4.7 Political Participation and Ethnic Minorities

Most electors suffer from a profound delusion that democracy as practised in Australia today allows them to elect the representatives of their choice to follow a specific policy of which they are fully aware and approve. Not so according to a report by Jupp et al. (1989). Far too often, the voter was 'ill informed, often apathetic, influenced by prejudice rather than reason, voting along class lines and very susceptible to slogans and advertising'.

Such a voting mass requires an elite that will be involved in active political participation on their behalf. In many instances these are the political parties themselves that have over many years constructed the apparatus necessary to obtain and retain power. Special interest groups are seen as necessary intermediaries between these and the voting public. A model of elite/intermediaries/passive masses is therefore arrived at.

The non-English speaking background (NESB) community has not participated in the political process in numbers that are anything like adequate in proportion to its numeric size. Only eight NESB persons have entered the national parliament since 1947. In Victoria, there are 4 out of 44 (9%) in the Legislative Council and 7 out of 88 (8%) in the Legislative Assembly. For the ethnic representation to be commensurate with the voting public a three-fold increase in the number of parliamentary representatives would be required.There are many reasons why the migrants are not attracted to politics (Jupp et al. p8):

  • They do not understand the system which is British-based and often full of contradictions;
  • They do not have the level of English necessary not only to express themselves clearly, to deliver nuances of meaning and colour or utilise a vocabulary beyond 'survival level' English;
  • They may find difficulty in coping with Anglo-Australian traditions and attitudes, often very nationalistic and xenophobic;
  • They lack the ties and behaviour patterns normally established in the formative school years;
  • They lack a mass base to support them.

In an age when success in politics is as likely to depend on personal charisma, television appearance and appeal, many of these factors tend to militate against acceptance of the ethnic political tyro by the majority.

Another myth that needs exploding is the concept of the 'ethnic vote', which implies that there is homogeneity of voting, an 'average' ethnic voter. There is no more an ethnic vote than an 'Australian' vote. While some ethnic communities are more committed to Labour, others are as committed to a Liberal political voting pattern. NESB persons constitute over 30% of the electorate in places such as Batman (42.5%), Calwell (50.9%), Gellibrand (40.5%), Hotham (34.4%), Melbourne (47.2%), Scullin (52%) and Wills (44.1%). This is noteworthy considering that a swing of 5% or less is usually well capable of winning or losing an election.

While the major political parties are very forward in wooing the ethnic community, the study of Jupp et al. shows that no political party has formalised an 'affirmative action policy' with regard to ethnic groups.

In the absence of an adequate and satisfactory mechanism for direct representation, the Ethnic Community Councils (ECCs) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities in Australia (FECCA) have played an important role in representing and articulating the needs of the ethnic community through participation on various public bodies, consultation with various government departments, making individual submissions on specific issues as well as through direct representation at ministerial level. As Jupp et al. remark 'FECCA and the ECCs include representatives of nearly all the ethnic minorities in Australia and are the only effective umbrella organisa6ons with such a coverage' p 26).

It has become more and more evident that the average Member of Parliament is now a tertiary graduate in politics/economics/law subjects. A vast proportion of the ethnic community has not yet accepted the need for tertiary education as part of the preparation required for membership of the political elite. Attempts to highlight the high graduate rates in some ethnic groups obfuscate the real problem associated with markedly low rates in other ethnic groups. This is one problem that needs to be tackled primarily because it is, of its very nature, long term and will affect the community for generations to come.

While the political parties have now embraced a philosophy of multiculturalism and one of access and equity for all, the individual members of the ethnic communities are yet to give their full contribution. As Jupp et al. conclude, 'Ultimate responsibility for taking part in politics rests with NESB Australians themselves and especially with the second generation which will be better equipped to do so than their immigrant parents' (p 63).


Jupp J., York, B., & McRobbie, A. 1989: The Political Participation of ethnic Minorities in Australia AGPS, Canberra.

[From: The Ethnic Voice, Vol 2(1) Jan/Feb 1990) p 3]

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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