to be normalised that racist comments are called out and ridiculed and to move on. I want our institutions to truly reflect our nation’s breadth in race, sexuality, disability, class and gender. I want people to understand that there is not a pure binary of being a racist versus not being a racist so there is not pushback when casual racism is identified. And most of all, I would like people of colour to get the respect they are entitled to when they speak out about these issues and to not be treated as some irritant that has been “tolerated”.

Battling the Pauline Hanson battler myth

The big surprise of the recent federal election was the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Not only was Hanson elected but three other One Nation Senators were as well. Their election has led to much soul searching about Hanson’s ongoing appeal, and public discussion about how to respond.

A recent SBS Insight episode suggested that those who voted for Hanson predominantly were disillusioned with the major parties and believed Hanson had a passion and authenticity that the others lack. Hanson benefitted from the perception that she is a political outsider who speaks for ‘ordinary Australians’.

This affirmed polling by Essential Research that found 62 per cent thought she speaks for a lot of ordinary Australians and 65 per cent thought she spoke about issues politicians are too scared to tackle.

It is ironic that Hanson thrives on the perception that she is an authentic outsider against ‘the system’ when in fact she is part of that system. Think about how she is constantly given paid platforms by television networks.

She hasn’t been silenced by ‘the system’, her voice is heard and has been amplified. She is also no amateur, she is a professional and knows exactly what she is doing. She is not some ‘battler’ being picked on, and that needs to be emphasised.

The resonance of Hanson’s message goes beyond being seen as an outsider. Part of it also comes from her portrayal of her views as ‘common sense’. Her perspective is never complicated or sophisticated; it is matter of fact, and based on practical intuition. Think back to her maiden speech and her comparison of immigration to being allowed to choose who she invites into her home.

A good recent example of how Hanson uses ‘common sense’ was her comments about squat toilets in the Tax Office. Her simple message was that if you cannot figure out how to use something as simple as a toilet, how can you know how to run something complex like a tax system?

Her messages are not based on facts, so fact checking is pointless, as are overtures to diversity or that it does not matter. They are simple ‘common sense’ messages, so they cut through.

That ‘common sense’ approach thrives in the current media landscape and explains why it favours populists. Simple messages cut through the noise and grab media attention, in an era where resources for serious journalism are limited. It is a vicious cycle where the media and populists have an almost parasitic relationship.

While Hanson is not the only One Nation senator, the party’s success has always been reliant on her. There has been increasing scrutiny of some of the other One Nation senators but it seems unlikely to damage the party. One Nation, like other similar parties, is reliant on a charismatic figure. As Ben Moffitt points out, populist parties tend towards extreme personalisation where party leaders ‘speak for, represent and embody the hopes, desires and voice of ‘the people’. The re-branding of the party as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is a case in point. So long as One Nation and Pauline Hanson are seen as synonymous, the other senators might cause some embarrassment but will not undercut the party’s base level of support.

Given all of this, how should those who want to challenge Hanson respond? Firstly, Hanson and One Nation should not be indulged, but the broader concerns of her voters should be acknowledged. Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing.

The myth that she is an authentic outsider also needs to be challenged. She is not some poor downtrodden member of society, but very much a part of the system and a beneficiary of it.

The attempts to correct her using facts or talking up the benefits of what she opposes should stop. When responding to Hanson, don’t fact check; point out how her view’s lack ‘common sense’ and respond to them on that basis.

Finally, try to avoid giving attention that aids her. Every time she says something and we feed the frenzy, she gets more attention from the media, which ultimately aids her. Nuanced replies on her terrain do not win.

All of this is easier said than done, but relying on reasoning or facts will not undercut Hanson’s appeal.

Published in Eureka Street on 16 September 2016

Peter Dutton throws a “dead cat”

This morning I awoke to furore about comments that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made on Sky News last night. He claimed that if Australia’s refugee intake was dramatically increased (as proposed by Labor and the Greens), “illiterate” refugees would come to Australia, take jobs and drive up unemployment.

Social media was ablaze with people attacking Dutton for making such a suggestion, accusing him of racism and rebutting his claims about refugees with facts. Some even suggested it was a gaffe. It was not. It was intentional.

What Dutton did was “throw a dead cat on the table.”  It is a signature election manoeuvre by Lynton Crosby, used to regain control of public debate. Media attention switches as everyone reacts to whatever outrageous and offensive statement is made. Everyone will be talking about what you want them to talk about (in this case, refugees). Julie Bishop’s tacit agreement with Dutton affirms that this is no gaffe, it is an intentional strategy. It is aimed at distracting everyone and keeping the focus on refugees. It is a tactic that is succeeding.

The Tories used the “dead cat” to great effect in the last British election and locally George Christensen and Cory Bernardi are particularly adept at this tactic. People dismiss them as idiots because of the views they espouse publicly but they know exactly what they are doing. Their incendiary statements are about grabbing maximum public attention and trying to force a response on their issues.

Those who oppose the Coalition need to stop taking the bait. The Coalition does not want the election to be focused on education, Medicare or housing affordability which are far more important issues to voters and Labor’s strengths. Instead it wants it to be focused on refugees and national security because they see them as electorate winners. Labor does not win votes talking about either. They either lose votes to the Coalition or the Greens.

It won’t be the last time that the Coalition tries this tactic during this election but progressives need to far get better at responding and shifting the focus away whenever a “dead cat” is thrown.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

Multicultural Youth Policy

Multiculturalism has become an unfashionable term as of late.

It has come to encapsulate cultural diversity with a narrow focus on food, dancing and costumes rather than dealing with pressing issues of exclusion facing culturally and linguistically diverse members of the community.

Modern multiculturalism in many ways was a Labor initiative. Multiculturalism acknowledges the exclusion of groups and impracticalities of policies of assimilation and integration.

Yet, there has been much debate about the precise meaning of multiculturalism and whether, rather than being a policy of inclusion, it has become a policy of division that is a danger to contemporary Australian identity.

In the wake of the Cronulla riots, there has been a lot of discussion and analysis about issues of racism in the community. But to just talk about the rise of the politics of race under Howard and the paranoid nationalism that we have seen over the last decade is oversimplistic.

It is not a phenomenon restricted to Australia and ignores the deprioritisation of multicultural policy by not only the Liberal Party but Labor as well.

Multicultural policy is pivotal in not only combating racism and promoting cross-cultural interaction. It is integral in overcoming structural and institutional racism facing those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

One of the most neglected areas in multicultural policy has been issues regarding culturally and linguistically diverse youth.

Many young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD) are not heavily involved in ethnic communities. Many despite being Australian born have to deal with issues of cultural identity, in light of growing paranoid nationalism and barriers to wider participation politically, culturally and socially.

Even more concerning is that a large proportion of CALD youth are concentrated in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the state such as the Canterbury-Bankstown area, Fairfield and around Auburn.

CALD youth issues have rarely been a priority, at most being addressed in a tokenistic manner and in NSW, there is no organisation solely dedicated to multicultural youth issues. If being inclusive is the core component of multicultural policy, the sidelining of CALD youth, not only organisationally but as an issue has been ignored and rarely has a voice at all. This lack of representation for cultural and linguistically diverse youth in many senses is a form of structural racism.

The NSW State Government already provides resources for multicultural projects through the Community Relations Commission, greater support is needed.

Firstly, a move away from a tendering process for project is essential and reinstating of core funding for multicultural community organisations. The result is competition for funding for cross-cultural services and instead of resulting in dynamic projects and co-operation. It undermines efforts to combat racism and cross-cultural understanding. These are merely some of the issues that greatly affect young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The lesson of Cronulla should be that multiculturalism is needed more than ever, while also recognising that a focus on CALD youth is intrinsic to the issue

Multiculturalism is by no means about pretending everything is fine and rosy. It is about acknowledging deep seated issues of social exclusion and cultural identity which greatly affect young people.