|NSW state Liberal candidate Dai Le|
In the last Federal Election, the Liberal Party fielded a number of Asian candidates - Wayne Tseng, John Nguyen and Fazal Cader in the Victorian seats of Calwell, Chisholm and Hotham respectively, and Thomas Dang, Ken Nam and Jaymes Diaz in the NSW seats of Fowler, Watson and Greenway. (Labor had only one Federal candidate of Asian descent, Joy Banerji in the Melbourne seat of Menzies). All of them lost, mind you.
Of course, if it seems like the Liberals are a sudden champion of Asian-Australians in politics, it's worth noting that all those candidates were running in Labor strongholds, and despite a large nationwide swing against the Gillard government, none of them managed to wrest their seat from Labor. So I get the impression that the Liberals might see Asian-Australian candidates as possible wild-cards in working-class seats with large numbers of migrants (which the Libs don't expect to win anyway), yet won't risk them in the more marginal seats in which there are less Asian voters.
It was only in 2006 that Asian-Australians were touted as a significant asset for Labor, due in large part to Kevin Rudd's apparent affinity for China and his ability to convincingly recite a few phrases of Mandarin. Previous PM John Howard even lost his own seat of Bennelong in Sydney due in large part to the large numbers of Asian residents who plumped for Rudd. But with Rudd usurped by Julia Gillard, I wonder how much of that voting bloc dropped off.
It is worth noting that despite having long favoured Labor, Asian-Australians are not necessarily a natural fit for a Left-leaning party. (Yes I know, Labor haven't been Left-wing for years, but in the traditional dichotomous view of Australian politics they are the Left to the Liberal Party's Right.) The Liberals are the party of business, of the "haves", and of the social conservatives. Many Asians fit into these categories, or are moving more and more into them. Communities such as the Chinese and Indians are increasingly strongly represented in high-income professional spheres which lean more to Liberal. Interestingly, the other party that has fielded a significant number of Asian candidates has been Family First, which draws substantially from a large Chinese contingent in the Assembly of God movement.
So why have Asian-Australians traditionally been such staunch Labor supporters? Because despite the former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser being a key figure in Australia accepting Indo-Chinese boat people in the late 70s and early 80s, something went horribly wrong after that. John Howard, in his first stint as Liberal Opposition Leader, publicly called for a reduction in Asian immigration. This alienated much of the Asian electorate, and Labor, under pro-multicultural Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, cemented their identity as the champions of migrant Australians. Years later Howard would retreat from that stance, but it shouldn't be ignored that Pauline "Australia is being swamped by Asians" Hanson started her political career as a Liberal candidate. And it was Howard's stealthy co-opting of her xenophobic attitude towards refugees that spelled the demise of Hanson and her One Nation Party; the Liberals somehow got away with labelling One Nation as extremists while standing for virtually the same things.
Today, I'm not sure if Asian voters recall that Howard didn't want them here in the first place. Maybe it no longer matters. Despite the Liberals' recent hardline stance towards asylum seekers, many Asian voters (even those who were former refugees themselves) seem to have little empathy for the recent waves of South Asian and Middle Eastern refugees. It's a classic "get in and shut the door behind you" mentality.
The Vietnamese community is an interesting example of a voting bloc that may be in transition. Compared to the Chinese, it is more strongly working-class, rooted in Labor strongholds like Cabramatta and the Melbourne suburbs of Springvale and Footscray. Howard's racism in the 80s certainly left an opportunity which Labor seized with both hands, and as a result the Vietnamese vote was virtually guaranteed for Labor. Yet as people who fled from a Communist regime, there are many Vietnamese-Australians who are naturally suspicious of Labor's occasionally left-leaning tendencies. And as a very aspirational community which is increasingly moving into the middle class, the Liberal Party is quickly making up lost ground.