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The Political Representation of Ethnic and Racial Minorities

The Political Representation of Ethnic and Racial Minorities

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 03/2006 by Karina Anthony
This paper is an update of The Politics of Difference: The Political Representation of Ethnic and Racial Minorities by Gareth Griffith, NSW Parliamentary Library Briefing Paper No 029/95. It discusses the political representation of ethnic and racial minorities in Australia. An overview of the issues surrounding the definition of an ‘ethnic minority’ is provided in section two (pp 2-4), with particular attention given to the fluidity of ethnicity as a concept, and an explanation of its usage in public policy terms. The potential for strong community reactions to the term is also touched upon in relation to the introduction of the Community Relations Commission and Principles of Multiculturalism Act 2000.

The multicultural nature of Australian society forms the backdrop against which this paper is written. Section three (pp 5-20) considers the meaning of ‘multiculturalism’ – in terms of official government policy – and briefly outlines some common critiques. The majority of the section consists of statistical data based on the 2001 National Census. Following a general overview of the Australian population, a more detailed look is taken at indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, including their presence in Australian parliaments. A final section on ethnicity and voting behaviour is included. It focuses on the extent to which voters favour candidates of their own ethnicity. The link between ethnic voting and socio-demographic indicators is also examined.

Section four (pp 21-38) surveys the barriers that must be overcome by ethnic and racial minorities before participation in formal representative bodies is possible. The right to vote, the right to stand for election, and the ability to understand the system itself, are identified as threshold barriers. The effect of permanent residency and dual nationality on participation is discussed with reference to ethnic minorities. Discussion of structural barriers such as systems of preselection, and the influence of electoral systems on the electoral fortunes of minority groups follows. An examination of New Zealand’s electoral system – Mixed Member Proportional – is included for the purpose of comparison.

Theoretical approaches to representation are reviewed in section five under the headings of ‘Microcosmic Representation’ (pp 39-45) and ‘Normative Theories of Representation’ (pp 45-50). The section concludes with a case study concerning the ethnicity of Members of Parliament (MPs) and constituents, and the influence – if any – of those characteristics upon the representative style of MPs at parliamentary level.

Alternatives to parliamentary representation are introduced in section six, including direct and indirect options. Proposals include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Assembly (p 51), dedicated seats (pp 52-55), the establishment of affirmative action programs by political parties, and the role of peak bodies. Finally, section seven examines international examples of minority representation: including redistricting in the United States (pp 63-65), dedicated Maori seats in New Zealand (pp 66-68) and an indigenous assembly for Norway’s Sámi peoples (pp 68-69).