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Is it time for ethnic quotas?

By Fotis Kapetopoulos - posted Tuesday, 11 August 2015

As government tussles with gender representation, Fotis Kapetopolous asks whether cultural diversity targets should be on the table.

There has been talk about increasing the number of women in Australia's parliaments and in major political parties. The current Coalition Government's front bench looks does not reflect 2015 in terms of female participation. Liberal MP Kelly O'Dwyer a few weeks ago called on her party to set targets to increase female representation.

The late Joan Kirner, the first female Premier of Victoria, led the push for female representation in the Labor Party. The ALP used affirmative action to boost the number of women in politics. The conservative side lacks a quota system. Given that 50 per cent of Australia's citizens are women and the parliament should be the representative of the Australian people, it is natural that more women should be sitting on both benches. It is a welcome discussion and one that will hopefully make the Federal Government look less like angry dorks and more like a modern political party.


On the other hand, given that over 40 per cent of Australians claim at least one ancestry other than British, there is precious little discussion on ethnic representation in Australia's parliaments.

Is it because we've already achieved a healthy level of 'ethnic' representation? More likely, no one wants to talk about it, not even those politicians of non Anglo Celtic background in both parties. The 'ethnic' politicians are happy to roll out the classic migrant story, of poor boy or girl 'made good'.

We have had and have politicians of non-Anglo, Scottish or Irish background: Labor frontbencher Penny Wong, is the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet. Arthur Sinodinos is of course one of our own, as was former Keating Minister Nick Bolkus. Steve Bracks had Lebanese grandparents, former NSW Liberal Premier Nick Greiner was born in Hungary. Victoria currently has a Uruguayan-born Speaker of the House, Telmo Languiler, and the Leader of the Opposition, Matthew Guy is of Ukrainian background, and Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has Armenian and Palestinian roots. The list goes on.

It's hard not to find Greek or Italian Australians represented in most parliaments and in both parties. Given the large numbers of South Asians calling Australia home it's likely that we will have more representation from that community.

But is there an argument that as parliament is for all Australians, quotas should be established to reflect the proportion of ethnic representation in the total population? I would suggest not, but a concerted effort to have more diversity in our parliaments is not a bad thing. A diversity of cultural understandings, global connections and languages can only benefit Australia's social and economic position.

There is a reality that former Prime Minister John Howard confronted when he lost his own seat in 2007. Howard was no longer a true enough representative of Bennelong, which had in less then 20 years transformed from a white Liberal seat to having the highest number of residents of non-English speaking backgrounds in any Liberal seat in Australia. One in ten residents in Bennelong were born in China or Hong Kong.


In recent years determining who belongs to the 'ethnic' or 'multicultural' Australia has shifted. Many of us, of Southeastern European background have become 'white', or whiter. Once we weren't. In the days of the White Australia Policy, Greeks, Turks and Italians were considered Asian.

Muslim Australians, regardless of their diverse cultural and linguistic background, and other non-European Australians, have increasingly become seen as "people of colour".

The discussion of race, colour, religion and language is always loaded and determined by the politics of the day. But, let's agree that the people in most need of high-level political representation, the First Australians, the Aboriginal people, need more representation in parliament.

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About the Author

Fotis Kapetopoulos heads Kape Communications Pty Ltd a cultural communications consultancy. He was Multicultural Media Adviser to Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and former editor of Neos Kosmos English Edition. He lectures in communication and marketing at various academic institutions and will be undertaking a PhD at the University of Canberra.

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