The by-elections in New South Wales turned out much as expected. Thumping swings against Labor, but still only enough for them to lose one seat, while the Nationals’ discomfort also continued with their failure to stop Port Macquarie staying in the hands of an Independent. Cabramatta was always likely to stay Labor, given the 29 per cent swing required. But one feature of note in the contest was that both the main candidates were migrants from a non-Anglo background whose parents came here as a result of war.  

Labor’s Nick Lalich, who has already served as Mayor of Fairfield, was born in Egypt after his parents fled Yugoslavia near the end of World War II, and came to Australia when he was three years old.

Liberal candidate Dai Le came to Australia at age eleven, after she and her family spent three years in a refugee camp after fleeing Vietnam at the end of the war.

Our Parliaments will naturally tend to lag a bit behind when it comes to reflecting the reality of our cultural diversity, but the more this gap can be bridged the better.  Migrants – and even more so refugees – have experiences that most Australian born people haven’t had; especially those whose ancestors migrated here a few generations ago. We can all benefit from being more exposed to those perspectives. 

People with a southern and eastern European heritage have started to make their way into senior political positions – as the outgoing member for Lakemba and former Premier Morris Iemma demonstrates – but as yet there are not many of Asian heritage.

Encouraging the involvement of people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds in political processes is a key way to improve integration.  There are some significant barriers to this – many of them cultural, some of them structural.  The Constitutional bar on dual citizens running for federal Parliament is an obvious one, but the non-participatory nature of party politics and the tendency of major parties to play it safe when it comes to winnable seats also play their part.

This article from Slate details the (partly unintended) impacts of Ireland’s migration and citizenry laws, which enabled “Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian refugee who arrived in Ireland in 2000, to become the mayor of Portlaoise, a commuter town outside Dublin, even though he’s not (yet) an Irish citizen.”

According to the Australian Parliament House website, currently 31 of our 226 federal MPs were born overseas.  Of course you can be an Australian born overseas, just as you can be born in Australia and not necessarily be eligible to become a citizen, so nation of birth is not a perfect indicator. But it’s not too bad a guide.  15 of those 31 were born in the UK or New Zealand, and only 2 were born in Asia. 

I can’t finish an article like this without noting that none of the 226 representatives in the federal Parliament are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.  107 years since Federation and we are still yet to see the first Indigenous person elected to the House of Representatives, with only two being elected to the Senate over that period.

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