Friday, April 1, 2011

Are Asian-Australians moving towards voting Liberal?

Interesting story last week here on ABC News about the Asian vote leading up to the New South Wales election, in which the Labor Party was resoundingly defeated. There is a sense that Asian-Australian voters are no longer a lock for Labor, as the Coalition have belatedly realised that it is an important constituency which they ignore at their peril.

NSW state Liberal candidate Dai Le
Dai Le, the Vietnamese refugee turned Liberal Party candidate, needed a record 29% swing to win the heavily Asian working-class seat of Cabramatta and beat Labor incumbent Nick Lalich. She fell short with a swing 26%, but that in itself is a remarkable shift.

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.

4 comments:

  1. "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."

    I think the Asians in Australia are just a bit behind the US Asians in their learning curve. Initially they backed McGovern and Carter..65% and then swung towards, Reagan and Bush Sr. In 1992, 65% of the Asians went for Bush Sr. then it changed for good (as of now) by 1996..white people, particularly the Republicans, began turning on Hispanics and Asians in 1994. Harrassment of Asians increased in California. In a major incident back in 1994, a couple of Asian girls, daughters of billionaires were harrassed by white police officers in Huntington Beach...and the rest we know is history. Abbott talked about caps on skilled migration...why...a significant proportion is Asian..right leaning whites will turn on the Asians like they did in 1994 US and 1996 Australia...and the rest will be history!

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  2. I'm from WA. All the Asian families we knew voted for the Liberal party - even during the Hanson years. And yes, there was that lack of empathy for newer arrivals and I suppose the adults didn't have to put up with as much bullshit from the Hanson years as their kids did at school. Adult migrants tend to accept that there is a level of discrimination that comes along with being a migrant.

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  3. Also, Gen-Y kids who are voting will have no memory of Pauline Hanson. For them, she's that Ronald McDonald looking lady who was on dancing with stars.

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  4. @ e: "Also, Gen-Y kids who are voting will have no memory of Pauline Hanson. For them, she's that Ronald McDonald looking lady who was on dancing with stars."

    Agreed, which is why I think it was a terrible thing for Channel 7 to include her on that show.

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