Reimagining diversity in political participation and leadership

1st August 2022

In May 2022, Australia elected its most diverse Federal Parliament, with increased numbers of women, First Nation Australians, and Australians of non-European backgrounds. Yet, there is still much work to be done, not only in Australia. In Asia, the Pacific and globally, men continue to dominate political institutions, with minorities absent, underrepresented or marginalised. How do we strive for better political leadership—be that in Parliaments or grassroots political action and everything in between? How do we deepen understanding of over and underrepresentation in political leadership, and do something about it?

These were some of the fundamental questions posed at a signature workshop held from 13 to 15 July 2022—Gender and Cultural Diversity in Politics: Australia, Asia and the Pacific. The workshop was led by Associate Professor Tanya Jakimow with Elena Williams, in a collaboration between the ANU Gender Institute, School of Culture, History & Language (CHL), the Global Institute for Women's Leadership (GIWL) and the Centre for Asian Australian Leadership (CAAL).

On these issues, there is no shortage of research and initiatives. Where this workshop differed was in attempting to challenge the conventional ways we produce knowledge towards these ends.


Disrupting knowledge practices

First, the workshop aimed to disrupt Euro-America as the site of theoretical development, and the provincialisation of the rest of the world. Too many of our ways of understanding politics are derived from experiences of either side of the Atlantic, with Asia, Oceania, and the rest of the world, treated as case studies to which these analytical lenses are applied, rather than a site of theory development in themselves. The aim was to theorise from Asia and the Pacific, to develop new conceptual tools to understand these enduring questions.


Second was disrupting the idea that research in Asia and the Pacific is relevant to Australia only inasmuch as it satisfies its national interests to know its neighbours, but when Australia seeks to know itself, it turns to the UK, the US, Canada. There are good reasons to do so. We are a settler state, a multicultural nation, and have similar political institutions. Yet to ignore the rich insights from Asia and Oceania is to limit our creativity with which we tackle fundamental problems. Among these problems, none are quite as urgent as the gross underrepresentation of people of non-European Ancestry, in our political institutions, especially Asian and Pasifika Australians.

Third, by bringing together people from different scholarly backgrounds, the workshop aimed to get past the disciplinary silos that limit our understanding of politics. It makes sense that political science is at the forefront of scholarship on politics. Yet, often, conversations in the discipline seem insular. At the same time, while anthropology—for example—has powerful tools to understand politics, rarely do anthropologists seek to enter these conversations. These are complex problems, requiring interdisciplinary approaches, not disciplinary parochialism.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the organisers aimed to break down the false distinction between theory and practice. We are less interested in theorising for theory’s sake. Action is also more impactful when guided by scholarship. Knowledge is not only produced in academic institutions, but through practice. Hence, the effort to bring practitioners, change-makers, academics and social researchers together, to co-produce knowledge that is richer, conceptually grounded, and with more potential for social impact. These four interventions—challenging Euro-American centrism, Australia learning from and with Asia and the Pacific, tackling disciplinary parochialism and demolishing silos of theory and action—informed the curating of the event. These are not exactly new or innovative ambitions, but arguably are not strived for enough. They require people from different disciplinary, regional, professional backgrounds to come together. The collaboration between our four ANU institutions, each with different institutional strengths and goals, made this possible, while also demonstrating why ANU is a great place for this dialogue.


A packed agenda…

The success of the collaboration is found in the diversity of events, speakers and panels at the workshop. The symposium kicked off with two pre-program events on 12 July—A Pacific Dialogue and a PhD and Early Career Researcher (ECR) workshop.

The Pacific Dialogue—chaired by Emerita Professor Margaret Jolly (ANU), focused on generating change by generations of women in Oceania, connected issues of gender justice and climate justice. Presentations from speakers, in person and online offered innovative insights from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Fiji, Kanaky/New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomons and Vanuatu. They traced the long history of feminist, environmental and independence movements across Oceania, examined how colonisation and Christianity had obscured precolonial patterns of women’s power, and how women further challenge masculinist parliamentary politics and regional and international diplomacy. An energetic emphasis on building alliances across countries and generations and on reconceptualizing women in politics from a locally led, decolonial perspective flowed into the opening panel of the workshop on 13 July.

Meanwhile, the PhD and Early Career Researcher (ECR) workshop offered PhD students and ECRs the opportunity to network, build linkages across institutions, and hear from panellists in two sessions, ‘Breaking through the Q1 barrier as an ECR: Publication strategies’, and ‘Advocating for better gender policy outcomes: combining practitioner experience and academic research’.

The first two days of the three-day workshop proper focused on research from Asia and the Pacific, before we turned to lessons for Australia’s political landscape for the latter day and a half? . There were 42 research papers delivered in 14 panels, addressing and opening debate on a wide-ranging set of themes within the larger realm of gender and politics —intersectionality, representation, political pathways, feminist action beyond politics, racism in politics, to name a few.

In addition, two panels with ‘change-makers’ (in this case practitioners and activists), discussed how we can translate research into social impact, social action into knowledge, and build productive and respectful relationships between activists, practitioners, researchers and scholars. A further praxis panel led by International Women’s Development Agency considered the potential for a feminist foreign policy in Australia.

Two signature events made key interventions in the discussion. The ANU Gender Institute Public Forum ‘Disruptions, Innovations and Departures’, aimed to refresh thinking by centring scholarship, theory and feminist action from Asia and the Pacific to challenge and disrupt structures of political domination in Australia, and globally. Orovu Sepoe (Independent consultant, Papua New Guinea), Ramona Vijeyarasa (University of Technology, Sydney), Margaret Jolly (Australian National University) and Srila Roy (University of the Witwatersrand) challenged the audience to think about the concepts we use, the scholarship we draw on, what we think of ‘gender’ and of ‘leadership’.


The highlight of the third and concluding day was the Centre for Asian Australian Leadership (CAAL) in Conversation event, Navigating Australian Politics as a Woman of ‘Colour’. The director of CAAL, Jieh-Yung Lo, facilitated a lively and hard-hitting discussion between four elected representatives Hon. Elizabeth Lee, MLA Member for Kurrajong, Liberal Leader ACT Legislative Assembly; Cr. Charishma Kaliyanda, Councillor for Liverpool; Jenny Leong MP, Greens Member for Newtown; and Fatima Payman, Senator for Western Australia. They shared their experiences, frustrations but also hopes for Australia’s political landscape.

An unfinished project...

Did we achieve our ambition of disrupting knowledge and practice on diversity in political leadership? Not yet, but key questions were raised and ways forward mapped out. These start crucially by examining our own practices of knowledge making and what we mean by disruption. What are our own positionalities from which we aim to disrupt (or maintain the status quo)? Are we really challenging knowledge hierarchies, the appropriation of knowledge and silencing of voices within the academy, and in fruitful dialogue with others? Have we come to terms with ‘whiteness’ in our institutions, and what do we need to do to meaningfully decolonise?

The workshop’s contribution to addressing these questions and problems was modest, but the organisers like to think of it as the start of a conversation and agenda for action. These will continue through two planned edited collections, Engendering Politics: Asian and Pacific Frames for Transforming Research and Action (edited by Tanya Jakimow, Margaret Jolly, Sonia Palmieri and Ramona Vijeyarasa) and Re-thinking Asian-Australian Leadership (edited by Mridula Nath Chakraborty, Olivia Khoo and Jacqueline Lo).


The conversations exploring ongoing actions and collaborations willalso continue. The vision for this workshop was to serve as a launching pad for real work that remains to be done in this space, so that the people leading change can foster a better political culture and environment for tomorrow.

Workshop Media Gallery



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