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The preselection battle for the safe Labor federal seat of Fowler would be contentious at the best of times but it may be seen as especially bruising now that Sydney has been unintentionally split almost on ethnic lines by COVID-19.

Former NSW premier-turned-Senator Kristina Keneally threw her hat into the ring to be chosen as candidate for the south-west Sydney electorate at the next election after she lost a factional battle and was allocated the almost unwinnable third spot on the ALP NSW Senate ticket.

It is never a great look when party heavies foist a high-profile candidate on a local seat for reasons of political expediency but on this occasion it may aggravate the resentment felt in the 12 hotspot areas of the NSW government’s lockdowns.

Ms Keneally will seek the seat ahead of another plausible candidate, Tu Le, a Vietnamese Australian community lawyer with close ties to the area who was being groomed for the job.

Ms Keneally is not responsible for the lockdowns, but Ms Tu says that Ms Keneally, who has lived for several years on exclusive Scotland Island on Sydney’s northern beaches, has little understanding of local issues. That said, Ms Keneally is a strong advocate for fairness and accountability in government and would undoubtedly work hard to be a vocal and impactful local member.

Residents of Fowler, which straddles the local government areas of Liverpool and Fairfield, complain that health authorities and police have adopted a discriminatory approach against them because of the high concentration of culturally and linguistically diverse residents. Only 16 per cent of people in Fowler say their ancestry is Australian or English. Although curfews ended on Wednesday, they still face the tightest restrictions on their right to leave their home.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has countered that Ms Keneally is herself a migrant, albeit from the US. Her backers say she represented the ethnically diverse set of Heffron at state level and she has the experience and skills to be a cabinet minister.

The Herald is not backing a horse in this race, ultimately this is a matter for the voters of Fowler. But the bitterness of the incident highlights the damage done by the lockdowns and international border closures to Sydney’s social fabric. It should spur the Labor and Liberal parties to put more effort into finding candidates who reflect Australia’s ethnic diversity in the same way they are striving to achieve greater gender equality and Indigenous representation.

The ALP has had more success here than the Coalition, partly because more of its voters are from ethnically diverse electorates. It can point to high-profile migrants such as opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong and WA Senator Anne Aly. But migrants and their children still hold only a few portfolios on the front benches of both parties.

Britain sets a strong example for Australia: the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the Home Secretary Priti Patel are both from migrant backgrounds.

Of course, the pursuit of ethnic diversity can go too far. In the US, candidates are sometimes scrutinised as much for their ethnic background as for their suitability for the job.

Yet, the role played by the MP for Lakemba, Jihad Dib, representing the Muslim community of south-west Sydney in the past few months shows the importance of having politicians who understand the aspirations and challenges of migrant communities.

The people of Fowler will have their say on election day, and the Herald hopes the preselection battle is resolved in the best interests of the constituency. But both parties must work harder to find candidates who can represent the ethnically diverse nation Australia is proud to be.

Note from the Editor

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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