The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute has just released a new report, You can’t be what you can’t see written by Melbournian Caroline Zielinski.

“The reasons why we see such little ethnic diversity in positions of leadership are so varied and ingrained, it is difficult to start unravelling them. On a fundamental level, it’s difficult to be what you cannot see – and it’s hard to care about political issues if you feel powerless and unheard,” Ms Zielinski said in a supplied statement.

The in-depth analysis collates the views of leading researchers, journalists, academics, and commentators, along with the lived experiences of people from culturally diverse backgrounds who’ve served or are currently working in our political and media system.

Ms Zielinski writes that that while the recent federal election resulted in a slight increase in cultural diversity amongst Australia’s elected parliamentarians, overwhelmingly it is still made up of those from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

Her work talks of the barriers that hinder migrants’ participation in Australia’s political system. These barriers are often more complex than race, or the binary of colour and whiteness. Language and education, a lack of social and professional networks and resources are presented as obstacles to greater political participation.

Diversity deficit in politics

You can’t be what you can’t see emphasises the benefits for political parties to re-evaluate how they meaningfully engage with cultural diversity. The report argues that political parties need to be more inclusive in their membership processes to candidate selection.

“It’s unbelievable that we still, as one of the world’s most multicultural nations, do not have even remotely equal representation in parliament and the senate,” Ms Zielinski told Neos Kosmos.

Dr Hass Dellal AO, the Chief Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation said that local engagement was vital in representing diversity. At the same time, Dr Dellal has no interest in diversity quotas.

“I am not into quotas; I think that political parties should open opportunities for people to move into the system.”

“They should be more inclusive and open at all levels – local, state and federal – and allow people with the right skills to participate,” Dr Dellal told Neos Kosmos.

He then pointed to local government “as more open to cultural diversity at a grass roots level.” The opaque and off-putting effect of factionalism in the major parties he believes, also “create barriers to those immigrants” wanting to participate in political life.

Fotis Kapetopoulos, Neos Kosmos journalist, and former political adviser on multicultural media, says in the report that ethnic communities carry with them the culture of home politics.

He is quoted saying that not every ethnic community bands together or has had the time or the impetus to mobilise ‘in the way that the Greeks and Jewish communities have.’

Cover photo of the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute report, You can’t be what you can’t see. Photo: Supplied

Mr Kapetopoulos opines that the Greek community has established roots that are now, two and three generations later, ‘deeply planted in Australian soil.’

‘Every community sets up their own clubs and networks, but … some ethnic groups, such as … the Germans, [and] the Dutch, have assimilated, lost language and become less connected to their community as the generations went on.’

Mr Kapetopoulos in the report says that Jews and the Greeks do not lose their links to their culture, which they see as universal.

‘Our notion of Hellenism [the spread of Greek culture around the world] is intangible and profound. Greeks have a universal notion of ourselves.’

Multicultural media is essential

Mr Kapetopoulos says in the report that poor Covid communications by government had a ‘devastating effect on ethnic communities… partly because governments forgot the role of independent ethnic media, … because they put all their eggs in SBS, ABC and Facebook and Google’.

Journalists from ethnic media in the early stages of the Victorian pandemic when many elderly Greeks had died, ‘were not given access to media conferences,’ he is quoted.

‘Eventually we were allowed into the mainstream conferences, and we started asking questions that no mainstream publications were asking because we had data from within all the different communities.’

Ms Zielinski told Neos Kosmos she “found the various responses of different migrant communities to the Covid restrictions very interesting, as well as the fact that most companies simply believe that merely translating documents is enough to satisfy the diversity requirement.”

“Governments’ hesitancy to work with ethnic media to contextualise their advice to different migrant groups was surprising, as was the belief that all advice and requirements would be understood only within the framework of white, Anglo Australian mindset,” Ms Zielinski said.

Dr Dellal said the “power of ethnic media became truly evident during the pandemic, in terms of providing information and resources in-language to community groups around vaccinations, services, and other support.”

“Ethnic media’s role was conclusive during the pandemic; it was able to reach community on so many levels and it empowered communities by providing real detail and a more comprehensive approach to information,” he said.

Dr Dellal said that ethnic media also provide a “space for discussion and debate and a voice for communities.”

“Ethnic [media] provided real and comprehensive detail in-language, and in English, and it was able to tell the story, and that’s why we had communities being able to respond by setting up vaccination hubs, by advocating for vaccination and informing each other,” Dr Dellal told Neos Kosmos.

The report contains accessible case studies, The question of branch-stacking and ethnic communities and What we learned from COVID: threats and opportunities for change.

Ms Zielinski interviewed many in in the multicultural sector such as, Dr Hass Dellal AO, Chief Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Vivienne Nguyen, Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, Labor politician, Jason Yat-sen Li, Tharini Rouwette, CEO of Allies in Colour, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi and Neos Kosmos journalist and communications expert, Fotis Kapetopoulos.

Access the full report here