The Labor Party’s recent decision to parachute Kristina Kenneally into the ethnically diverse electorate of Fowler came at the expense of Tu Le, a female Australian lawyer of Vietnamese background.

The decision revealed two things about politics in Australia. First, that female quotas work. Second, that if you are an Australian of Asian heritage, it’s difficult to join the political class. This is not news. The 2018 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that while nearly 21% of Australians are from a non-European background (excluding First Nations people who comprise an additional 3%), they make up just four per cent of Australia’s federal politicians.

Scrolling though the list of Australian leaders reveals this lack of representation. Scott, Dom, Dan, Mark, Steve, Pete, Andrew and Mike run the country, alongside one woman, Annastacia. Not one is of non-European background.

It is hard to understate the importance of a representative political class. A political class that acts in its own interests, or in the interests of a select few, is quite simply, not a democracy. A monarch rules to ensure power stays in the family line. An autocrat rules in his self-interest. In a civilian dictatorship, political decision-making rewards some and punishes others, as shown by the Russian and Chinese experience (think Chechens and Uyghurs respectively).

But a democracy is different. And democracy, at its core, is political decision-making that reflects the preferences – and better still, the interests – of the electorate. It is what drives democracy’s ability to achieve broad based economic growth. And it is what underpins the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s findings that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press”.

When a democracy’s political class fail to reflect their society, they almost certainly fail to make decisions that best serve the electorate’s interests.

Consider Anthony Albanese. Albanese knows his own interests. He will have a reasonable understanding of other fifty-year-old blokes from Marrickville. But the further he moves out, the less understanding he has. I suspect he does not properly understand the concerns of a typical thirty-year-old woman, and I am nearly certain he has no real sense of the needs and wants of politically under-represented groups such as the Vietnamese community. When Albanese makes decisions that affect politically under-represented communities, it is hard to see how he could be appropriately informed.

An identical point can be made with respect to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Simply replace Marrickville with Cronulla. It is this very reason why country folk want their local members to be country folk, and not people who, living in the city, neither understand the nuances of rural issues, nor have the same “skin in the game”, so to speak.

There are three principal ways to achieve a more representative political class: grassroots movements, targets and quotas. The logic for grassroots movements is that when party members better reflect Australian society, this translates into a similarly representative political class. But the proof is in the pudding. The Liberal and Labor Party have been compelled to introduce female quotas and targets because they have found grassroots movements to be insufficient. Targets are what is hoped for, but are not binding. But based on the Liberal Party’s experience with its target of 50% female representation across Australian parliaments by 2025, targets seem similarly impotent. Women account for just 28% of Liberal parliamentarians.

The most effective method to ensure the political class reflects society is quotas, something borne out by the international experience in Canada, New Zealand, Mexico and Sweden, and the domestic experience of the Australian Labor Party. When Labor first introduced female quotas in 1994, 13% of federal Labor parliamentarians were women. Today it is 48%.

There are a number of arguments against quotas. One is that quotas undermine politicians who are members of the quota group. But is Penny Wong’s career tainted by the fact that Labor has a female quota? And would we really think any less of Julie Bishop or Gladys Berejiklian had the Liberal Party had female quotas?

Another is that quotas are not “very democratic”. But this misunderstands democracy. Democracy is about collective decision-making that is responsive to the interests of citizens. It is not an unfettered Labor and Coalition duopoly, led by a handful of party executives and the estimated 1% of Australians who are party members (and if you think it is not a duopoly, try and name the last federal cabinet minister who wasn’t a member of one of these parties). Both groups have obligations that stretch beyond party members, and extend to all Australians. But do they recognise these duties? And how easily are they set aside when at odds with the interests of the party or the individual politician?

The argument against quotas that appears to have some merit is that quotas risk overruling other desirable characteristics such as intellectual capacity, political charisma or work ethic. This is not to say that under-represented groups don’t have equally great candidates. Rather, it acknowledges that in snap elections, or when relevant political branches or parties are disorganised or dysfunctional, the need to meet quotas may trump other factors.

And yet this overstates the purity of our preselection system. Deals get done. Mistakes happen. There are poorly qualified politicians who have won out over better qualified people. Sometimes the individuals we elect are criminals and other times they simply aren’t up to the job. It is unlikely well-defined quotas undermine the quality of our political class. Indeed, the evidence is pretty clear that the current system has led to the election of people who would never get into parliament if merit was the determining factor.

The argument for quotas based on ethnic or cultural background, sexual orientation or disability status, is not a popular one. Yet if female quotas are justified, it is difficult to see how quotas for other under-represented groups are not equally justified. There is, naturally, a limit to the number of groups that can be included. Groups would need to have a certain critical mass, be qualitatively different to other groups and be comprised of members of relevantly similar backgrounds.

But if we are serious about the need for the political class to reflect society, we should be serious about quotas for more than just women.

A qualification to this general argument is that all who are elected in a representative democracy are bound to bring their best judgement to bear when acting in the interests of the electorate as a whole. That is, the fact a person comes from a particular group does not mean they are its ‘delegate’. The point about quotas is not that one’s identity enables or precludes the possibility of providing ‘representation’ in this broader sense. Rather, quotas ensure that a diverse electorate can have confidence that when judgement is exercised then it will be informed by a range of considerations that include the experiences of all.

An Australian parliament without women or Indigenous people, without rural representatives, or without people of Asian heritage, cannot meet the range of interests of the electorate.. A broader quota policy would help Australia realise a more legitimate version of democracy. It may also mean that added to the names of Bob, Paul, John, Tony, and Julia, is a name like Tu or Dai.