One of the big issues over the life of the 45th Parliament has been the Coalition’s problem with women. Much has been made about underrepresentation on the Coalition’s side and its implications on policy matters. Labor has sought to make it an electoral strength by emphasising gender equality and in response to its problems Coalition MPs are starting to shift.
The discussion about it (and the Coalition’s tone deafness on policies) has highlighted that representation in our public institutions matter to the public. You cannot have diverse and inclusive institutions without it. But sadly, when it comes to other forms of underrepresentation in Parliament, such as that of cultural diversity, no party will be seriously addressing it at this federal election.
Australia might have an Asian-Australian foreign minister after May 18 but the rest of the federal Parliament is unlikely to reflect the cultural diversity of our country. The Leading for Change and The Way In reports have both shown that our federal Parliament does not adequately reflect the sizeable number of Australians with non-European cultural heritage, a fifth of the country’s population.
For all our talk about being a successful multicultural nation, Australia’s federal Parliament is less representative than national legislatures in comparable Westminster democracies like New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada. The diversity of electoral systems highlights that it is not our electoral system but rather our political culture that need to change.
While we may have some better representation after the federal election, for example, if the Labor wins the marginal seat of Banks and given the next member for Chisholm will have Chinese heritage, it is still starting from low bar.
So how should we address the unrepresentative nature of federal Parliament? A few days ago, Jason Yat-Sen Li who is on the Labor Senate ticket in NSW flagged that we should look at targets to ensure cultural diversity in federal Parliament. The idea of targets is not new and had been flagged by former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. Targets work as it was targets that drove Labor’s improvement in women’s representation.
There are of course challenges of how to make cultural diversity targets work in practice, in part because of definitional issues and a lack of comprehensive data. That, however, has not stopped business from adopting cultural diversity targets.
If we are serious about having a truly representative Parliament, addressing these challenges to enable targets should be a priority as demographic changes, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, mean the lack of representativeness is going to get far worse before it gets better.