All white on the night for Australian elections

SYDNEY: Despite its Aboriginal roots and a large Asian population, Australia’s politics are almost exclusively white with just a handful of ethnic minority candidates in this month’s elections.

Australia’s diversity — from Outback townships to Sydney’s Chinatown and growing numbers of South and Southeast Asians — is poorly reflected in its leaders, who remain typically Caucasian, middle-aged and male.

Malaysian-born Senator Penny Wong is the government’s lone Asian face, while the candidates of both major parties include only half a dozen of obvious Asian ancestry, from a list of more than 300.

Labor’s Tauto Sansbury is the only Aboriginal candidate, highlighting the extent to which native Australians, whose history on the continent stretches back tens of thousands of years, are sidelined.

“I’m doing this to try and create a lot more interest from the Aboriginal community that we have a place in politics and that there should be more people like myself running for politics,” he said.

Australia’s history is steeped in Asian immigration, from Gold Rush Chinese miners and Japanese pearl-divers of the late 1800s, to Vietnamese refugees and Chinese students given residency after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

More recently, large numbers of Chinese and Indian students have settled here, along with smaller groups of Indonesian, Timorese, Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum-seekers, pushing Australia’s Asian population to about 10 percent.

Liberal candidate John Nguyen exemplifies the trend, after fleeing war-torn Vietnam on a rickety boat aged five and arriving in Australia via a Malaysian refugee camp in 1980.

“I don’t remember everything but I remember bits and pieces. I remember being attacked by pirates — we were attacked seven times,” he said.

Nguyen, who is standing in Melbourne’s ethnically diverse seat of Chisholm, said a less monochrome government could help Australia’s standing in the region, where it is often regarded as white-dominated and anti-immigration.

“I know a lot of people from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. They still talk about the Pauline Hanson episode, which is quite unfortunate,” he said.

“They say Australia is a country that is not tolerant of migrants, which is totally untrue because Australia is a country of migrants.”

Hanson was elected to parliament on an anti-immigration platform in 1996, and told the lower house that Australia was in danger of being ‘swamped by Asians’ in her maiden speech.

The country also suffers from memories of the ‘White Australia’ policy, which restricted Asian immigration until the mid-1970s.

Recently, hundreds of attacks on students from India outraged that country’s media, while both Labor and the Liberals have promised tough policies to stop the scores of refugee boats which have arrived this year.

Sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz of the University of Technology, Sydney, said non-white politicians often find it hard to win selection as candidates for parliamentary seats.

“Due to concentration of migrant communities, it is much harder for a person of Asian background to gain pre-selection or be elected at the federal level than it is to a local council,” he said.

“The odds of a person from a particular ethnic group being pre-selected drops the closer you get to the federal level, because they’re locality-based selections.” — AFP

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