The Changing Face Of A Nation’s Voters

The changing face of a nation's voters

Sushi Das
The Age
October 30, 2007

PAUL Keating once said that if you change the government, you change the country. But could things work the other way round? If you changed the country, would you change the government?

A heavy migrant inflow during the Howard years has altered the ethnic face of Australia. Traditionally, working-class migrants from southern Europe, particularly Greeks and Italians, have tended to side with Labor the party they believed championed their cause and embraced them with multicultural policies. But the migrant mosaic of Australia has changed.

More than one in five Australians are now born overseas and many more migrants have come from China, India, Korea and Sri Lanka. Increasingly, they are business people and professionals with university educations. Their English is good and they have a keen appetite for politics. Pinpointing their vote is not easy.

The two largest overseas-born groups are still those from the UK (19 per cent) and New Zealand (8.8 per cent). But people born in China now form the third biggest migrant group (4.7 per cent), and the Indians are the sixth biggest (3.3 per cent). At the same time, the size of the European-born population has decreased.

Judging by their social and economic backgrounds, Asian migrants should be disproportionately Liberal, says Professor Ian McAllister from the Australian National University, but the party has alienated them to some extent. Asians have not forgotten John Howard's 1988 statements on slowing down Asian immigration, and many feel he let them down by not standing up to Pauline Hanson's attacks on Asian immigration.

But Chinese and Indian migrants do not usually vote in a bloc, says Dr James Jupp from the Centre for Immigration and Multicultural studies at the ANU. “You can assume that, not all, but a very substantial part of (migrant) groups, are going to vote Labor, but when it comes to Chinese and Indians, they are very, very varied,” he says.

So despite Australia's migrants traditionally leaning to the left, the picture is unclear. What is undeniable, however, is that migrant votes will be most keenly felt in marginal Liberal seats that are home to significant numbers of Asians: Bennelong and Parramatta in NSW and, to a lesser extent, Deakin in Victoria.

Bennelong, Howard's seat since 1974, needs a swing of just 4.2 per cent to shift to Labor's high-profile candidate Maxine McKew who has lost no time cosying up to migrants in the electorate.

More than one in 10 Bennelong residents were born in China or Hong Kong, with a further 3 per cent born in Korea and more than 2 per cent in India. In the past five years the number of Chinese-born residents in Bennelong has almost doubled, from about 5000 to more than 9000, and about 15 per cent speak a Chinese language at home (almost as high as the 16.2 per cent in the safe Labor seat of Watson, NSW).

It is worth bearing in mind, says Jupp, that many Chinese-born residents in Bennelong are overseas students studying at nearby Macquarie University, and they are not eligible to vote. Nonetheless, many of those who can vote were so angered by Howard's reluctance to speak strongly against Hanson, they protested by withdrawing funds they were donating to the Liberal Party.

But sections of the Chinese community will vote Liberal, as they have always done. Albert Lee, the president of the Chinese Professional and Business Association, believes Chinese Australians want a government that can create a strong and prosperous country. “We don't like to see a party come to government and become controlled by another group, be controlled by certain unions and so on,” he says. “Most Chinese people have usually been Liberal voters because they believe in freedom, prosperity and self-enterprise.

“Of course we were very impressed because Kevin Rudd can speak Mandarin, because for a foreigner to speak another language it is not easy. But it does not mean that is the ultimate thing.”

Lee, who stresses that the association is not aligned to any party, argues that Chinese people are hard workers who rely on their own resources, and are therefore not moved by left issues such as welfare.

LIKE divisions in the general community, there are divisions within the Chinese community. Jim Wang, the owner of Spicy Fish, a restaurant in Melbourne's Chinatown, has been an Australian citizen for two years. He says Chinese Australians he mixes with are expecting Labor to make a comeback.

“We need some fresh air (It's) definitely Kevin Rudd. He's younger, more active and actually, he speaks Chinese very well. That's a very good thing. I've been here seven years and I've heard too much about John Howard. Getting bored of him.”

If Bennelong is vulnerable to the uncertainties of the migrant vote, then Parramatta in western Sydney is even more so. It is one of the most ethnically diverse electorates in the country, and one that is notionally held by the Liberals (after a redistribution) with a hair's-breadth margin of 0.9 per cent. More than 10 per cent of Parramatta residents speak a Chinese language at home.

However, Indians are the largest migrant group, accounting for more than 6 per cent of the electorate. Another 6 per cent were born in China and 2 per cent in Sri Lanka.

Raj Natarjan, the president of United Indian Associations, says large sections of Australia's Indian communities are furious with the Government over its handling of Mohamed Haneef the Indian-born doctor who was controversially charged with terrorism earlier this year only to have his visa cancelled when the case against him collapsed.

“I have no reason to believe that this dissatisfaction is not going to be reflected at the ballot box,” he says. “Those who were sitting on the fence before the Dr Haneef issue surfaced, I would say, will jump to the Labor side.”

In Victoria, where the migrant population is quite dispersed, most working-class migrants are concentrated along the corridor from Oakleigh to Dandenong Labor-held areas. But middle-class ethnic pockets are flourishing in electorates such as Menzies, held by Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews with a safe margin of 10.7 per cent.

Then there are migrants who live in marginal Labor seats, but feel the Coalition deserves another go. Take Indian migrant Nauras Sultan, 39, who owns a successful travel agency in Clayton. An Australian citizen for 20 years, she lives in the marginal Labor electorate of Chisholm, which needs only a 2.7 per cent swing for the Liberals to take control. Most Indians in her area favour Labor, she says, but a significant minority support Howard for his depth of experience and strong leadership.

“In Clayton there are low to middle-class earners. Politically, they lean towards Labor but they have got used to John Howard, myself included. Labor's policies attract me but I still feel John Howard is much better than Kevin Rudd,” she says.

Dr Bob Birrell from Monash University says Sydney remains the main settlement point for Labor-leaning migrants, and this has created a conundrum for the Government. People moving out of Sydney tend to be “Anglos”, he says, leaving behind a concentration of migrants who generally lean to the left. “So the Coalition Government has actually made it harder for itself in Sydney. Slightly ironic,” he says.

But as the ANU's Ian McAllister points out, Asian migrants are more likely to be swayed by issues than native-born Australians. Most come to Australia for economic success, he says.

“They are interested in the economy and education for their children. They are interested in getting on and they are not particularly hung up on particular cases like Haneef Their motive is economic, not political.”


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