There has been talk about increasing the number of women in Australia’s parliaments and in major political parties. The current Coalition government’s female participation, especially in its front bench, look more like a government in 1925, not 2015. Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer a few weeks ago called on her party to set targets to increase female representation.

In recent years determining who belongs to the ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ Australia has shifted.

The late Joan Kirner, the first female premier of Victoria, led the push for female representation in the Labor Party. The ALP used affirmative action to boost the number of women in politics. The conservative side lacks a quota system. Given that 50 per cent of Australia’s citizens are women and the parliament should be the representative of the Australian people, it is natural that more women should be sitting on both benches. It is a welcome discussion and one that will hopefully make the federal government look less like irritated dorks and more like a modern and relevant political party.

On the other hand, given that some 40 per cent of Australians claim at least one ancestry other than British, there is precious little discussion on ethnic representation in Australia’s parliaments. Is it because we’ve already achieved a healthy level of ‘ethnic’ representation? More likely, no one wants to talk about it, not even those politicians of non-Anglo Celtic background in both parties. The ‘ethnic’ politicians are happy to roll out the classic migrant story, of poor boy or girl ‘made good’.

We’ve had and have politicians of non-Anglo, Scottish or Irish background: Labor frontbencher Penny Wong, is the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet. Arthur Sinodinos is of course one of our own, as was former Keating minister Nick Bolkus. Steve Bracks had Lebanese grandparents, former NSW Liberal Premier Nick Greiner was born in Hungary. Victoria currently has a Uruguayan-born Speaker of the House, Telmo Languiler, and the Leader of the Opposition, Matthew Guy, is of Ukrainian background. The list goes on. It’s hard not to find Greek or Italian Australians represented in most parliaments and in both parties. Given the large numbers of South Asians calling Australia home, it’s likely that we’ll have more representation from that community.
But is there an argument that as parliament is for all Australians, quotas should be established to reflect the proportion of ethnic representation in the total population?

I would suggest not, but a concerted effort to have more diversity in our parliaments is not a bad thing. A diversity of cultural understandings, global connections and languages can only benefit Australia’s social and economic position.

There is a reality that former Prime Minister John Howard confronted when he lost his own seat in 2007. Howard was no longer a true enough representative of Bennelong, which had in less then 20 years transformed from a white Liberal seat to having the highest number of residents of non-English speaking backgrounds in any Liberal seat in Australia. One in ten residents in Bennelong was born in China or Hong Kong.

In recent years determining who belongs to the ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ Australia has shifted. Many of us, of southeastern European descent have become ‘white’, or whiter. Once we weren’t. In the days of the White Australia Policy, Greeks, Turks and Italians were considered Asian.

Muslim Australians, regardless of their diverse cultural and linguistic background, and other non-European Australians, have increasingly become seen as “people of colour”.

The discussion of race, colour, religion and language is always loaded and determined by the politics of the day. But, let’s agree that the people in most need of high-level political representation, the First Australians, our Aboriginal people, need more representation in parliament.

Regardless of Australia’s mixed report card on race and cultural relations and the shrill ‘cultural wars’ ignited by right-wing media stars and some in the main parties, cultural diversity seems to be represented in this ship of state. Or is it?

Could it be that what we really have represented is aspiration to whiteness or to be part of the mainstream? Do issues or values formed by migration, feelings of otherness, racism or exclusion guide ‘ethnic’ politicians? Should we expect ‘ethnic’ politicians to represent ethnicity, or to profess support for multiculturalism and Aboriginal equity just because they ‘feel’ for those on the outer? The answers, I believe, fall in a grey middle.

Some politicians of non-Anglo Celtic background may go out of their way to profess they are there for all Australians, just in case they are accused of some form of cultural bias. Yet, I have never heard of an Irish or Scottish Australian politician, (or one of northern European background), being accused of bias when debating legislation or introducing policies. The issue seems to revolve around levels of assimilation and acquiescence to the dominant form of cultural and political debate.

Any sense of more open representation of one’s cultural biases, or archetypal behaviour, then ‘ethnics’, look like they’re looking for trouble and are accused of being divisive.

Being Aboriginal, Muslim, or Jewish is fine, in fact it is a ‘celebration of our unique multiculturalism’, but the underlying reality, some may argue, is to never behave like you’re not grateful for the entry into the inner circle. Look at what happened to Adam Goodes recently.

When I was a student at Adelaide Boys High and got in trouble, the headmaster would say “why can’t you be a good Greek boy?” and my mother would promise that I would soon morph into such a lad.

Sadly, I never did.

*Fotis Kapetopoulos is an arts consultant with Melbourne’s West and runs the annual Bite the Big Apple Arts and Cultural Management Tour of New York City. He was the former editor of Neos Kosmos English Edition and was a multicultural media adviser to former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. He is currently the Development Manager for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. For more information visit