Why both Labor and Liberals fail to understand how to engage with Chinese Australian voters
During the final week before the NSW State Election, NSW Labor was pretty much red-faced when a video emerged of Michael Daley speaking at a “politics in the pub” event back in 2018. In this video, he made racist and offensive statements about Australian jobs being taken away by foreign workers, by singling out “Asians/Chinese who have PhDs”.
“Our young children will flee and who are they being replaced with? They are being replaced by young people from typically Asia with PhDs,”
“It’s not a bad thing because Asian kids are coming to work here, it’s a bad thing because I’d like my daughter to be living in Maroubra rather than St Kilda,”
Reading these words in isolation, you would not expect it coming out of the mouth of a Labor Party leader. Really, it is more like words, which come out of a far-right extremist or One Nation playbook. Granted, Daley did apologise for these comments, reiterated that he is not “racist”, and stated that he was referring to the housing affordability issue in Australia.
How much did Michael Daley’s comments influence the NSW State Election?
The question is how much impact did Daley’s comments make? Did it cost Labor the NSW State Election? Before I answer this question, let us look at some of the key seats where the Chinese Australian vote was important:
- In the seat of Kogarah, Labor’s Chris Minns who was running for re-election almost lost his seat to Scott Yung, a moderate Liberal candidate, who scored a 5.2% swing towards the Liberals;
- In the seat of Oatley, Liberal’s Mark Coure was re-elected with a 4.3% swing towards the Liberals.
- In the seat of Strathfield, Labor’s Jodi McKay was re-elected and even scored a swing of 2.9% towards Labor;
- In the seat of Ryde, Liberal’s Victor Dominello was re-elected, but it was Labor which scored a 2.9% swing;
- In the seat of Rockdale, Labor’s Steve Kemper was re-elected, and scored a 4.8% swing towards Labor;
- In the seat of Parramatta, Liberal’s Geoff Lee was re-elected, but it was Labor who scored a 1.1% swing.
From the results, it is clear that yes, Daley’s comments may have affected slightly on the votes, but it is wrong to assume that this was the only factor. Chinese Australian voters are no longer naïve, nor oblivious in understanding what motivates them to vote the way they do, and we are seeing different voting habits coming out of Chinese Australians. Asides from Kogarah and Oatley, which may have experienced a slight impact from these comments, the other seats where there is a concentration of Chinese Australian voters saw swings towards Labor, rather than the LNP, Greens, minor parties and independents. Chinese Australians are no longer just ignorant voters who will place their votes based on stereotyped issues, but they are now more politically active and are demanding action from their representatives when deciding who they will vote for.
Have Australian major political parties (Federally) faired in engaging with Chinese Australians?
The Chinese Australian vote has definitely evolved, but, what has not evolved and is going backwards, is how Australian political parties – namely the Liberal Party and the Labor Party have failed to engage with the community as equals. For the most part, Chinese Australian voices are invisible when the major policies are announced and this is because Australian political parties do not see Chinese Australian voters as an equal partner in their major policy announcements. Nor do they see Chinese Australians as viable candidates for safe and winnable seats. They also make the mistake of perceiving Chinese Australian voters as one monolithic community who can be convinced of who to vote for just by appearing on WeChat – a Chinese social media platform.
For example, Bill Shorten recently did a video appearance on WeChat, stating that if the Liberal Government is re-elected they plan to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to allow freedom for hate speech. In this video, he was joined by Jennifer Yang (Taiwanese Australian candidate for Chisholm) to urge Chinese Australian voters to put One Nation last on the ballot paper on Election Day. What this shows is that there is this perception that Chinese Australian voters are basic and will be easily swayed by issues around racism, and hate speech. There is generally no mention of other broader issues and policies because Chinese Australians are not seen as equals to “regular Australians”, inadvertently perpetuating the racial stereotype of a perpetual foreigner.
In backing this argument up, Chinese Australian writer and commentator, Jieh- Yung Lo discussed this issue around Shorten’s appearance on WeChat in a recent opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, titled: Chinese-Australians have had a gutful of politicians’ tokenism:
“When it comes to engaging multicultural voters, Shorten has made the same mistake that most of our politicians make – seizing on multiculturalism and migration as if these are the only issues we “ethnics” and “migrants” care about. Shorten’s WeChat moment is political tokenism at best, a horrible insult to Chinese-Australian voters at worst.
It demonstrates the “us and them” mentality is alive and well in Australian politics.”
Australian Labor will not win votes from the Chinese Australian community by just selling the points about One Nation, hate speech and Section 18C. They need to learn that what concerns the community are the everyday issues impacting on ALL Australians, and in order to sell this message and to engage the community’s concerns they need to look at elevating the voices and opinions of Chinese Australian voters within the party machine, as well as look at how they can go beyond tokenising and stereotyping the community. In the same vein, Scott Morrison and the Liberal Government are just as oblivious and ignorant as Shorten and Labor are.
Like Shorten, Morrison has also been busy on WeChat spouting similar rhetoric in the hopes that this will win over Chinese Australian voters. What would be much more conducive would be to analyse all the electorates, reach out to the community at a grassroots level, discuss how all policies concern Chinese Australians, instead of assuming what the community is concerned about.
In addition, an analysis of the electorates needs to be conducted in order for the political parties to ensure that they run candidates who culturally understand the community’s needs and who would adequately represent their interests. Currently, this is not happening on a nationwide scale and there are a host of electorates where the candidates are not representative of the population of Chinese/Asian Australian voters.
As a Sydney sider, I can easily think of a few electorates where both political parties are running candidates who culturally do not represent the population of the area. Two of the major Sydney electorates, which require this analysis and re-thinking of appropriate candidates, would be the electorate of Reid and the electorate of Bennelong.
Australian political parties need to start to sharpen up their perceptions about Chinese Australian voters and move away from the idea that Chinese Australians all think the same. As a Chinese Australian, I want to see greater representation within all political party ranks, I want to see Chinese Australians who have worked within the community at a grassroots level be run as viable candidates in safe and winnable seats.
From state politics to federal politics, significant changes need to be undertaken if parties and their leaders want to win Chinese Australian votes. If anything, going back to Daley’s comments what it shows is that Australian political parties are not even at this level of understanding, and that they are still struggling to understand that their words and actions are samples of their unconscious bias, casual racism and lack of cultural competency and insensitivity.
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