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A touch of cultural diversity in politics

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012

I would like for you to take a few minutes and have a look at the list of members of Parliament at the national level. How many members come from a non English speaking background?

To be honest, there aren't a whole lot. And why is that?

Australia is arguably one of the world's most multicultural countries. Almost one in four Australians were born overseas and up to half of all Australians (45 per cent) were either born overseas or have one or both parents born overseas. As a nation, we speak over 300 languages, come from over 200 ancestries and practice more than 100 religions.


What I would like to see is more diversity in politics to ensure our parliaments have a more balanced representation. But before we get there, we have to come up with why people from cultural backgrounds are not interested in politics from the start.

Broadly speaking, there are two key areas in which people from non English speaking backgrounds contend with barriers to meaningful social and civic participation. These barriers are well documented and include limited English language skills, the lack of interest in civic engagement and the lack of understanding of the political process.

As a result, many new arrivals are not fully aware of their rights and responsibilities and therefore unable to exercise these fundamental rights at times. Limited English language skills can also inhibit ability and confidence to voice concern over issues or complaints. It is important to note that not just new arrivals have a limited understanding of their rights and responsibilities, but also many migrant communities whom have worked and lived in Australia for a number of years have similar issues.

There is also the cultural and traditional mentality that migrant and refugee communities have and that engagement in any political activity or ask a question which relates to making a complaint or view will affect their way of life. This is due to a majority of them leaving their own countries due to political, social or civil changes and reasons.

Being a first term councillor at the City of Monash, I actually have the honour of representing two communities – first and foremost the residents of Monash and, in addition, the wider Chinese community. Since 2006, Monash has had the highest percentage of Australian Chinese in Victoria and I feel privileged to become the first Australian of Chinese descent to represent the city. Monash City Council is a positive example where all of the major multicultural communities are represented at a Councillor level. This outcome has been nationally recognised by organisations such as the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). Parliaments and governments around the country need to start reflecting the diverse communities they are elected to represent.

In a House of Representatives magazine published by the Parliament of Australia in 2006, current Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek said the best way for more first and second generation migrants to enter the House of Representatives is for political parties to be more inclusive. "You have to have political parties that better reflect their communities. And you have to start from the bottom up. We could do much better making our parties inclusive and that means a lot of work at the grass roots level." I couldn't agree more!


Federal MP for Calwell and current chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Migration Maria Vamvakinou believes education is the fundamental key to effectively engaging migrant communities into the electoral process. She stated, "It'll happen by encouraging and educating people, especially newer migrants, about the Australian political system and making them aware that they can live here and be involved in what is a very healthy democracy that encourages every Australian to participate."

It is fair to say that for my own cultural community being the Chinese community, political and civic life is seen to be an unstable career for individuals to undertake. The perceptions generated by parents and relatives usually stems from their own experiences back home and on most occasion when it comes to careers advice, would usually recommend their children to choose career paths in the engineering, legal, business or health fields.

Elected representatives from a non English speaking background certainly have an important role to play to effectively address these misunderstandings and perceptions. In order to bring results such as increasing elected representatives from migrant and refugee backgrounds, a focus on strengthening knowledge and influence in the voting and political system amongst multicultural communities from a grassroots level is a major priority.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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