By Melba Marginson

Do Filipino-Australians care about politics in Australia? Why do we need to actively participate in Australian politics?

Having contested for a local council seat myself and trained multicultural women to go into local politics, I have decided to write my thoughts on this issue.

Filipinos are the fourth largest overseas-born community in Australia (2016 ABS). We have been here since the late 1800s when Filipino pearl divers were employed in the pearling industry that mostly operated in the Northern Territory and WA. Many of these pearl divers stayed in Australia and married Aboriginal women, hence there is now a generation of Aboriginal Filipinos some of whom are gaining popularity, like singer-composer Mojo Juju.

From the 1900s, Filipinos came as tradesmen, nurses, and later as fiancées/spouses to many Australian men. These migrants have made Australia their home and brought up families, generations of them. In the absence of research, Filipino-Australians may probably comprise the largest number of millennials of mixed backgrounds in Australia.

This is a direct consequence of intercultural marriages between Filipino women and Australian men of various backgrounds, a phenomenon that peaked in the 60s through to the 90s.

According to the 2016 ABS Census, there are 252,700 Filipinos in Australia BUT this number only represents first generation of Filipinos. Over many decades, there are generations of Filipino-Australians who were born here who have a parent or two from the Philippines and registered themselves as Australian (not Filipino) on census night. This is the overall pattern with Australian population – overseas born being 24%, but those with a parent or two born overseas make up 45% of all Australians.

Australian democracy will only work if people from diverse cultural backgrounds were represented in all three levels of government. Electoral politics should not be left in the hands of white Anglo middle-aged men whose experiences are distant from ordinary Asian Australian citizens.

So it is fair to say that Filipino-Australians, like all other Australians of various backgrounds, need to care about what is going on in Australian politics. We should take cognizance of the fact that our community has lived in this country since the 1800s and yet, we have not had any Filipino face in state or federal Parliaments.

Most Filipinos speak English, 53% have advanced Diploma to post-graduate degrees, 63% are in the labour force and 45% with middle-class income (2016 ABS). This positive profile, plus our large voting population, makes a good case for Filipino-Australians to be involved in political leadership.

In the Victorian election last month, the Filipino community was represented in the pool of candidates, the first time ever that two candidates were of Filipino ancestry: Labor candidate for Malvern Oliver Squires and DLP candidate for the western metropolitan region Walter Villagonzalo.

Both candidates had good results in achieving substantial swings to their political parties. Oliver Squires, a young science teacher with a PhD in medical research, has been able to achieve a 12% swing to the Labor Party and effectively making the blue ribbon seat of Malvern a marginal seat. Walter Villagonzalo, a passionate advocate for political participation, has gained a Council seat after contesting it four times, and made a move to run for a state seat.

The experiences of Oliver and Walter also show Filipino-Australians have a great chance if we seriously enter the political arena. So what have we been doing?

A new group called Filipino Friends of Labor has emerged early this year. This is a network of Labor Party members and supporters whose shared goal is to support Filipino-Australians who have the passion and potentials to run for seats at local, state and federal governments.

To achieve this goal more effectively, the Filipino Friends of Labor has joined forces with a multicultural group of Labor Party members and formed the steering committee of the Labor Academy’s Diversity Fellowship Program.

The Diversity Fellowship Program aims to provide structured training and mentoring program for building and enhancing multicultural member’s knowledge of the Australian political system and the ALP’s organisational processes and practices, as well as community organising, campaigning and policy development skills. This will address many obstacles confronting young Australians of multicultural backgrounds to find genuine pathways to political activism and leadership. Previous and current ALP Prime Ministers and Ministers are in the line up of mentors and lecturers for the Fellows’ 12-month training program. Kevin Rudd, Steve Bracks, Wayne Swan, Penny Wong, Anne Ally and many others have volunteered in the program.

Two Filipino-Australians are joining the first batch of 12 multicultural Fellows, namely Oliver Squires and Andrea Rodriguez. They will be part of the launch of the program at the ALP National Conference in Adelaide on 18 December.

Andrea Rodriguez
Andrea Rodriguez

These Labor Party initiatives may be for its members only, however, there are other initiatives that may follow suit from other political parties. It is in their best interest to attract Filipino-Australians into their party.

Oliver Squires, for one, commented on his choice of the Labor Party: “For a young Filipino-Australian with a passion for social justice, sustainability, education and innovation, I was naturally drawn to the Australian Labor Party and became a member in 2010. The continued investment of funding by the Labor party into the prevention of domestic violence in Australia is of particular importance to me as I lost my Filipino-Australian mother to domestic violence as a child.”

On the other hand, Walter Villagonzalo had this to say why he ran for state seat: “I stood for the Parliament at 2018 State Elections for the same reasons that I did in the 2016 Council Elections – because I see the positions of MP and Councillor as a tool by which I can somehow influence decisions of government to benefit the Filipino, migrant and my local community.”

As for me, a Filipino Australian woman, I hope to see more women involved in electoral politics. I am happy to see that the ALP has achieved 50% women in the Victorian Parliament. It is also good to see the Liberal Party considering the use of quotas to attract more women into their party. However, achieving gender equality does not complete the goal of achieving a fair and democratic Australia if the sitting MPs and Councillors are still not representative of Australia’s culturally-diverse population that now makes 45% of its overall population.

Melba Marginson as Labor candidate in 2016 Maribyrnong Council election.
Melba Marginson as Labor candidate in 2016 Maribyrnong Council election.

For more information about the Filipino Friends of Labor and the Labor Academy, contact Melba Marginson on melbamarginson@icloud.com or Ollie Squires on: https://www.facebook.com/SquiresForMalvern/

(Editor’s note: Melba Marginson is a 2014 AFR & Westpac ‘100 Australian Women of Influence’ award recipient. She was inducted into the First Women’s Honour at the celebration of the Centenary of Federation 2001 in Victoria).

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