In 1901, Australian Parliament passed one of its first laws: the Immigration Restriction Act. It banned non-white migration, marking the commencement of the White Australia policy.
In 2022, over a century later, our newest Parliament symbolises how far we have come. Parliament is more diverse than ever. When it comes to cultural diversity, 13 culturally diverse representatives and 10 First Nations representatives have been elected, the majority being women.
In the Cabinet, Penny Wong is the first Foreign Minister who is Asian-Australian, Linda Burney is the first First Nations woman who is Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Dr Anne Aly, Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Youth, is the first female Minister who is Muslim.
Incoming diverse parliamentarians also have powerful perspectives that mobilised them to run, like Senator Fatima Payman who fled the Taliban with her family, and independent MP Dai Le, born in Vietnam, who recalls “lying on that rickety boat in the middle of the ocean not knowing if our family will survive”.
There is still work to be done. Only 10% of parliamentarians have a non-European or Indigenous background compared to 24% of the Australian population. Diversity is also not limited to cultural diversity. There is only one politician who publicly identifies as living with a disability.
There are zero transgender politicians, despite the transgender community being used as the punching bag during the federal election (see: the women in sports debate). The number of women in the House of Representatives is 38%, far from 50%. And entering politics can be near impossible for people without deep pockets.
A Parliament that has representatives across diverse backgrounds, like race, disability/ability, gender, and class, is essential to build a healthy democracy. When we see people like ourselves, it’s easier to trust that our voices will be heard.
When we see representatives speaking up about racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, and being supported by their colleagues to do so, it shows a Parliament that is recognising the daily injustices communities face rather than pretending we are all the same.
Parliament has long had the reputation for being a ‘boys club’ for the male elite, and our democracy suffers as a result. Young women are a powerful case study.
According to Plan International Australia’s We Can Lead report, which I contributed to, just 1 in 10 first time young women voters believe that Parliament is safe for women following numerous allegations of sexual assault in politics. Three quarters of young women voters agree that women are not treated equally to men.
When Parliament does not feel safe, diverse individuals are less likely to want to run because of the high likelihood of being subjected to discrimination and abuse. The We Can Lead report found that one third of culturally diverse young women voters would not consider politics because of their cultural or ethnic background and because our Parliament is not diverse enough.
Forty one percent of young women with a disability say the lack of inclusive practices for people living with a disability is a reason they would not pursue a career in politics (compared to 12% for women without a disability). However, these respondents also generally agreed that they would be more likely to run for politics if Parliament took active steps to be safe for all, including through improving representation through enforceable diversity targets.
When we think about diversity in politics, we cannot start at the baseline assumption that a Parliament with poor representation is somehow normal or natural. A Parliament that is hostile to diverse communities (such as a ‘boys club’ type of politics) is a symptom of a broken, unhealthy system, where processes are resulting in privileged communities having easy access to decision-making while marginalised groups are left out in the cold.
That power imbalance harms our democracy, which harms all of us.
This Parliament has an opportunity to build trust with marginalised communities through ensuring they are heard and recognised. Diverse representatives, such as Penny Wong, demonstrate that lived experience can make a powerful difference in politics.
Wong, who was born in Malaysia, recently stated on a diplomatic visit to Malaysia that she is committed to building the “relationship between the nation of my birth and the nation to which I belong.” This framing is authentic and powerful, and one that previous white Foreign Ministers could not speak to.
Despite this progress, we should never assume that this diversity will continue. As Roe v Wade in the US shows, we might even move backwards. That is why we must build diverse thinking into the heart of decision-making, such as a federal gender-responsive budget and an intersectional framework to understand issues such as domestic violence.
To prevent going backwards, we need preparation: in this case, creating systems and processes that requires diverse communities to be considered no matter who is in the room.
But the true litmus test about whether politics is safe for marginalised communities will be how voters and the media treat a politician that they dislike. Social media has made public commentary more toxic and divisive.
While we may dislike politicians, will we fairly dislike their policy stance, or will we see the same racist, sexist, and discriminatory tropes unfairly thrown at diverse politicians? Only time will tell, and diverse communities will be watching.
Banner image: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stands with several successful Labor candidates including Fatima Payman and Sam Lim along with members of the public in Western Australia. Source: Anthony Albanese/Facebook