Australia’s Howard Fights To Save Seat Amid Immigrants’ Anger

Australia's Howard Fights to Save Seat Amid Immigrants' Anger

By Gemma Daley

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) — Kam Leung emigrated from Indonesia to Australia in 2003. While the 24-year-old has earned enough as a cook in the Sydney suburb of Epping to think about buying a house, he says he won't vote on Nov. 24 for Prime Minister John Howard as his local representative in Australia's parliament.

“He's been good for the economy, but in the past, he didn't want to let us in or wanted to ship us all back,'' Leung said. “I don't think the leopard has changed his spots.''

After 33 years in the House of Representatives, Howard, 68, is in danger of becoming Australia's first prime minister since 1929 to lose his seat. In some past campaigns, he has argued for stronger immigration controls, especially for Asians. Now his Bennelong district is 41 percent Asian, compared with 2 percent when he was first elected in 1974. A change last year in the district boundaries also added more lower-income families.

“Howard has been able to win people over at the last minute in previous elections playing the race or immigration card,'' said Malcolm Mackerras, a political analyst at the University of New South Wales. Now “he has to attract both the Asian and working-class vote.''

In a recent Galaxy poll, 52 percent supported the Labor Party's Maxine McKew, a former journalist, for the Bennelong seat; 48 percent supported Howard. The poll of 800 people was published Nov. 4 in News Ltd. newspapers.

Lagging Behind

Nationally, Howard's Liberal Party is lagging six points behind Kevin Rudd's Labor Party in a Newspoll published Nov. 6 in the Australian newspaper. Labor needs to win 16 additional seats in the 150-seat house to take power. Voting is compulsory for the 13.6 million Australians aged 18 years and older.

Howard is only the second person to hold the Bennelong seat since the district was created in 1949. If he loses locally and his coalition government with the National Party wins nationwide, the party will elect a new prime minister.

In his 1988 campaign, Howard called for reducing Asian immigration for the sake of “social cohesion.'' In the 2001 election, his campaign slogan was “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,'' and his strong stand against mainly Afghan refugees trying to sail to Australia was considered a turning point for his victory locally and nationally.

Family Values

Now, Howard praises Asian entrepreneurial and family values. Chinese lanterns hang in his constituency headquarters, and he's opened a campaign office in the mostly Asian suburb of Eastwood. In May, he hosted 600 local voters to a special event where his speech was translated into Cantonese.

Bennelong has the highest proportion of Mandarin speakers of any district, and about 58% of its 192,400 population is first- or second-generation Australian, compared with 40.5 percent for the nation as a whole.

Some 938,000 foreigners have settled in Australia since Howard became prime minister in 1996, with annual immigration doubling since then.

The shift isn't popular with some residents of Ermington, which became part of Howard's district when the boundaries were changed. The working-class neighborhood voted Labor in the last election, in 2004. Only one third of the residents own their homes, and 20 percent live in government-subsidized housing. The average weekly wage is A$422 ($388) compared with the national average of A$1,090.

`Too Many Asians'

Vietnam War veteran and butcher Bob Morgan says Howard has lost touch with “ordinary Australians'' and has allowed in “too many Asians.''

In an Oct. 19 interview at the Ermington Hotel bar, Morgan, 82, and his friends George Williams, 60, and Fred Johnson, 87, complained about a lack of adequate health care and government work laws they say give bosses too much power. They also said they won't benefit from Howard's proposed tax cuts.

Such criticism has created an opening for McKew, 54, a former television presenter at the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “The people of Bennelong feel left behind by Howard,'' McKew said. “Labor offers new leadership and fresh ideas for working families,'' she said.

The prime minister is more popular in Beecroft, where the average income is triple that of Ermington.

“Howard can be trusted to run the economy well, and if things aren't broken, why fix them?'' said Leila Doyle, a mother of seven who plays tennis three times a week at Beecroft Lawn Tennis Club, the second-oldest in Sydney. “Things are going along quite nicely; it's too risky to change.''

Record Growth

As he did in his successful 2004 campaign, Howard is warning that the Labor Party can't be trusted with the economy, promising to extend a record 16 years of growth “make sure everyone gets a share of it.''

“The greatest dividend from a strong economy is a job, and every electorate, including mine, is enjoying a healthy labor market,'' Howard told reporters on Oct. 20. Australia's unemployment rate in October was 4.3 percent, near a 33-year low.

That isn't persuading Karen Page, a 32-year-old nurse who voted for Howard in four local elections but isn't supporting him this time.

“I really like him as a person, but I think he has been there long enough,'' she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gemma Daley in Canberra at

Last Updated: November 8, 2007 12:22 EST