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Plans and policies of the parties: panel 4: opening comments from the chair. Paper presented at the National Conference on Racism: Beyond Tolerance, Sydney Opera House, 12-13 March 2002, organised by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

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Plans and Policies of the Parties: Panel 4: Opening Comments from the Chair Gianni Zappalà

First, I'd like to start this morning by acknowledging the traditional owners, the Gatigul people and thank them for their warm welcome yesterday. Good morning and welcome to the first session of today's program. I'm Gianni Zappalà, and I'm the Research Manager at The Smith Family. I'll be chairing this session on 'The plans and policies of the political parties'. Each of the four major parties represented in the Federal parliament was invited to send a spokesperson to outline their party's plans and policies in relation to anti-racism strategies. We will shortly be hearing from two party representatives:

Dr Carmen Lawrence from the ALP and ● Ms Kerry Nettle, NSW Senator-elect for The Greens. ●

Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Australian Democrats was due to join them but has missed his plane in Canberra this morning.

Unfortunately, the Government decided not to send a representative, although HREOC assures me that repeated efforts were made to encourage the government to present its views at this important forum.

Before I introduce the first speaker, I was asked as chair to make a few comments that relate in a more general way to this session's topic on the anti-racism policies of the political parties. Those comments concern something at the heart of what this morning's speakers do every day of their lives - represent their constituents.

Political representation is of central importance to society and its systems of governance - it is a key mechanism that connects the citizenry to the government. It is at times complicated, because it can link the governed with the government through various ways - different systems of democracy, different electoral systems, the internal machinations of political parties, agencies like HREOC, peak bodies and social movements.

In a book I recently co-edited and contributed to last year with Marian Sawer, called Speaking for the People -Representation in Australian politics, we examined the challenges to political representation that have been posed by the various social movements of earlier decades, and how successful they have been in their demands for fairer representation of 'groups' or 'identities' that were previously excluded or discounted, such as those based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

In particular, we wanted to move away from the traditional typologies of representation (such as whether representatives act as delegates or trustees) and focus more on the significance and embodiment of difference to the views and behaviour of representatives - to what is termed the 'politics of presence'.

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One of the themes of the book is that the traditional notion that any representative can express or represent all citizens' opinions and policy preferences (the politics of ideas) is no longer effective or adequate. Instead, the contributors argue that an increased physical presence of previously excluded groups and views in our parliaments, is increasingly necessary if we are to have progressive change on issues such as those being addressed at this conference.

Unfortunately, there is still strong resistance among some sections of Australian society to this view. Arguments about making our political system more representative are often dismissed as being divisive, unworkable and unnecessary. It is interesting to note, in light of the government's decision not to send a representative to this session, that those who currently have a dominant position in terms of representation are also able to make strong statements by their absence. The converse to the 'politics of presence' - the 'politics of absence' is a luxury that only those who control the political agenda can enjoy.

I do not need to detail to this audience where and how our political institutions are unrepresentative. But at times I think we can forget just why it is so important that our parliaments become more representative and reflect the diversity of the Australian people. Let me briefly just point to three:

First, having more representative parliaments provide the political system with a sense of legitimacy in the eyes of all the citizenry; ●

Second, representatives who are indigenous, or from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and so on, may be more responsive and empathetic to the wishes and needs of constituents from similar backgrounds. A greater presence of previously excluded groups means that they may be able to change the agenda and bring new perspectives to bear on existing ways of seeing and doing politics, especially with respect to developing anti-racist strategies. Importantly, as we heard yesterday, they can bring their lived experience to this issue.


Third, is the symbolic importance of having members from different groups visible in the various legislatures, especially in countries like Australia, where the process of mass migration and more recently, the greater awareness of the history of white-indigenous relations have challenged traditional views of national identity. Struggles over identity politics are often about appropriate symbols and who has the power to define those symbols. As key institutions where symbolic struggles often take place, parliaments need representatives of different 'interpreters' of the symbols of nation.


So before we begin this session - the subject of which is also clearly related to this afternoon's final session - on what needs to be reformed and the challenges ahead, I would suggest that we need a much stronger politics of presence, not only for the health of Australian democracy in general, but as one of a many pronged strategy to combat racism.


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