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I’m Asian-Australian But I Think Race-Based Targets In Politics Are A Bad Idea

Australia has a problem with the lack of diversity in parliament, especially the lack of quality Asian-Australian parliamentarians, but it won’t be fixed by race-based targets.

Recently, the China Matters think tank recommended political parties adopt a target of 20 percent culturally diverse candidates for winnable seats, and to measure and report on the cultural diversity (translation: race) of its parliamentarians, candidates, office bearers, delegates and staffers.

(The policy proposal made by China Matters is broad, which helps maximise political support, but it appears to be primarily focussed on Asian-Australian political representation.)

While well intended, and the report itself made some good observations, these prescriptive policy solutions are a cosmetic treatment of symptoms with no impact to the underlying problem -- and could even make things worse.

Targets based on race are shallow

Firstly, thinking someone’s skin colour or surname alone will make for a more representative parliament is shallow -- and presumes, for example, that Asian-Australian voters are too. The Federal parliamentarian whose political opinions most reflect mine is Amanda Stoker, a 37-year-old Caucasian female senator from Queensland. Not Ian Goodenough, not Gladys Liu and not Penny Wong.

I have more in common politically with Amanda Stoker than Penny Wong, Ian Goodenough or Gladys Liu. (Image: Getty / AAP)

Quotas create resentment and division, because they’re unfair

The backlash against diversity targets (let alone quotas) in the corporate world results from the simple and understandable reason that many people consider them unfair, patronising or both.

People competing for important jobs don’t like losing out because someone has a different skin colour to them, and while this may be unconsciously happening among some Caucasian-dominated workplaces, ‘two wrongs make a right’ isn’t a viable option. It certainly isn’t popular with most Asian-Australians I come across professionally, nor my Caucasian colleagues.

Targets don’t improve the quality of the candidate pool

Targets also do nothing to increase the pool of potential talent, which China Matters correctly identifies as a problem. The ideal is that a target will subtly prompt parties to look more widely and open their minds to new candidates.

In reality, such a target would mean both parties will simply search through their current staffer ranks for the next Asian face -- especially if China Matters’ ’race reporting’ recommendation sees political parties rush to ‘tick the boxes’ so they can start virtue signalling on social media. Which means you’re probably likely to get a sub-standard candidate, unintentionally confirming preconceptions that Asian-Australian candidates don’t have what it takes.

There is so much more to the quality of a candidate than race-based electoral appeal. The reason for the lacklustre performance of Asian-Australian candidates at the polls is simply down to the lack of genuinely high calibre candidates. Hypothetically, if the late Dr Victor Chang or the charismatic Maths teacher Eddie Woo were to run for office, they’d be considered hugely electorally advantageous irrespective of their ethnicity.

So how do we get genuinely high calibre Asian-Australians to enter the talent pool?

Hypothetically, Eddie Woo, who was declared NSW Australian of the Year Local Hero in 2018, would make a high-quality candidate. (Image: AAP)

We need to promote civic participation among Asian-Australians

The biggest reason why the pool of talent is so small is because many Asian-Australians have little appetite in having a public profile or civic participation. Far from ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’, Asian-Australians are often taught that ‘the loudest duck gets shot’, such attitudes are often passed down and accepted as simply ‘part of the culture’.

I was born in Taiwan, where freedom of speech and democracy was fought for and won only decades ago. That made me acutely aware of the importance of civic participation. It always puzzled me why many of my counterparts from other parts of Asia cared so little for advocacy and representation. There is an old Chinese saying, “The fish doesn’t know water”, referring to things we’ve taken for granted but shouldn’t, because they are vital to our way of life.

Parents in Asian-Australian communities need to instil a sense of civic duty in our children. We need to encourage our kids to start contributing to others early in life, be it sports teams, school captains, students’ council, debating clubs or volunteering for charity. We need to prepare them with the resilience to overcome adversity, the moral character to tell the truth even when it’s unpopular, and the integrity to do the right thing even if doesn’t serve their own interests.

In 2019, Gladys Liu became the first Chinese-Australian woman to win a seat in Federal Parliament's Lower House after defeating Jennifer Yang. (Image: Getty)

Political parties need to welcome more 'outsiders' generally

Of course, political parties have their role to play too. The underlying problem in Australian politics is the lack of intellectual diversity. This doesn’t just keep out Asian-Australians, but simply anyone with a 'normal' job -- which happens to include many Asian-Australians. Roughly 40 percent of federal MPs are former staffers and almost another 40 percent is made up of lawyers, legislators, party and union officials and public servants.

When the system is so stacked in favour of incumbency and those long rusted onto the political machine, there’s less incentive to find innovative political ’edge‘, or to take a punt on an outsider with a puncher’s chance.

We also should not be electing candidates who think they are entitled to ’winnable seats‘. Regardless of their race, they are simply the wrong kind of people for public service. Instead of those who scream the loudest, we should be looking for the quiet Australians who are prepared to sacrifice the rewards of successful careers and the comfort of their family lives in exchange for public service. It is a good bet that many of these quiet Australians will be Asian-Australians.

Will grassroots cultural change take longer than quotas to increase the number of Asian-Australians in parliament? Absolutely, but in the long run it will be much better for everybody. Resisting the urge to use coercion to effect skin-deep change means that only the best rises to the top, avoiding the inevitable backlash that could haunt us for decades to come.