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