Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

White Australia is alive and well in our parliament



Watching Australia's federal election campaign unfold, it might be easy to forget that we ever repealed the White Australia Policy.

Lisa SinghAcross the political spectrum, Australia's major and minor parties are failing to reflect the multicultural Australia of the 21st century.

We have fallen far behind similar nations like Canada, who elected 19 Indian-Canadians alone, and ten indigenous parliamentarians, at their last election.

Who we elect to our parliament is not just about the gesture, it is also a reflection of where power lies within our society, and whose voices are given the space to be heard to represent the community.

Jen Kwok, research fellow at the University of Queensland and cofounder of the Asian Australian Democratic Caucus, says political parties don't take cultural diversity seriously. 'They are more clubs than civic institutions in that they have a particular culture and set of priorities that contributes to disengagement not only from Asian Australian populations but entire, very large groups of Australians.'

Kwok says that while we don't have accurate data on the ethnic backgrounds of representatives, let alone candidates, in a response to a question from retiring MP Anna Burke in 2014 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library compiled a list of representatives with Asian backgrounds, drawing on publicly available sources such as party material and newspaper articles.

Based on that limited analysis, we can put the number of Asian Australians in parliament at either 1.8 per cent or 2.2 per cent. This is compared to 2011 ABS Census data which said 8.4 per cent of our population had one of the top five Asian nations for migration as their country of origin.

All these numbers are sticky and it's incredible we don't have clear government data on diversity. The above stats only refer to country of origin and don't include those who may have complex migrant backgrounds or identify themselves as Asian Australian.


"The reason we need diversity in parliament is that that diversity is symptomatic of the health of the system."
— Jen Kwok


The same data puts the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at 0.9 per cent of our parliament compared to 3 per cent of the population, though the number has gone up slightly since Pat Dodson entered the senate.

After this election our parliament may actuallty get less diverse. In a factional deal, Labor moved Australia's only Indian-Australian MP Lisa Singh (pictured) to an unwinnable seat on the Tasmanian senate ticket, and Palmer United's Dio Wang is unlikely to be returned in Western Australia.

On the other hand, the ALP's Jennifer Yang has secured a strong spot on the senate ticket in Victoria and the Greens' Alex Bhathal is eyeing off Melbourne's Batman. The ALP's Linda Burney is contesting Barton in Sydney and may become the first Indigenous woman in the House of Representatives. The Liberals in Victoria are running four candidates of clearly Asian background, but all in totally unwinnable seats, a practise reeking of tokenism.

While Labor has consistently performed the best in seats with more Asian constituents, this hasn't been reflected in the caucus room. Tim Watts, an Anglo Labor MP representing the seat of Gillibrand, which takes in Melbourne's highly diverse inner western suburbs, acknowledges that the party has a real problem with Asian Australian representation, and points out that it is an issue across civil society.

How to fix the ALP's problem is another question. In terms of gender equality, Labor has embraced affirmative action since the inauguration of Emily's List and the adoption of internal quotas for female representation in 1994. But Wesa Chau and Jieh-Yung Lo, who last year set up Poliversity, a partisan group in the ALP to advocate for culturally diverse leadership, are coy about advocating for taking a similar approach to cultural diversity. They say the party is getting better at recognising, mentoring and promoting political talent in Asian communities.

Watts notes that defining cultural diversity is a more complex task than achieveing gender quotas, and Kwok agrees that affirmative action is unlikely to be the solution, instead advocating deeper levels of integration across political parties and other civic institutions. 'Engagement in politics is about much more than just having people of physically diverse backgrounds there,' he says. 'The reason we need diversity in parliament is that that diversity is symptomatic of the health of the system.'

Having served two decades in Victoria's state parliament, Labor MP Hong Lim has had a unique insight into the way parties view diversity. He is furious that he remains the only Chinese-Australian on Spring Street. 'The parties only want the big money the Chinese community can give to them,' he says. However Lim said at the end of the day Asian Australians need to take a more proactive role in pushing for their place in the halls of power. 'In this game power is not given, power is taken. We have to be increasingly wanting to take power.'


Jarni BlakkarlyJarni Blakkarly is a freelance journalist and radio producer. He has contributed for organisations such Al Jazeera, ABC Radio National, BBC and the Griffith Review. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly

Topic tags: Jarni Blakkarly



submit a comment

Existing comments

It would be very inspiring for all Australians if people of the calibre of Noel Pearson and Stan Grant decided to run for parliament. Both Pearson and Grant, however, are already making a very significant contribution to their people, and to white Australia - Pearson with his work for his Cape York community and Grant through media. The same story would be reflected through migrant communities. I believe the 2nd July election will show a trend towards minor parties as people are disenchanted with the Coalition and Labor. I'll finish with a quote I like very much about politics: "Not every fiction writer entering a relation with politics trades imagination for the hair shirt of the party hack" (Nadine Gordimer).

Pam | 21 June 2016  

When I was a young person I often wondered why all the italian/austalian people in Queensland and the greek/australian people in Melbourne stood for parliament/s. Maybe it was the result of the 2nd World War shame they felt?

maria fatarella | 21 June 2016  

Sensitivity to ethnic diversity is absorbed rather than inculcated. It was Melbourne 1951. Knife attacks in Melbourne streets were attributed to men of Mediterranean appearance seen running from the crime scenes. "B****y New Australians," said one of my schoolmates. "They shouldn't be let in the country." "Hang on", I said. "I'm a New Australian." "No, you're not," was the reply. "You're one of us. You're Irish." Whether I wanted to or not I had been assimilated into Australia's Anglo-Celtic society. This was not because of a White Australia Policy. it was the result of a comfortable cultural modus vivendi that the British and the Irish in Australia had nurtured over 150 years. Over the past 60 years I have seen this comfortable way of living suffer several disturbances. One big one was the perceived threat of the international communist movement which resulted in regional wars and masses of refugees. More recently the over-reach of American foreign policy and the rise of Islamic terrorism has created more instability. I can understand why most people who have sought refuge in Australia, or their parents have, are less inclined to get involved in a political system that is based on an adversarial parliament.

Uncle Pat | 21 June 2016  

In the early days of British colonisation of Australia’ it seemed natural, and at least to the ‘Squaters’ , even right and just , that they should occupy and retain whatever land and power they could, and defend it against all attempts made by ‘others’ to share it. This ‘tradition’ has been successively embraced by every new batch of new arrivals, who although each was assigned to the bottom-list of entitlement-holders, (excluding the indigenous people)- and required to ‘earn’ or work their way up to recognition. So here we all are now, sitting on the world’s greatest per-capita amount of land and natural resources, and thinking it natural, right and just that we should not want to share any of it with those in desperate need of some kind of life-saving help. Come ‘Judgement Day‘, will we cry, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you in need of shelter, refuge, or relief from persecution or wars, violence or famine?’

Robert Liddy | 21 June 2016  

I'm amazed that you haven't looked across the Tasman at NZ as we've had Maori MPs for a long time and with MMP their numbers have really increased. There are also Pacific Island MPs and have had a Muslim MP, Chinese MPs, etc. They are also in Local Government positions. There's been a Chinese Mayor in Gisborne for some years now and he speaks Maori so there are good relationships between him and the Tangata Whenua. We've also had A Maori Governor-General who had previously been a bishop in the Anglican Church and the present Maori Governor-General had been the Head of the NZ Army. We've also had an Indian Governor-General.

Anne Odogwu | 21 June 2016  

As you and others you quote say, Jarni, there is no simple formula to be applied here. That does not mean nothing should be done. I think, ultimately, the aim is to get more diverse people into elective office on their own merits. Appointees, however laudable, are basically second prize winners and tokens. The current Federal Member for Hasluck in WA, Ken Wyatt, is no token: he is an Aboriginal man who got into parliament on his own merits. Ditto possibly the best known Asian-Australian politician, Senator Penny Wong. I am appalled at what the Labor Party has done to Senator Lisa Singh. She is far better known and more effective than the faceless people placed above her on the ballot. You and others are once again right in that those who control power in the political parties are an extremely tight knit, inward looking and self-perpetuating oligarchy, who will only give those outside a chance if those people take it upon themselves to get into that charmed circle, and, once in, make sure the door is not closed to others like them. There is much to be learnt from British Asian politicians, such as the current Lord Mayor of London, Saddiq Khan. The much needed diversification of Australian politics has just begun.

Edward Fido | 21 June 2016  

I, too, have been thinking about urging Noel Pearson and Stan Grant to stand. But the impulse is always followed by a horrid memory of what happened to other admired, high-profile people who were persuaded to sign up in the hope of doing some good. "The Party", of whatever colour, quickly buried them. Remember Maxine McKew? She actually took the PM's seat! Then... oblivion. And Peter Garrett? Hardly a peep from him allowed after his election. Sadly, party apparatchiks share the envy and passion for clinging to power of most of us poor humans. I'd hate to see such good Aboriginal leaders silenced!

Frances Letters | 21 June 2016  

The message I get from this article is that those "older" Australians of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Italian, Greek and Eastern European background need to be doing more to encourage Aboriginal and Asian Australians to be active politically. When I was a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, there seemed to be no Aboriginal people in the professions except for Lowitja O'Donoghue, the famous elder who was a fully trained nurse and Doug Nicholls, a Christian pastor and football star who became the governor of SA - thanks to the progressive Dunstan Government. With more effort, we can encourage Aboriginal and Asian Australians to become politicians. On the issue of European Australians with a Greek or Italian background raised by Maria Fatarella. She raises the issue of shame because of World War 2 as a factor that might have encouraged people with those backgrounds to get involved in politics. We have to remember that there was a great mixture of right and left politics amongst WW2 refugees who came to Australia. many Italians who came here fought against fascism and Nazism with the partisans and many of the Greeks came from an EAM-ELAS resistance background. And there were those who supported the extreme right, so we cannot make a general rule about ethnicity and political leanings.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 June 2016  

Jarni's article just breaks my heart again. I would like voters to stay away from the polls on 2nd July as a protest against both parties because this horrible situation continues. How can in happen in our name! I'd like to be able to question leaders do ppmajorparties to be questions

Aileen Williams | 21 June 2016  

Jarni's article breaks my heart all over again. How can this situation continue ! There are no questions about it to the leaders of the major parties. Surely there has to be a way forward to solve this situation. Please help of you can . Aileen

Aileen Williams | 21 June 2016  

This island "girt by sea" was meant to be for Whites only. The debris of 18th Century England was the seed of its dominant descendants, White Australians. But the 20th Century came and dragged the 6 million or so of Whites into the coming tide of a compound humanity. God forbid, some of them are coloured! The dream of a white "Olwen" is gone and will never return. Such are the vagaries of humankind. We either bend with the blowing winds of change or we break (Confucius).

Alex Njoo | 22 June 2016  

Similar Articles

Youth are speaking, we're just not listening

  • Katie Miller and Caitlin Meyer
  • 29 June 2016

'I'm doing it for my kids.' This is how some supporters of Brexit explained their position before the referendum. Yet 75 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 voted to Remain. It seems the message from 'the kids' to older voters was 'thanks, but no thanks'. The same can be seen in domestic politics here in Australia. We often hear politicians and voters talk about the effects of a policy on future generations. Yet the issues of concern to young people themselves simply don't get much attention.


'War on business' rhetoric echoes '07 union bashing

  • Brendan Byrne
  • 27 June 2016

Whether or not the person in the now notorious 'fake tradie' ad is or isn't a 'real' tradie is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it is a primary example of the co-option of the language of class struggle and economic justice that has so thoroughly poisoned economic debate in the industrialised West. Implicit within it is a patronising view of the working class that dismisses them as gullible dupes who can be made to entrench the privilege of the few in return for the paltry crumbs of consumer hedonism.