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Bruce Childs Lecture 2021


Osmond Chiu


I wanted to begin by acknowledging that I’m on the unceded land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging.


It’s an honour to be asked to deliver this year’s Bruce Childs Lecture.


Before he became a Senator, Bruce served as the first Left Assistant General Secretary.


That role was created after the 1971 federal intervention into the NSW Branch.


While the Steering Committee had existed since the mid-1950s, the intervention effectively founded the modern NSW Left.


That period created the modern Labor Party as we know it and we should see Bruce as one of the key figures who laid the foundations for what our faction is today.


The struggle of that period, to bring the party into the modern era and out of Federal Opposition, to have a party that properly reflected the hopes and aspirations of our country, has echoes in the debates we have today such as about representation.


Tonight, I wanted to speak about the importance of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) representation in Australian politics, the challenges we face but also the necessity for us to act.


It won’t come as any surprise given I have been talking about it, a lot, over the past year.

I wanted to reflect on it and the lessons for us as a movement.


For me, addressing underrepresentation is not just the right thing to do, it is how Labor builds a majority coalition to win and hold power.


I joined the Labor Party in 2004 and I’ve now been a member for over half my life.


I joined because I came to this conclusion.


To make this country a better, more progressive place, we needed to change the government and there was only one party that could do that, the Labor Party.


That is as true today as it was when I first joined the party.


But it wasn't until more recently that I became convinced of the urgency of addressing the underrepresentation of cultural diversity.


It seems strange because what gave me political consciousness was the impact of the first incarnation of One Nation in the mid-1990s, knowing that for some I would be a perpetual foreigner and threat.


While I knew people like me weren’t reflected in our politics, the stark reality of how far behind we are had not hit me.


Then in 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report, ‘Leading for Change’.


It focused on the underrepresentation of cultural diversity in senior leadership, in Australian politics as well as in other sectors of society like the public sector and business.


The report found that one in five Australians have overseas ancestry from somewhere other than Europe but less than one in twenty federal MPs do.


It was the first time I had seen the extent of underrepresentation in politics quantified. I always had a general sense it was a problem but it was far worse than I had ever imagined.


Through my own subsequent research, I discovered Australia did far worse than comparable English-speaking Westminster democracies like the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.


All of them did better than us despite differences in party and electoral systems.


I knew then that something deeper was going on.


I knew that it was systemic and Australia had a specific problem.


My own personal experiences since then have only reinforced my view that greater culturally diverse representation is needed.


Over the past two years, I have gone from a person who was mostly just known around Labor circles for organising events for the Fabian Society to getting called up by journalists to comment about the China debate, growing anti-Asian racism and politics more broadly.


I was the subject of a McCarthyist public loyalty test at a Senate inquiry by a conservative Senator because of my cultural heritage, who then later admitted he also targeted me because of my party membership.


And I have made public interventions about why a potential state leadership candidate should not be supported and the anger and frustration many felt about the Fowler preselection.


In each of these situations, I have felt compelled to react.


They have been choices I have made, not because I want to, but because I knew the cost of the alternative if I did not.


I knew that if I did not speak out, there likely would not have been another voice.


That silence would have given a signal that it was acceptable and that long-term cost would be greater than any personal cost or discomfort.


Those events of the last two years all have a common thread.


It made it abundantly clear to me that however much you want to avoid talking about race, identity and culture or hope it will disappear, it will always come back for you if you are visibly different.


Always.


The only luxury you get is some down time, never permanent avoidance.


We avoid talking about it because people get uncomfortable, they feel guilty or defensive.


We barely even collect basic diversity data.


As I’ve gotten older, I have gained a greater appreciation for patience, different perspectives and personal growth than I once did but I still get frustrated at how far we still have to go.


We are in a global moment in popular culture where it is unacceptable to treat addressing underrepresentation as an add-on.


But that realisation has barely begun in many Australian institutions, including within our own party.


We are the ones out of touch and do not realise it.


This is not to deny that for many party members they have lived through reductions in racism and greater diversity.


It is to say that people right now are not looking at where Australia was 40 years ago, they are looking at how we compare to other countries currently.


However trite it might seem, there is a better, more nuanced conversation about diversity in Marvel superhero movies than about cultural diversity in Australian politics right now.


That says a lot about how far behind we are.


I’m not going to try to rank or compare it to other struggles because that is absolutely corrosive to solidarity, just as the attempts to pit identity versus class are a false dichotomy.


But these situations have convinced me that while allyship is important, it is not enough.


Unless you have a seat at the decision making table, you will always be an afterthought.


Diverse representation is fundamental if we want to move from reacting and responding to what the world throws to shaping it.


It is not easy but we cannot afford to ignore it.


There is an electoral cost that the last few years has shown.


Multiculturalism is one of Labor’s great legacies, a legacy we should celebrate.


But as a party we still treat it like an add-on and have rested on our laurels.


We have failed to come to grips with how diverse the electorate is.


Multicultural Australia thirty years ago is not the same as it is today.


We have failed to appreciate the dramatic shifts since the turn of the century.


Our idea remains very one-dimensional, based on post-war migration, despite big shifts in migration patterns towards Asian and skilled migration since the mid-1990s.


In part, it has been because of the absolute failure to collect data but also because our institutions, our media, our culture has not reflected the new face of Australia.


The statistic that half of all Australians are migrants or the children of migrants has been thrown around but it obscures what modern Australia is like.


As an example, in 2001, only 8% of the Australian population had Asian ancestry but by 2016, it had doubled.


In contrast, Australia’s total population only grew by 25% over those 15 years.


Our mode of thinking about multicultural Australia is outdated.


We rely on a traditional transaction model of going through gatekeepers in traditional ethnic organisations or assume that most migrants are low paid workers with limited English skills.


That model no longer works and assumptions are no longer valid, especially as a growing proportion are skilled or middle-class migrants who have no need for those organisations or who have little engagement with community organisations but are digitally connected, let alone their children who have grown up here.


It comes as no surprise that we are lagging behind the Liberals who have spent over a decade organising in communities, tapping into religious and business networks.


You see that in eroding margins in Western Sydney and the loss of seats like Reid and Banks and our inability to combat disinformation campaigns on WeChat over multiple election cycles.


We relied on a belief that the Liberals were toxic and seen as tolerant of racism based on the 1990s but we cannot depend on this because it is no longer the case.


The fact is that before the change in Premier, two of the Liberal leaders in Australia were women from non-European cultural backgrounds and the current President of the NSW Young Liberals is a woman of colour.


Our pathways to victory at a state and federal level require winning and holding culturally diverse seats in Sydney yet we are increasingly disconnected from them, 2019 showed that in NSW at state and federal elections.


We need to change with the times.


That does not mean a rejection of our values, far from it.


Fighting for material interests must always anchor our politics - a politics that sees class as central.


Good secure jobs, a social security system that leaves no one behind, quality public services, strong unions, climate justice and First Nations justice.


These strike a universal chord across diverse communities and abandoning those core tenets is asking for our movement to be replaced.


But the past is a different country and much of the electorate has no memory or emotional connection to our past or Labor’s achievements as many came here or were born in the 21st century.


We need to build bridges to speak to their hopes and address their fears and there is an opportunity for us to do so.


Recent research from the Sydney Policy Lab found that young people from culturally diverse backgrounds have the highest levels of civic engagement. That diversity, however, is not reflected in our institutions, let alone our party.


This emerging culturally diverse, educated and ambitious generation is civic minded and could be a progressive middle-class ally for a modernised Whitlam coalition.


Instead their energies go elsewhere because they do not think organised political engagement is for them.


We cannot assume tribal or natural loyalty.


They do not see themselves in our party even when we share values.


They see a club that is not welcoming, that relies on existing personal networks and accumulated knowledge.


They will not opt-in simply to do time out of loyalty.


If our response is to wait, to say it will naturally get better over time, we will lose them.


The reality is this emerging generation will not wait, they will just move on and do something else to support social change outside of organised politics.


It is a huge loss and will only compound underrepresentation.


Meanwhile our opponents are actively trying to diversify to reflect Australia.


Conservatives are actively trying to bring culturally diverse communities into their coalition via socially conservative campaigns.


From their so-called religious freedom bill to their campaigns against Safe Schools, we cannot vacate the field or assume the face of Australian conservatism will be white Christianity.


A demonstration that we take addressing underrepresentation seriously is part of our offer to win engaged, culturally diverse progressives over and bring them into our coalition as activists, not simply passive supporters.


None of this is easy.


The additional challenge we face is that while Australia is multicultural, that cultural diversity is often concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne.


In 2019, George Megalogenis wrote an essay about how the increasingly Eurasian face of south-eastern Australia was very different to the rest of the country.


Even within New South Wales, our regional centres are demographically very different to Sydney.


For a growing, younger part of the electorate in Sydney and Melbourne the lack of diverse representation is deeply felt, amplified by a global English-speaking media, whereas for another chunk in other parts of the country, they are wondering what the fuss is about.


We need both these cohorts to win a majority.


Earlier this year, I read a biography of Lula, the once (and hopefully future) Brazilian President.


There is one bit that stuck with me, when he was at the Sao Paulo Forum in the 1990s before he became President.


The Forum is a place for leftist political parties across Latin America to meet, from the centre-left to far left.


Lula spoke and emphasised the vital importance of alliances, that we must overcome our obsession with leftist authenticity and sectarian distrust of non-leftists if we want to win.


Lula’s right.


Personally I’m tired of being frustrated about how things are, I want to actually change things for the better.


Automatically denigrating or dismissing each other shuts the door to any conversation over shared goals and fractures the coalition we need to build.


Navigating these challenges demands we get out of our comfort zone.


We cannot assume people will come to us or agree, we need to reach out, knowing the necessity of building alliances, knowing we agree and managing disagreements.


It’s that mentality that has guided what a number of us in this faction have been doing when it comes to improving culturally diverse representation within our party.


We don’t have to agree with everyone on everything nor abandon our tribe but we need to be open.


Since the beginning of this year, a cross-factional group has been working on pushing the party to do better.


What started as individual conversations has evolved into what has become known as the Cultural Diversity Group.


In the wake of Fowler preselection, we put forward three asks: a platform change, data collection and a diversity fellowship.


It passed at State Conference and we are now in the process of implementation. These changes are only the first steps.


Our proposals did not come from nowhere, as a group we had been working on them for months with a longer timeframe, talking to key individuals, mapping out a path for change and laying the groundwork with a roadmap for the future.


Our wins to date illustrate three key lessons.


Firstly, preparation matters.


We did our work early and got feedback to get agreement on asks.


Secondly, you need to build coalitions with those outside your usual circles who share a goal.


And finally, timing matters so be nimble and flexible to responding to events.


These are all lessons for us in any political struggle.


None of us are under any illusion that change will occur overnight but the push for diverse representation is happening whether people like it or not.


Last week, the Jenkins Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces was released.


It fairly warranted a lot of attention because it gave an insight into the awful sexual harassment and bullying experienced, including what women of colour have experienced.


What gained less attention was its recommendation of a 10-year strategy to improve diversity.


While that strategy rightly focused on achieving gender balance, it also recommended diverse representation across all parliamentary roles and portfolios with specific actions to increase the representation of First Nations people, people from CALD backgrounds, people with disability, and LGBTIQ+ people.


It also recommended public reporting with an annual report to the Parliament with diversity characteristics of parliamentarians and staffers, including by party affiliation.


Calls will grow louder and we will need to change or else situations like Fowler will become more frequent.


For us in the Labor Party, our aim has to be to build a party that reflects modern Australia to win and hold government.


By getting ahead of the curve, we will be in prime position and it will benefit us electorally.


We need to do the preparation, the groundwork.


There will be times where people may be uncomfortable with solutions that aren’t always simple or easy, but it is necessary if we want to build the electoral coalition we need to win and hold government at state and federal level.


We have the opportunity to tap into an emerging generation that can help us build and reinforce that coalition but we cannot assume they will come to us, we need to put in the work.


We also need to understand the very different lived experiences of others who may be part of our coalition for a longer period of time and have patience.


That patience is not endless but there has to be good faith on all sides.


Navigating these tensions means we need to look outwards, be responsive and build enough trust to agree to disagree but also to be flexible enough to make necessary shifts to achieve outcomes.


And finally, it requires articulating why we all will benefit from more representative institutions and that it does not end with cultural diversity.


It’s because that is the path for Labor to not just win the next election but hold onto power.


We must build an electoral coalition and a team that reflects modern, multicultural Australia.


That’s how we create the vibrant, welcoming, fairer and forward thinking country that every single one of us in this room wants.


Osmond Chiu is a Research Fellow at the Per Capita thinktank. He is also the editor of Challenge Magazine and also a rank-and-file representative on the NSW Labor State Policy Forum.