The ALP is in desperate need of a cultural shift

When I joined the Australian Labor Party in 2004, I was quickly labelled as a “stack” by people within the ALP because of my Chinese ethnicity. Fast-forward to 2018: I am disappointed to see nothing has changed.

While branch stacking remains a major problem, it is concerning when some in the party persist in assuming that members from ethnic and culturally diverse backgrounds are nothing but stacks. This is not to say that exploitation of ethnic voting blocs by cynical politicians (often not even from that community) doesn’t still occur. My concern is that suspicion is cast on anyone with a non-European name seeking to join the ALP as a result.

Recent media reports implying all African-Australians involved in Victorian ALP are stacks is very concerning for three reasons.

One, the abuse of ethnic communities’ lack of knowledge of Australian politics by some political powerbrokers for their own self-interest feeds into growing disenchantment and mistrust Australian voters have in government.

Two, it unfairly tarnishes the reputation of all African-Australians, already under assault from the racist fearmongering of the Turnbull government, who genuinely want to participate in Australia’s democratic processes.

Three, it isolates and disempowers vulnerable people, particularly those with refugee backgrounds, from being fully embraced as citizens with rights and responsibilities and risks a kind of unofficial political apartheid.

In response to “ethnic stacks”, party administrators have introduced measures to halt and delay the processing of memberships from individuals from ethnic backgrounds in the name of combating branch stacking. During my time in the ALP I have also met people, who happen to be of Anglo-Celtic background, whose membership has been processed rather quickly without questions asked.

In my capacity as Co-founder of Poliversity, a partisan independent organisation that aims to increase culturally diverse representation and leadership in the ALP, I’ve had prospective party members sharing with me their experience of having their membership questioned, delayed and at times ignored and blocked.

Branch stacking is bad and it should be eliminated, but the ALP’s apparent lack of interest, creativity and initiative to support alternative processes of genuine engagement for prospective culturally diverse members is frustrating. Just to implement a blanket ban based on an individual’s ethnic background is problematic, discriminatory and not in line with the values of equality and humanity that Labor processes.

In my early days of being a Labor member I was told by various powerbrokers that politics is about “numbers – both people and money”. And without at least one of these at your disposal, you will not get far in Australia’s major parties.

As a result, I have often witnessed culturally diverse, mostly Asian communities being used as cash cows at election time and as political cannon fodder just to “make up the numbers” for preselection deals for white, usually male, candidates carved out behind closed doors.

Between elections these communities are largely ignored or given token interest. This is especially true for larger multicultural communities such as Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern communities where various powerbrokers would bombard community leaders to organise fundraising dinners to fill European candidates’ coffers for election campaigns.

What many in the ALP and, to a certain extent, a majority of political parties fail to understand is that multicultural communities, especially those who have been here a few generations now, have become much more sophisticated in their ability to think critically on political issues. They are sick and tired of tokenism and want to see political parties preselect more quality candidates that share their cultural backgrounds in actually winnable seats.

The ALP needs to develop new methods to respond to branch stacking without compromising the right of a person to join and be involved in the party. Cultural diversity representation is already a major problem in Australian politics. In this federal parliament, roughly 5 per cent of parliamentarians are of non-European backgrounds, compared to 24 per cent of the population.

The issue must be addressed quickly, otherwise the integrity of Australia’s democracy will erode further as newer Australians question the representativeness of our system.

Some people I have met told me they were recruited to the party with little understanding of Australian politics. But as they get more involved in party initiatives such as election campaigns and policy forums, they started to understand the power of democracy and how joining the party can help them shape policies and to an extent the future of our nation.

This is why Poliversity has been working and partnering with initiatives within the ALP, such as the newly established Labor Academy, to develop programs and modules to ensure prospective and new members are provided with the support and skills they need to make a contribution in the ALP movement. The most effective way of combating branch stacking and, as I like to call it, “unstack the stacks”, is not to ignore and leave them in limbo but instead engage, educate, empower and embrace them so they, like all members, can find their place and purpose in our movement.

It is discriminatory to judge individuals and communities based on the colour of their skin or their surname and assume that they are only stacks and have no real purpose other than to boost the standing of powerbrokers. To strengthen and grow the ALP, and make it more representative of the broader community we need to foster a cultural shift and emphasise deep engagement, education and knowledge sharing to help new members better understand the party and its purpose.

Only then can the ALP become a political party and movement that is inclusive, representative and reflective of Australia’s growing diversity and give communities like our African friends a genuine seat at the decision-making table.

Originally posted in TheAge

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