'It's time to step up': push for more cultural diversity in Labor ranks

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Farrah Tomazin

ALP Senate candidate Jennifer Yang with her children Lauren and Isaac and husband Robert Turney.

ALP Senate candidate Jennifer Yang with her children Lauren and Isaac and husband Robert Turney. Photo: Wayne Taylor

As a first-generation migrant, Jennifer Yang has often been struck by the lack of federal Labor MPs from culturally diverse backgrounds.

After all, the ALP has done a lot to increase women's representation, yet it falls behind the Coalition when it comes to the number of multicultural members elected to the national Parliament.

Not long ago, Ms Yang decided to do something about it – by standing for a spot in the coveted Senate.

"Change takes time, but even putting up a cultural diversity candidate during the campaign shows the multicultural community what sort of candidate we can have, and that's important," says the Chinese-Australian mother-of-two. "They start to believe they can have a voice and have an influence, and that the party and the nation actually values their voice as well. They don't need to fear that they've been left behind. That's probably the main thing that drives me."

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Late last month, Ms Yang won preselection for the third spot on Labor's Victorian Senate ticket – just behind ALP powerbrokers Kim Carr and Stephen Conroy, who hold the first and second positions.

But while the Manningham councillor no doubt faces an uphill battle at the ballot box, her candidacy is emblematic of a broader shift: a small but significant step towards a Parliament that genuinely reflects the community.

Across the Labor Party, momentum is building. Just as the creation of EMILY's List resulted in a significant increase in the number of ALP women in politics, a new group has also been formed – Poliversity – to champion the cause of multicultural representation.

Its role is to provide support for people with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds to get preselected; to work with Labor MPs to engage multicultural communities; and to advocate for greater awareness within the ALP on contentious issues such as refugee policy.

Co-founder Jieh-Yung Lo said the group was established after an analysis of federal Labor MPs who were either migrants, children of migrants, or from Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander backgrounds. Sure, there were a few – Penny Wong, Ed Husic​, Nova Peris among them – but it was clear the ALP still had a long way to go.

Part of the problem is based on perception: due to Labor's history with branch stacking, "a lot of people within the party assume that if you're a party member from a multicultural background, you are a stack, or you're not a serious member that can contribute to policy", Mr Lo said.

But part of it, too, is about the policy framework itself.  While federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his colleagues are supportive of greater cultural diversity, the ALP is yet to announce a multicultural policy, nor has it had one at the national level, he said. Poliversity also wanted to see a system whereby Labor policies are checked to ensure they reflect the issues faced by multicultural communities.

Mr Lo said the party shouldn't take these communities for granted, and it was time for Labor to "step up".

"If you talk to party members and some MPs, they just assume that multicultural communities will vote for them because they did in the '60s and '70s. But times have changed. If we don't engage with these communities we will lose them to the Coalition and the Greens."