Asian representation in parliament has now doubled. But some advocates say it’s not enough

The number of members in federal parliament with Asian heritage has doubled since the 21 May election, but diversity advocates say Australia still has a long way to go.
In the previous term, of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives, only three were occupied by MPs of Asian background: Gladys Liu in Melbourne’s Chisholm, Ian Goodenough in Perth’s Moore and Dave Sharma in Sydney’s Wentworth.
Since the weekend’s election, though, six candidates of Asian heritage have claimed victory: independent Dai Le in Sydney’s Fowler; and Labor candidates Sam Lim in Perth’s Tangney, Michelle Ananda-Rajah in Melbourne’s Higgins, Zaneta Mascarenhas in Perth’s Swan, Sally Sitou in Sydney’s Reid and Cassandra Fernando in Melbourne’s Holt.

Mr Goodenough, who’s currently clinging to his seat in Western Australia, could potentially take that number to seven.


Erin Chew – co-founder of advocacy network Asian Australian Alliance and a former member of the Labor Party – said while that’s a significant milestone, it’s far from enough.
“The good news is that there’s a doubling of numbers of Asian Australians who will enter parliament, but it shouldn’t be considered as the peak,” Ms Chew told SBS News.
According to the 2016 census, more than 16 per cent of Australia’s population trace their ancestry to Asia.
But six MPs of Asian descent represent less than 4 per cent of the 151-seat-strong lower house.
And that’s a problem, according to Ms Chew.

“Six – or possibly seven – politicians in the lower house does not fit that proportion, so there’s a lot more work to come,” she said.

Osmond Chiu – research fellow at the Per Capita think tank and Labor Party member – said despite the doubling of numbers, Asian representation in the Australian parliament remains below some of the world’s other progressive democracies.
“More than 5 per cent of New Zealand’s parliamentarians and more than one in 10 Canadian MPs have Asian backgrounds,” Mr Chiu said.
“So we really need to take a hard look at why we continue to be behind similar countries and take action,” he said.

So how did the two major parties – Labor and Liberal – do at this election when it comes to Asian representation?

‘You cannot overlook the community or take us for granted’

The Labor Party fielded nine candidates of Asian origin (11 fewer than the Liberal Party), of which five have claimed victory.
While Cassandra Fernando was contesting the safe Labor seat of Holt, and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Zaneta Mascarenhas and Sally Sitou were contesting the marginal Liberal seats of Higgins, Swan and Reid respectively, the biggest surprise of them all was Sam Lim in Tangney.

A former dolphin trainer from Malaysia, Mr Lim had a mountain to climb.

He was pitted against Scott Morison’s close friend Ben Morton in the Perth seat, who held the seat with a comfortable margin of 9.5 per cent.
But that changed this weekend with Labor picking up seats in Pearce, Swan, Hasluck and Tangney.
Ms Chew said Labor’s surprise victory in Tangney can be attributed to Asian representation in a culturally diverse region.
“Tangney has a huge population of Chinese voters. Sam can speak 10 languages … [including] English, Bahasa Melayu [Malay] and Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese,” she said.

“So he was able to effectively communicate and engage with the community. And the community saw people who look like them could represent them effectively.”


But not all of Labor’s candidacy picks went to plan.
In the seat of Fowler in southwest Sydney, which has a strong Vietnamese community, Labor parachuted former senator Kristina Keneally to contest the seat, overruling local rank and file members’ choice of preselecting Vietnamese Australian lawyer Tu Le.

Independent Dai Le ran a strong campaign targeting Ms Keneally’s candidacy and the fact she was not a local, winning the traditionally safe Labor seat and claiming 52.39 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis.

“The result demonstrates that [pre-selecting Kristina Keneally] was a mistake,” Tu Le said.
“My community has sent a very clear message to all the parties, really, that you cannot overlook the community or take us for granted.
“Community members don’t want to be taken for a ride by major parties.
“Particularly with a community like mine with a high number of migrants and refugees, community members are saying that ‘our vote counts and what we think matters’.”
Independent Dai Le — a former Liberal Party candidate — said it was “arrogance” of the Labor Party that compelled her to contest the seat of Fowler in the first place.

“The Labor Party was arrogant enough to parachute somebody from the Northern Beaches, who has no roots in this community, has no connection to this community, and basically took us for fools,” Dai Le told SBS News.

Ms Dai Le said she was elected on the back of support from her community.
“I think my win in the community is quite significant … it shows they’re backing a person who’s actually a person from the community, a person, who’s not connected to any major machineries,” she said.
Mr Chiu of Per Capita said this “disappointing result for Labor” shows “no seats are safe anymore”, with voters abandoning “previous voting patterns because to them representation matters”.
“What is happening is the fragmentation of the political system,” he said.
If the voters are disappointed by one party, they won’t necessarily vote for the other major party in Australia’s two-party system, he said.

“They’re now willing to vote for Greens and independents,” he said.

‘Set up for failure to begin with’: How Liberal candidates fared

The Liberal Party of Australia had 20 candidates of Asian background — 11 more than the Labor Party — of which none have claimed victory.
Sitting MPs Gladys Liu in Chisholm and Dave Sharma in Wentworth have lost their seats, with Mr Goodenough in Moore leading with a thin margin at the moment but unable to claim victory.

“I think the reason why [these sitting] Liberal party candidates were rejected is because of the failures of the Morrison government and its stances on a range of issues – from wages to integrity in climate and how it handled the pandemic response,” Mr Chiu said.


“The candidates couldn’t overcome the fact that the vote for them was a vote for Scott Morrison,” he said.
As for the other 17 candidates, who were not sitting MPs, Ms Chew said they had no hope for success to begin with.
“A winnable seat in Australia is widely considered to be one where there’s a margin of 6 per cent or less,” Ms Chew said.
“But if you look at these 17 Asian-background Liberal candidates, 14 of them were contesting in safe Labor seats with a margin of more than six per cent, which means they were set up for failure to begin with”.
In Sydney’s northwest seat of Bennelong – which has a large population with Chinese and Korea heritages – Liberal preselection candidate Craig Chung, who was overlooked in favour of Simon Kennedy, said he was “disappointed that none of [the Liberal] candidates of Asian background were elected”.
“The question we really have to ask is, ‘Why is that so’?” he said.
“Both of the major political parties have been terrible at selecting candidates with Asian background into winnable seats,” he said.
Labor’s Jerome Laxale has won the blue-ribbon seat of Bennelong and Mr Chung said this shift occurred because the Liberal Party did not listen to the local community.
“Over 40 per cent of the population of Bennelong has Asian heritage … and that community has spoken. They want community representatives who think like them, act like them, who look like them and who reflect their values.

“And in many cases that didn’t happen — on both Labor and Liberal sides.”

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