If Parliament was a suburb...

Dr Tim Soutphommasane Race Discrimination Commissioner addressed the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday 7 July 2015. Photo: Andrew Meares
Dr Tim Soutphommasane Race Discrimination Commissioner addressed the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday 7 July 2015. Photo: Andrew Meares

If Parliament was a suburb, it would be among the least diverse in the country.

The forced citizenship declarations of MPs this week has not only revealed those with dual-allegiances but has also allowed us to see for the first time if the diversity of Parliament reflects a multicultural Australia.

In short: no, it does not.

It is not only overwhelmingly white and male, but chronically under-represents a growing Asian population, while overemphasising the proportion of Australians born with British and European heritage.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia was "the most successful multicultural society in the world," but that success has not transferred to the seats of our highest representatives, where only 40 per cent of politicians have at least one parent born overseas, compared to 53 per cent of Australians.

That is a Parliament that is less diverse than Norfolk Island - settled by the descendants of mutineers from the Bounty - and on par with Queanbeyan in rural NSW.

If Parliament was a suburb it would be Frankston in Victoria, North Narrabeen in Sydney, or Clayfield in Queensland, where up to 60 per cent of residents have two Australian parents.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3 per cent of Australians had a parent born in China and the same amount from India.

Yet not a single child of the more than 1.5 million members of the Chinese and Indian diaspora holds a seat in Parliament.

Penny Wong and Ian Goodenough remain the only two MPs with Asian-born parents along with Lisa Singh, who has Fijian-Indian roots.

Likewise, a rising Middle Eastern population is struggling to be seen on capital hill. Just two of the 226 members of Parliament, Ann Aly and Peter Khalil are present to represent the country's 321,728 Arabic speakers.

That's 0.8 per cent of Parliament, compared to 1.4 per cent of the country.

Take a look inside cabinet and the proportion of MPs with overseas-born parents shrinks to 30 per cent. An extraordinary two-thirds of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership team is made up of dinky-di Australians who are minimum second-generation.

On the floors of the Senate and the House - there's a Greek here, a descendant of the former Yugoslavia there, and a couple of Germans in the mix, but you are more likely to be a child of British parents in Parliament than you are in the rest of Australia.

Ten per cent of Parliamentarians are the children of British parents compared to 6 per cent of the rest of the country, while Australia's Indigenous population, which makes up 2.8 per cent of the total population, is represented by 2 per cent of Parliament.

"We've had two generations of non-European migration but there is the cultural default we have in Australia - a certain image of leadership that isn't always inclusive of diverse backgrounds," said Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane.

"The danger of having a homogenous Parliament is a narrow view of the lived experience of race and ethnicity."

Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission last year found 95 per cent of Parliamentarians came from Anglo-Celtic-European backgrounds, figures that were reflected among the CEOs of the top 200 companies on the Australian stock exchange, across the public service and in the executive of universities.

"We've had conversations about gender but not cultural representation and political parties haven't regarded this as an issue requiring special attention," Dr Soutphommasane said.

"You can't underestimate the power of seeing someone like you in a place like Parliament."

With Tara Hayes

This story If Parliament was a suburb... first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.