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Parliamentary diversity

By Kevin Andrews - posted Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Apart from being only the second hung Parliament since Federation, the new national assembly is notable for another reason. Ken Wyatt, the Liberal Member for Hasluck, is the first indigenous member of the House of Representatives.

It comes almost 40 years after Neville Bonner, also a Liberal, was sworn in as the nation’s first indigenous senator. Like Bonner, Wyatt has come from a family of battlers, and has made his way in life through hard work and persistence.

The Coalition’s promotion of people from diverse backgrounds has extended beyond indigenous Australians. Bill O’Chee , a National Party Senator for Queensland, was the first MP with an Asian/Chinese parent. His father was Chinese, and his mother was Irish-Australian. Thomas Bakhap (Liberal, Senator for Tasmania 1913-23), although Caucasian, was the adopted son of a Chinese immigrant Bak Hap (his mother was Irish), and the Senator identified strongly with the Chinese community.


More recently, Tsebin Tchen became the first Asian migrant to win a seat in Parliament. The son of a Taiwanese diplomat, Tchen, who was born in Chungking, represented Victoria in the Senate.

There were four Jewish MPs in the first Parliament on the non-Labor side: the Victorians, Isaac Isaacs and Pharez Phillips representing the Protectionist Party, and the Free Traders, Elias Solomon from WA and Vaiben Solomon from South Australia. Isaacs later became a High Court judge and Australia’s first native-born Governor-General. Today there are also four Jewish MPs in the national Parliament – three on the Labor side and one on the Coalition. There is also a Muslim MP for the first time, representing Labor.

Enid Lyons was the first woman elected to the House in 1943 as a Member of the United Australia Party, the same year that Dorothy Tangney was elected to the Senate representing the ALP. Lyons, who subsequently represented the Liberal Party, also became the first woman to serve in the Ministry.

The election of Neville Bonner and Ken Wyett reflects the fact that the Liberal Party has been to the forefront historically in indigenous affairs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were given the franchise in 1964; a non-discriminatory constitutional reform was achieved in 1967; and land reform for the Northern Territory was legislated in 1976. In the spirit of bipartisanship, the Coalition supported ATSIC in the early nineties; and when Mark Latham broke with that, it embarked on a new era of indigenous affairs that is about accountability and economic development, which the Labor Party has largely supported.

It also reflects the fact that the Coalition traditionally has selected candidates that better reflect the wider community.


For all its rhetoric about social inclusion, Labor draws on a much narrower base for its elected representatives.

Of the 33 new Labor members in 2007, only seven had not been a union official or officebearer, a Labor State member or councillor or an advisor to a Labor MP. In some cases, the new members had worked in more than one such occupation.

Contrast this to the then new coalition members. Of the eight people, only one had been a fulltime Party official. Another had been an advisor to members of Parliament.

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This article was first published on The Punch on October 27, 2010

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About the Author

Kevin Andrews is the federal Member for Menzies (Vic) and a former Minister in the Howard Liberal government.

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