There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few days about the Labor preselection for my local federal seat of Parramatta, where sitting Labor MP Julie Owens is retiring after 18 years. Parramatta is a very diverse electorate, which large numbers of voters of Indian and Chinese heritage, but more generally including a very diverse range of communities.
Labor appears to be set to preselect former Kevin Rudd advisor Andrew Charlton for the seat. This has been criticised on a number of grounds: that the party should choose a candidate of colour for the seat, that Charlton is a wealthy executive living in a mansion in the eastern suburbs, and that the local branches should have a say in the preselection. These three criticisms do overlap but they are not the same thing.
This has then fed into an argument about the need to choose “quality” candidates for parliament, which is presented in opposition to the need to preselect a local, to preselect someone who isn’t white, and to preselect someone chosen by the local branches (which again are interrelated but not the same).
While I don’t necessarily agree with this dichotomy, I would like to draw attention to one of the big culprits in this dilemma: the single-member electoral system which constrains intra-party choice, both for voters and for the parties.
There is a real issue with the lack of ethnic diversity in parliament. Osmond Chiu has pointed out how far Australia lags in terms of representation of people of colour compared to the share of the Australian population who are not white, and how far we lag behind similar countries like the UK and Canada. This is an issue for all parties but it’s understandable that Labor supporters (like those in Parramatta criticising the Charlton move) will focus on their own party. It particularly sticks out like a sore thumb when Labor holds most of those diverse electorates in Western Sydney, but most of those seats are held by white MPs.
I don’t concede the dichotomy between “quality” candidates (someone who has potential as a future minister or prime minister) and someone who does a better job of representing their electorate. I’m also unconvinced that Charlton’s credentials would make him a good representative of the public.
Part of Labor’s dilemma is that their safe seats tend to be much more culturally diverse, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, yet the party’s elite has not yet caught up.
But all of this would be far less of a problem if we didn’t use single-member electorates.
If we had proportional representation, either a system with multi-member districts, or an MMP-style system with a top-up list, this dilemma would be mostly mitigated.
Proportional systems tend to result in the election of more women and produce more cultural diversity in the parliament.
They also give parties more freedom about who they run. They can run candidates who match their electorates, while also having more room to elect people who may not be a particularly good fit for a local area but have something to contribute. While Charlton’s home in Bellevue Hill will never elect a Labor MP in a single-member district, he could be quite well suited to be a minority Labor representative in a multi-member north shore or eastern suburbs electorate.
Changing the electoral system is hard, and we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to not improve diversity, and to not look for ways to achieve both diversity and “quality” in the same person, but it’s worth acknowledging how much our electoral system hinders efforts to create more diversity amongst our elected representatives. When you don’t talk about it, it feels a bit like a fish not noticing the water it is swimming in.