Victorian Labor called out over lack of cultural diversity

January 19, 2023

Senior Labor members including a former president of the Victorian branch have attacked the party’s “chequered history with exploiting ethnic communities” and urged it to start laying the groundwork to increase cultural diversity in its parliamentary ranks.

Hutch Hussein, a former Victorian Labor president of Turkish Cypriot background, and Julijana Todorovic, assistant secretary of the Victorian Socialist Left faction and of Serbian and Bosnian descent, said Labor must lead the way in ensuring the Victorian parliament looked “more like our neighbourhoods rather than Ramsay Street”.

“The lack of Chinese, Indian, African and other Asian representatives in the Victorian Labor caucus is stunning, particularly given these are key to Labor’s voter bloc. It’s incumbent on us to meaningfully reflect these Victorians in our ranks,” the pair wrote in an opinion piece for The Age.

The overall proportion of MPs from non-European and non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds has fallen from more than 10 per cent to about 6 per cent in the new state parliament, despite 49 per cent of Victorians either being born overseas or having a parent who was.

Hussein and Todorovic pointed to primary vote swings against Labor in vibrant multicultural communities in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs.

“One theory to account for these swings is the fact that ahead of both the 2018 and 2022 elections, factions chose to preselect predominantly Anglo candidates to represent largely non-Anglo areas,” they wrote

While the pair stopped short of calling for quotas, Jieh-Yung Lo, a former Labor member and deputy mayor, said large swings against the Andrews government in heartland seats should prompt the party to introduce targets to run culturally diverse candidates in safe and marginal seats.

Lo left the party in 2017 after what he described as a lack of commitment to meaningfully engage with multicultural communities on policies and increase cultural diversity in the caucus. He said Labor had treated people from culturally diverse backgrounds as cash cows and walking ATMs.

“I was frustrated by the pure tokenism inside the Labor Party,” Lo, a Chinese Australian, said. “They didn’t engage with multicultural communities beyond election time to stand around at polling booths.”

The Victorian Labor Party has been contacted for comment.

Labor’s Sheena Watt is state parliament’s only Indigenous MP. Out of 71 Labor MPs in total, the party has another five who have non-European heritage: Enver Erdogan, Natalie Suleyman, Gary Maas, Meng Heang Tak and Harriet Shing.

Other Victorian MPs of non-European ancestry include newly elected Liberal upper house member Trung Luu and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam. Former Labor minister Adem Somyurek returned as a Democratic Labour Party MP.

While the Liberal Party has been grappling with how to increase the number of women among its ranks, Labor members say their party needs to focus on cultural diversity after having successfully achieved gender parity in the state caucus and cabinet thanks to quotas it introduced in the ’90s.

Hussein and Todorovic said more than 75,000 Labor voters in almost a dozen state seats, including Broadmeadows, Greenvale and Thomastown, had abandoned the party, echoing what happened at the 2022 federal election. The pair argued that the effects of the pandemic were not the only factor and “there is a definite Labor voter pattern emerging”.

They want the party to have a diversity officer in every local branch to recruit and engage with multicultural communities and use party activists tasked with recruiting women to also focus on boosting cultural diversity.

Labor replaced Sri Lankan-born and Lebanese-born candidates with Anglo candidates in 2018, Hussein and Todorovic said. At the 2022 election, the party lost Vietnamese-born Tien Kieu, Lebanese-born Nazih Elasmar, Cesar Melhem and Marlene Kairouz, while Chinese-descendant Shing’s position on the upper house ticket was not safe.

Todorovic told The Age it was imperative the party begin its cultural reckoning and understand the scale of the problem and how it could be rectified.

Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at left-leaning think tank Per Capita, said Labor must start collecting and publishing data on the ethnicity of its membership, office bearers and the senior factional groups, and revive its diversity fellowship program.

“We are a diverse country, but people cannot see themselves in the corridors of power,” Chiu said. “There are also the policy benefits of greater diversity and having different viewpoints.”

Labor’s preselection battle at the end of 2021 was mired in heavy factional feuding and bloodletting because the Victorian division had been plunged into administration following a branch-stacking scandal, leading to a shifting of allegiances and a new stability pact among factional groups.

Powerbrokers from the dominant factions – the conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the Transport Workers Union, groups aligned to former senator Stephen Conroy and the Socialist Left – determined the candidates for seats, without involvement from grassroots members or other factions, such as the Australian Workers’ Union.

Hume mayor Joseph Haweil, an Assyrian Australian, had sought Labor preselection for the seat of Greenvale in Melbourne’s north, but Iwan Walters was installed. The electorate went from a notional margin of 22 per cent to 6.9 per cent on November 26.

“Internally within the Labor Party, multicultural communities have been used as electoral fodder for decades and for factional reasons,” Haweil said. “If the Labor Party wants to meaningfully reconnect with multicultural communities, it has to start looking at putting people that look like them in the parliament.”

He said it was a “live or die” moment for the party and that having culturally diverse members in parliament should not be seen as a tokenistic measure, but as a way to strengthen democracy.

“If the Liberal Party can win a 15 per cent swing in Greenvale on no campaign and doing nothing, what if they had put in some effort?” he said. “That’s what the Labor Party needs to consider.

“Australia … is backsliding when it comes to cultural diversity in high echelons of society. What is it about this country that the power structures are still mostly white and Anglo-Celtic? Why do we stand out compared to those other Western liberal democracies?”

Sumeyya Ilanbey

Sunday Morning Herald 19/01/2023