If the political parties consider that the top politicians should mirror the electorate, people with disabilities represent the voters no one wants.
All political parties are aware that there has to be a certain correlation between their own representatives and the voters whom they want to attract. A party without a geographical balance at the top has for a long time equalled political suicide in Norwegian politics. The last decade’s gender balance has become equally important in almost all parties. But this also represents the end of this kind of awareness.
The Norwegian Labour party now defines itself as a party that celebrates equality because they have decided that “all posts, committees and appointments in the party shall have 50 percent representation of each sex”. This decision has had absolute consequence for the gender balance among government ministers, state secretaries and political advisers.
To claim that a country’s political leadership is “equal”, when 97,5 percent is white, heterosexual and non-disabled, may seem a bit odd. This represents a distinct underrepresentation of a number of minorities, as only about 75 percent of Norway’s population actually is white, heterosexual and non-disabled.
16 percent entirely absent
The few attempts to establish diversity in the political elite have, as to now, been not very inclusive. Not a single minister, state secretary or political adviser is a disabled person. There is no one in parliament either.
According to Statistics Norway 16 percent of the population are disabled. Sixteen percent can look at the government and the parliament and point out that they are not at all represented.
While gays, lesbians and people with immigrant background have established their presence further down in the party ranks, disabled politicians are scarce even here.
It is a general political consensus about the importance of getting more people with disabilities and immigrant background into the work force. The minister of labour and social inclusion, Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, maintains that “the aim is that the state as an employer should mirror the diversity in the population”.
All such efforts sound strangely off key as long as the government and the political parties not themselves are able to mirror this diversity.
An elected politician represents, of course, not only his or her own constituency, gender, disability, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation. One’s political views and personal aptitude are what counts.
The strict rules about gender representation in most parties nevertheless establish a focus on the representativity in a larger context. It has become a basic requirement that any group of politicians should more or less reflect the population at large.
White, heterosexual, non-disabled women do no longer feel themselves represented by groups where they are invisible. The political parties have also adjusted their own recruitment practices after this change of view. But when parties demand that the population gender representation should be absolutely mirrored in political life, they should look closer at other factors which often represent a discrimination ground in society.
Just as white, heterosexual, non-disabled women question whether male politicians alone may advocate their interests; one may ask whether groups consisting of for example only non-disabled politicians really can represent the interests of people with disabilities.
When most parties insist that their politicians should mirror the gender balance of the general population, one should rightly question to what degree we, the 25 percent of the population who are not white, heterosexual and non-disabled, are represented in a Parliament where 97 percent are white, heterosexual and non-disabled? In what way are we represented by an administration where all ministers are white, heterosexual and non-disabled?
The fight against discrimination
It is vital for the politicians to be in the forefront in the struggle against discrimination in society. As the Labour party points out, “improper gender balance in leading positions in society is a question of culture, determination and ability to break a tradition of male leadership. Systematic effort is necessary to change attitudes, culture and the processes of recruiting.”
Other traditionally discriminated groups suffer similarly. There is a general consensus about this. The Norwegian Parliament has also decided that everybody shall have the same protection against discrimination, regardless discrimination ground. It is thus surprising this focus on diversity and equal rights in society at large has not led to similar consequences within the political parties.
The voters no one wants?
More than anything else the political parties want to attract voters. This is their raison d’être. The demand of a strict gender balance is, of course, also related to the fact that the parties hope to secure the female vote. No party dare to treat white, heterosexual, non-disabled women as voters who will come their way regardless of representation.
The very same parties can surely not mean that gays, lesbians, people with disabilities and immigrant background are incapable of representing themselves?
25 percent of Norway’s population is hardly represented at all in the top of the political system. This represents such a great part of the electorate that the whole political landscape can be severely shaken.
Labour or Liberalists, Socialists or Conservatives? Who will start the race to create truly inclusive parties where we all feel represented?
Who wants us as voters?
Dag Øistein Endsjø
Leader of the Norwegian Human Rights Alliance