‘We should not be token’: Labor MP says party must lift its multicultural credentials
Labor MP Peter Khalil says a lack of ethnic diversity within federal Parliament must be urgently addressed if it’s to be representative of modern-day Australia as his party feuds over frontbencher Kristina Keneally’s decision to contest one of the nation’s most multicultural seats.
The former NSW premier will attempt to switch from the Senate to the western Sydney seat of Fowler at the next election, having been endorsed by the ALP’s Right faction ahead of community lawyer, Tu Le, who is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally speaks about her decision to contest the lower house seat of Fowler at the next federal election.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek said on Sunday she hoped Ms Le “sticks with it” because connection to the Vietnamese and the Buddhist community in the area was “exactly the sort of experience Labor wants to see in our federal Parliament”.
Her comments followed a controversial intervention from Labor MP Anne Aly – the first Muslim woman elected to Parliament – who said the move to parachute Senator Keneally into the seat was a “huge failure for Labor on diversity”.
Mr Khalil, whose parents migrated from Egypt to Australia in the 1970s, said while Senator Keneally was a great contributor to Parliament the issue had highlighted a long-term structural problem of the barriers to Australians of ethnic diversity getting into politics.
He said Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander Australians made up only 4.1 per cent of the MPs and senators in federal Parliament but accounted for 21 per cent of the population.
“We should not be token or just be making up the numbers,” Mr Khalil said.
He said affirmative action rules within Labor had been largely successful in reaching 48 per cent female representatives in the caucus and for putting women, such as Senator Keneally in leadership positions.
Mr Khalil, from the Melbourne seat of Wills, said this must be a guide for Labor to also increase its ethnic diversity in the party’s parliamentary ranks.
“All political parties need to do better so that our Parliament and our democracy is genuinely pluralistic – that it better reflects the diversity of Australia because that diversity, both in gender and ethnicity actually brings broader and different perspectives, which leads to better decision-making, better public policy and better outcomes for all Australians,” he said.
He welcomed NSW Labor’s decision to consider a motion to recognise the problem of under-representation of cultural diversity at its state party conference in October.
About 15 per cent of residents in Fowler, which includes suburbs such as Liverpool, Cabramatta and Fairfield, was born in Vietnam, with another 11 per cent of the electorate having Chinese ancestry.
Democracy in Colour, a national racial and economic justice organisation, has called on Labor to deliver “true representation” and preselect Ms Le.
“Our politicians should reflect the communities they represent. Communities of colour should be represented by people of colour,” national director Neha Madhok said.
“Australia is at the bottom when it comes to the representation of people of colour in politics.
Senator Keneally hit back at that criticism at a press conference in Bonnyrigg on Saturday, saying she was proud to be part of a party that “gets cultural diversity”.
“Let me take this head on because I’m a little bit disappointed in some of the media coverage … if you look across south-western Sydney you’ve got MPs Ed Husic, Michelle Rowland, Mike Freelander,” she said.
“This is a community I will live in, I will love and I will represent. I know how to fight for communities like this – it’s why I’ve gone into politics.”
Ms Plibersek, widely seen as a future leadership contender, did not endorse Senator Keneally’s move on Sunday, instead saying Labor was lucky to have so many capable women fighting to gain a seat in Parliament.
“The Liberals are at 25 per cent female and we’re at 50 per cent female, and they keep saying they can’t find good women. How lucky are we?”
Ms Le said on Thursday evening that Senator Keneally’s pending move was “pretty disappointing and disheartening”.
“Not just for myself but for the local community to be taken for granted in this way,” Ms Le said.
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