I have been standing on the sidelines watching the debate over the next Labor candidate for the Western Sydney seat of Fowler, one of the most multicultural electorates in the country. I can’t anymore. As one of the very few first-generation migrants and women of colour in the federal parliament, I’ve been a loud and proud voice for diversity. The issue of diversity, or lack thereof, in parliaments across Australia transcends ideology and party affiliation.
One of the reasons I put my hand up for federal politics was because I saw our political class’s sameness – the white, the male, the privileged and the connected.
Even worse is how unrepresentative this group is of the “most successful multicultural country in the world”: a line many of them are fond of wheeling out when it serves their purpose, but without any attempt to acknowledge, let alone address the discrimination, the racism and the exploitation at work these communities face. The rise of the far-right, the dog-whistling, the open racism and Islamophobia in politics and by politicians really concerned me. The people they maligned and dehumanised were not there to confront and challenge them face to face.
For me, representation is an issue of equality but also importantly it’s about bringing in the lived experiences of those who are affected by political decisions and rhetoric.
Surely, a prerequisite for a successful multicultural country must be that its diversity is reflected in its political leadership. We are far away from that. In fact, even while the diversity of our community has grown massively over the last three decades, there’s been very little change in the ethnic diversity in parliament in the same time period. And there won’t be unless political parties and their supporters give it the serious attention it deserves.
There is no doubt migrant multicultural communities need loud voices in the highest office in this country. For too long we have been ignored and sidelined. For too long we have been used as photo ops and voting blocs without any quid pro quo. For too long our voices have gone unheard and we continue to be marginalised. There is no clearer example than the response to the pandemic to see just how communities of colour were treated differently.
Billions were rightly spent by the government to provide extra financial support to people during lockdowns, yet migrant workers and international students were left out. Pandemic responses targeted and stigmatised communities in Western and South Western Sydney with police operations, military presence and curfews like no other community in NSW. When people from marginalised communities are not at the decision-making table it becomes all too easy to disregard them and their issues.
I’ve been asked so often why our parliaments lack the diversity that we now see in governments of other multicultural countries with diverse populations like Canada and the UK, and how we can change that.
My own experience shows me that people are unwilling to give up power and privilege. Even for progressives, sometimes words are cheaper than actions. I recently wrote about this in my book Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. My run for Senate preselection in 2017 taught me an unexpectedly harsh lesson in the cutthroat nature of politics when I was shunned by some who I thought were allies, cast as gullible by some others, and asked to effectively wait my turn so as not to cause a challenge to the sitting senator. Luckily, my party’s grassroots preselection ended with a majority of Greens members supporting my bid to represent them and to add more diversity in parliament.
Unfortunately, without a ‘one member one vote’ democratic preselection, Labor candidate Tu Le’s bid may not have the same fate as the more well-connected and powerful Kristina Keneally is parachuted in. This is a missed opportunity to do the right thing.
The pathway to politics is not easy. And for ethnically diverse candidates, there are the added systemic barriers along this journey, which multiply for women of colour. It’s not good enough to tell people like us to wait our turn, or to ‘stick with it’ rather than actively removing obstacles or providing support when opportunities to increase diverse representation arise. These are the times to actually walk the talk. Saying you support diversity and doing it are two different things. If political parties truly want to fight for diverse communities, they should take the bold step of stepping aside and affording them the chance to fight for themselves.
There is an increasing lack of trust in politics. Politicians are seen as corrupt, self-serving, power-hungry and disconnected from the realities of their constituents. Communities want more authentic and genuine representation. They want a political system and those within it to care for the whole community in all its glorious diversity.
If we are to change the soul of politics, we must change its face and body as well. All political parties and politicians must take responsibility for this.