I grew up in Wattle Grove, near Liverpool, and after a short stint in Canberra after university, relocated to the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. I never imagined I would live near the east. For as long as I can remember, there has always been a divide between Sydney’s east and west. Growing up I recall feeling awkward at university telling other students from less diverse and more privileged backgrounds about the ‘wild west’ as they called it, and about my migrant South African-Indian background. These are things I have since learnt to be immensely proud of.
Unfortunately, the divide and associated stigma still exists. It is apparent in the NSW Government’s response to the current COVID-19 outbreak. Many in greater western Sydney have felt unfairly treated, left scrambling to find information that can help them understand what is allowable under restrictions. I do wonder however, if the harsh restrictions would have been applied and communicated in the same manner if the main decision makers were more diverse in race and class?
I have worked in both public and private sector organisations and in all roles, it has been incredibly difficult to imagine myself in a leadership position as there were few people who looked like me in senior roles. Often representation and diversity in the workforce is associated with gender, and whilst important, diversity is more complex than this. Ensuring people from culturally diverse backgrounds are also represented is equally important.
This situation is not unique to corporate Australia. Most politicians today have an Anglo-Celtic background, 78.1% of the 45th parliament having an Anglo-Celtic background, compared to 58% of the general population. The Australian Human Rights Commission estimates Australians with a European, non-European or Indigenous background make up 21.9% of the population. Candidates from culturally diverse background, however, accounted for only 1 in 10 candidates in the last election.
This is despite us knowing we all benefit from greater diversity. Data consistently demonstrates that diverse and inclusive organisations perform better:
Teams that include one or more members of the demographic market they serve are 158% more likely to understand that target market, increasing their likelihood of innovating effectively.
Diversity and inclusion are critical to attract talent, with 76% of job seekers considering workplace diversity a key factor of their decision.
Inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time, and make decisions two times faster, with half the meetings
The ALP has deep roots in creating an inclusive multicultural society which was first promoted by the Whitlam Government. The Hawke Government importantly established a strategy to improve access to government services and programs by people from diverse backgrounds. After a period of stagnancy, the momentum to achieve equity and equality of opportunity for those from culturally diverse backgrounds has come to the forefront.
Labor, however, continues to focus solely on gender parity. Following the last election, the ALP maintained its record representation of women in the caucus, however, the majority are from an Anglo-Celtic background. While we perform better than the Liberals, it is important to remember that diversity and representation is more complex than this.
This also comes at a time where confidence in the Commonwealth Government is declining rapidly. A longitudinal study conducted by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods found in April 2021, only 45.4% had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the Government, down from 54.3% in January 2021.
The upcoming Federal election presents an opportunity for Labor to show it represents all Australians – regardless of what they look like. The people who live in the Western Sydney under the harshest lockdown restrictions are not ashamed of where they are from, they are proud, they are hard-working, and they want to be seen and heard. If we do not show them that we are listening by creating policy for their benefit and by ensuring their views are represented - both which can be achieved through a diverse party and leaders - then we risk losing not just our traditional voters but also the emerging next generation.
There is an opportunity now to ensure that the ALP represents the diversity we see in Australian society. To do this, four key aspects should be considered:
Accountability: hold current leaders accountable to meet diversity goals and to challenge bias and perceptions that hinder positive change.
Representation: consider and allocate people not from an Anglo-Celtic background influential senior leadership positions.
Equitable opportunity: recognise that people not from an Anglo-Celtic background may face additional barriers to entering leadership positions and ensure that processes help them address these.
Support: support people not from an Anglo-Celtic background to succeed in leadership positions through additional mentoring or training, for example.
To do these things, we need to look beyond traditional processes and talent pools to ensure that all Australians, regardless of what they look like, have an equal opportunity to influence the political process and be represented, because diversity is a key component of any winning strategy. It is also the right thing to do.
Minolie Govender is a Public Policy consultant.