Allegations emerged over the weekend that Prime Minister Scott Morrison used a racist slur in a preselection battle in 2007.
Morrison strongly denies the allegations, which were detailed in two statutory declarations and have been backed by Michael Towke, who was his rival for the seat of Cook at the time.
The issue has brought into focus preselection processes and minority representation in Australian politics.
On this front, and for the second time in under a year, the Labor party has parachuted a “celebrity” Anglo-Celtic politician into a culturally diverse seat in Western Sydney.
Labor is overriding local party members to go with “captain’s pick” Andrew Charlton in Parramatta. An economist and former staffer to Kevin Rudd, Charlton will replace retiring MP Julie Owens in what is considered a marginal seat. This is despite three local South Asian-Australian ALP members already competing for preselection before they decided to withdraw following Albanese’s announcement.
It follows the preselection of Senator Kristina Keneally in Fowler last year (one of the most diverse seats in the country) over local lawyer Tu Le, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees.
There is also an ongoing dispute in the NSW Liberal Party, with many members interested in forcing senior party figures to accept open ballots by local members for preselection over picking their own candidates.
Why are major political parties repeatedly willing to override the mandates of their local branch members? And what needs to change to increase diversity?
Ethnic minorities in #auspol
According to a 2018 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission, only 4.1% of MPs in Australia’s last federal parliament hailed from a non-European background.
The percentage of those with Indigenous ancestry was 1.5%.
This is despite 21% of the total Australian population having a non-European background and 3% identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in the 2016 census.
While there needs to be more research, the reasons behind this include:
outdated preselection processes at local levels
a lack of targeted efforts by major parties beyond tokenism
and broader public perceptions around seeing minority candidates as leaders.
How does preselection work?
Preselection is the process by which a registered political party chooses who will be their endorsed election candidate in any given federal or state seat.
In Australia, preselection processes vary between states and parties.
Often, local party members get to know potential preselection candidates who are usually from the same branch or state, and then cast their vote.
In many cases, voting panels consist of local members and state and central delegates to avoid accusations of “branch stacking”, or having members favour particular candidates over the general interests of the party.
Read more: Labor ahead 54-46% in post-budget Newspoll, as Morrison rejects claims of racist tactics in his preselection fight
I conducted research on Indian-Australian election candidates for the last NSW state election in 2019, analysing their published interviews and campaign materials. I also interviewed one Labor and one National candidate, both children of Indian migrants.
One of my key findings was that party structures and mechanisms for preselection need to change to allow for local representation.
This is especially needed in seats with a culturally diverse population, which also increasingly have large numbers of branch members hailing from these backgrounds.
My research suggests there’s a hunger for political participation in these communities, but it’s not being met with adequate opportunities for representation.
I also found public attitudes to representation from diverse communities need to shift. Candidates from ethnic minorities need to be more than just token faces in unwinnable seats.
What do other countries do?
Research suggests Australia lags behind Canada and the United States in the political participation and representation of ethnic minorities at all levels of government.
Our culturally diverse population is not reflected in the makeup of our parliament.
Of the three immigrant settler colonies, Canada has been the most successful in increasing the representation of culturally diverse candidates in their House of Commons, from 4% of MPs in 1993, to 9% in 2011, and 14% by 2015.
Research indicates the relative success of Canada and the US is due to specific policies designed to close the representation gaps. For instance, Canada has a proactive approach that recognises the benefits of ethnic minority representation. Canada encourages first-generation migrants to participate in politics through greater access to becoming legal and active citizens.
Read more: More First Nations people in parliament matters. Here’s why.
It is important to get ethnic minority candidates elected to party structures. If minorities become involved in official decision-making roles in political parties, they’re more likely to form influential networks, set agendas, and mentor future generations of preselection candidates from under-represented backgrounds.
In the UK, an increase in minority representation in 2010 would not have happened without targeted efforts by the main political parties to attract these candidates in seats with both migrant and non-migrant voters.
Why it matters
Research has repeatedly shown the benefits of diversity.
A 2013 study of Black legislators in the United States found they were far more likely to continue responding to requests from out-of-district Black individuals than were their non-Black colleagues.
Similarly, a 2013 article in Parliamentary Affairs found ethnic minority MPs in the UK were more likely to ask questions about the rights of ethnic minorities and immigration issues than their white counterparts.
That is, getting people into parliament from minority groups increases the visibility of their issues, concerns and world-views.
As Abha Devasia, a long-time union worker who was seeking preselection in Parramatta, said:
We can’t talk about multiculturalism as a festival or as something nice in Harmony Week. It’s about allowing us to be part of the decision-making process.