How culturally representative is Parliament?

Finance Minister Penny Wong.

Is federal parliament a true reflection of Australia's cultural diversity? It is still rare to find a federal MP in Australia whose first language is not English, Michael Kenny reports.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In a country where around one quarter of the population comes from a non-English speaking background, it is still rare to find a federal MP whose first language is not English.

But some say their migrant experience has helped them as politicians to relate more closely to the concerns of fellow migrants and refugees.

And they believe there are encouraging signs that parliament is far more open to cultural diversity than it was in previous decades.

Michael Kenny reports.

The current Rudd government ministry has at least four members from non-English speaking backgrounds.

They include Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has Italian ancesty.

There are a total of 42 ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the line-up.

The ministry also includes Malaysian-born Finance Minister Penny Wong and parliamentary secretary on broadband policy, Ed Husic, whose parents migrated to Australia from Bosnia.

Greek-born Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou has been in federal parliament for over 12 years and has a keen interest in multicultural policy, having chaired the parliamentary standing committee on migration for three years.

She represents the north-western Melbourne electorate of Calwell where around one third of the population were born overseas.

Ms Vamkaninou says she has drawn heavily upon her own migrant experience as an MP in a very culturally diverse electorate.

"I identify and they can identify with my upbringing as well and my background. They are going through the same process as I and my family and my generation did. So it does help when you're advocating for policies especially and I'll give you an example of one - that's the issue of the ageing of the Australian population and understanding the cultural attitudes towards ageing in the care for the aged- that becomes really important when you're making decisions."

Ms Vamvakinou believes migrants from non English speaking backgrounds often make good politicians.

She says they may bring strong values and convictions to the role after fleeing difficult political circumstances in their homelands and may be more inclined to stand up for what they believe in.

But Ms Vamvakinou thinks the requirement for migrant politicians to renounce their homeland citizenship may hold back some of them from entering politics in Australia.

"A lot of new migrants who come along - dealing with citizenship and renouncing citizenship can be a lot more challenging and a lot more difficult and it's possible that some just make a decision and say 'No! I don't want to do that!' I don't think that is the only reason though. I think if people genuinely want to serve in parliament and they're living in Australia and Australia is home, I believe that's less of an issue."

Italian-born Labor MP Tony Zappia has represented the federal seat of Makin in Adelaide's northern suburbs since 2007.

He came to Australia at the age of two and he believes migrant MPs often bring special skills to the job.

"We all travelled a very similar journey where most of them came out here with very, very little, did it very, very tough in that first decade or so. But then with hard work, were able to get on in life and settle into this country. When you experience hardship, I think it makes you more conscious and aware of what the needs of others are. And it also makes you more conscious and aware of what the needs of others are. And it also makes you a much more compassionate person in respect to the support that is required for people who are doing it tough. Inevitably it also creates a degree of passion that you want to get in there and change things for the better and I think all those factors certainly influenced my decision to get into politics."

On the other side of parliament, the federal opposition's front bench has at least seven members from migrant backgrounds.

They include the opposition's treasury spokesman Joe Hockey who is from an Armenian and Palestinian background.

The 48 strong opposition ministry also includes Belgium-born Senator Mathias Cormann and German-born Senator Eric Abetz.

Senator Abetz, who is the Coalition's leader in the Senate, says he believes the rules barring dual citizenship, may be an obstacle for some migrants.

"I understand for some that it is a difficult proposition to have to renounce their previous allegiance. For myself, given my German background, it was pretty easy because if you do take out a nationality of another country (as a German) you automatically renounce your German citizenship and I for one don't have any difficulty with requiring federal parliamentarians to simply have the one allegiance to Australia."

Senator Abetz says he believes it is important for all candidates to be selected for parliamentary seats based upon their personal merits and not their ethnicity.

However, he concedes migrant MPs often bring with them some important skills which help them to relate to many of their constituents.

"You do find as you move in varying ethnic communities that it is a common bond that allows you to share and talk with other migrants as to their experience given that English is a second language for a lot of people. Some of the different cultural aspects where the nuances of the English and Australian culture is somewhat different from the European or South-East Asian backgrounds- so all those things I think are helpful."

The major political parties have preselected candidates from a non-English speaking background in some marginal seats which could be critical to the final result in the upcoming federal election.

In the northern Sydney seat of Bennelong, Labor has preselected a Chinese-Australian lawyer Jason Yat-Sen Li who is attempting to oust Liberal MP and former tennis champion John Alexander.

It's a culturally diverse electorate with a significant Asian Australian population, which was held for many years by former Prime Minister John Howard.

In another marginal Sydney seat - Greenway in the city's north-west - the Liberals have preselected a Filipino-Australian lawyer Jaymes Diaz who is making his second attempt to win the seat from Labor.

Like Bennelong, Greenway has large numbers of voters from a non English speaking background.

And in the marginal seat of Brisbane, Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro is expected to face a tough challenge to retain the seat from Labor candidate Fiona McNamara.

Ms Gambaro's parents came to Australia from Italy.

She believes her experience as a second generation migrant has helped her to relate better to migrant constituents and to advocate for better settlement services in parliament.

"I grew up in a household where my grandmother barely spoke seven words of English and she never spoke much more. Those days are very different to the ones we have today where you need greater skills and the economy of today is very different to what it was back then. You are in tune with things that are needed. We now have a lot of the older generation- like the Greek and the Italian generations of the past that require aged care and other services in the community, so you are aware of their needs."

Source SBS Radio

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