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Racial Diversity Isn't an Optional Extra

Jananie Janarthana

I remember the exact moment when Julia Gillard gave her speech as the first female Prime Minister of Australia. I watched in awe in my Year 10 history classroom at my all- girls public school. I saw a glimmer of the world as it could be: women having a place in Australian politics.

For a child of the ‘90s Howard era it felt like the tide was turning and the shifting demographics of our nation were finally filtering through to the halls of power. Growing up in the seat of Bennelong which was becoming a hub of multiculturalism, my high school leadership groups were representative of this cultural diversity. I spent my teenage years accustomed to a culturally diverse, feminist space expecting this to be the microsom of the ‘real world’. Little did I know that People of Colour (PoC) and Women of Colour (WoC) in particular, had a long way to go.

Nowhere has this been more starkly illustrated than in the parachuting of Kristina Keneally into the seat of Fowler, at the expense of a young, talented, rank and file, community voice, Tu Le. This moment exemplifies the harsh reality of the lack of diversity in the Australian parliamentary make-up and lack of community control we have in electing our representatives. Australia is one of the worst performing western democracies when it comes to reflecting cultural diversity in our parliaments; and unfortunately the Australian Labor Party (ALP) are complicit in this despite touting ourselves as the “party of multiculturalism”.

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Australian Civic Index shows that tertiary educated young people from culturally diverse backgrounds are highly likely to be the most engaged in the country. Yet many young PoC in this demographic are witnessing the Fowler pre- selection, being reminded of the world as it is: a world where we don’t belong in politics and don’t have access to power in the way our white counterparts do.

These highly engaged PoC exist in the Labor Party. They are active local councillors in Southwest Sydney who are running sessions in language and around mental health for their community during the COVID outbreak. They are staffers, organisers, union members and volunteers. But that’s where it stops - with minimal representation in senior positions within the party, in parliament, and in unions. Unfortunately as the Fowler preselection demonstrates, while PoC are great to have when engaging with their communities on behalf of the Party, they are regarded as optional extras in parliament and end up as collateral damage in the deals of factional power-brokers who uphold the status quo.

Our Liberal counterparts may be acting faster on cultural diversity than we are. They have strong community groups, such as ‘Liberal friends of India’, which has translated to strong links to community media. On a state and territory level, Canberra Liberals voted in Elizabeth Lee as Leader and she became the first Asian-Australian leader of a major political party. In 2021, the NSW Young Liberals elected Deyi Wu as president making her the first woman of colour to be elected as leader of a NSW youth wing of either major party.

Whilst I paint a bleak reality, I have seen and been a beneficiary of good mentorship and leadership in the union movement and the party; and I believe there is good allyship out there. A lot of folk often ask what the solutions are, once again putting the onus on communities of colour to solve the problem rather than doing the hard work themselves. Party members, especially those with power, need to actively question their biases in who we promote, hire and pre select. Allies should be attending cultural training, educating themselves, instead of deflecting on the issue.

There are examples in Australia and internationally of actively tackling the problem of representation and we need to look at how to replicate these on a larger scale: In Australia:

  • The CPSU have a CALD staff and member network and have recently employed phenomenal young PoC climate strikers through the Democracy in Colour placement program

  • Hue has been doing anti-racist consulting, training and workshops with many organisations. And have recently conducted training for Vic Greens and Australian Greens parliamentary staffers, MPs and senators.

In UK Labour, there has been:

  • The establishment of ‘BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Labour’ - who hold institutional power with a reserved seat on the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) and four reserved seats on the National Policy Forum (NPF).

  • Publishing of data in the following categories of candidates on gender, BAME, disability and sexuality on their website.

  • Training provided by its Women’s Network to diverse women and the collection of data on its training participants to track progress.

Whilst these examples are great, many were fought for, built and are sustained by PoC. Now we ask our white allies, and senior leadership to step up and be enablers. For white ALP members, the truth is, it will feel uncomfortable. The devolution of power will never be easy to grapple with - however the above examples set out a place to start which should be an integral part of electoral and internal party strategies.

The Labor Party’s electoral and cultural demise is clear if we don’t act fast: we will lose a voting base and the membership of Australia’s most engaged cohort in civil society and miss the opportunity to create the world as it should be.

Jananie Janarthana is a Ryde branch member, Member of the NSW Labor and the foreign policy committee, Board Director for ActionAid and works at the Sydney Policy Lab.


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