There's still a long way to go on representation

There’s still a long way to go on representation

Dr Neela

Bright and early on Sunday morning, we drove a kid out to their soccer game. The hosts this week are located in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. A strong migrant community undertaking essential lower wage work, they were among the hardest hit in the pandemic.

There were no fundraising sausages to be seen here, rather spinach and cheese triangles, and the carpark was full of people speaking different languages. On Saturday’s Federal Election, they returned their sitting member, a Labor politician who is dedicated, highly regarded and capable, but who doesn’t look like much of the community and who doesn’t live there. It might therefore still be counted as a ‘safe seat’, but perhaps it is only as safe as Fowler, where Kristina Keneally, another well regarded politician in what was considered a very safe seat lost to independent, Dai Le.

The election has been a teal tsunami, a coup for women who have ousted at least fourteen (and counting) men from their former seats. There is much to celebrate as we (hopefully) turn towards a commitment to integrity, the environment, and to “womens issues” as finally just being “issues”.

But among many professional women I know, the group who have apparently dealt this blow, there is a quiet acknowledgement and discomfort that despite a new cohort of women now included, the overall diversity of our new parliament doesn’t necessarily reflect Australia of today.

My work also affords me the privilege of speaking to so many women who are not “professionals”. They are the women working in factories and stacking supermarket shelves, signing up for trade apprenticeships and caring for the very old and very young. These are women who also want their issues heard and responded to, who want their workplaces to be safe, to have access to reliable housing and high quality healthcare, and women who also feel they have not been adequately represented.

Many women face intersectional disadvantage after all, and hope not only for female representation but representation from women of colour, women with disabilities, women from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

At a most visible level, scrolling through through the lists of candidates and reading their bios, it is clear that in these often suburban electorates there is an appetite from members of the local migrant communities to stand for office. Often Labor held, it’s clear that Liberal, Independent and even UAP candidates are locals, embedded within and understanding the communities they seek to represent. And while the sitting MPs have been returned, it makes me wonder what will happen in the years to come, either when those MPs retire or when the backlash against the Liberal Party is not as strong as it was this time. Will people continue to vote for candidates that don’t look like them, who don’t live among them, who don’t understand and therefore represent their issues? Or will they respond as they have in Fowler this year?

When it comes to furthering diversity, there is absolutely a lot to celebrate in Australia today, as so many women who threw their hat into the ring will walk into parliament as an elected representative. But in this moment of celebration, let’s not forget that there’s still a long way to go. Access to representation and leadership is still guarded by other monsters, and when it comes to elections at least, it may be that populations will no longer be willing to be taken for granted or promised, yet again, that they will have a chance at representation next time, after we just achieve this next thing.

The Liberal Party seems to have lost because they didn’t listen to women. But without careful attention, other oversights risk eroding the progressive agenda just as much as the conservative one.

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