PM’s Seat Hangs On Asian Vote

PM's seat hangs on Asian vote

Chris Johnston, Bennelong
The Age
November 20, 2007

THE little Chinese girls are standing in perfect rows in the classroom with dead-straight backs and heads held high as they sing Edelweiss in two languages in Bennelong.

Down in the yard the boys do martial arts, elsewhere there's craft and dancing. It's the Feng Hua Chinese community school with 200 pupils in total and on weekends they take over the Eastwood Primary School in the Asian centre of the Prime Minister's very multicultural Sydney seat.

Bennelong is now a place with twice the national average of people who don't speak English at home. Howard has never visited the Feng Hua school. Labor's Maxine McKew has been three times. They like her here. They admire Howard because he is the leader of the country, but they are warm towards McKew because she is warm to them.

“It's from her heart, it's not pretend,” says the community school's head teacher, Caroline Xu. “She's not just shake hands and go, she's like a friend. Some people, you feel with them like you can't touch, can't talk. But she smile, she happy.”

Xu says not many outside of the Chinese community in Bennelong knew her vibrant community school existed. “The first time Maxine came here she felt very surprised and interested to see us. She said she very much liked our lovely music,” she says.

And so the little girls sing Edelweiss together. First in Mandarin, then in English: “small and white, clean and bright bless my homeland forever”. It's modern Australian multiculturalism in a nutshell.

Parents volunteer here. I meet Kevin and Amanda Shi, of nearby Ryde. Kevin is a duty manager in a hotel, Amanda works in a hospital laboratory. His name was anglicised from Guo Jian and he thinks it's funny that it's the same as Kevin Rudd and that “Guo Jian” means “develop country”.

But still, “most Chinese people,” he says, “they keep it in their heart. They won't tell who they vote for.” The couple worry about interest rates. “We are the middle class,” Shi says. “We are working people.”

But they worry more about education, the same as many Chinese parents. They're looking at the differences between Labor and Liberal on schools before they vote. It's possible that the Prime Minister will lose his seat. The ethnic vote is big, but unpredictable.

The Shis, like most parents here, think McKew is good but they also feel Howard has helped them do all right in this country. That's despite reservations about migrant policy and old comments from him when he was in opposition about slowing Asian immigration. What they both really hate is Iraq. “Please,” says Shi, “please, no war.”

Howard made a fleeting visit to another Chinese school in Eastwood last Saturday, where he handed out awards and said: “Chinese-Australians have made a remarkable contribution to this country.”

Then on Sunday he visited a Korean church. He holds the electorate by a little over 4%, or 3500 votes.

Chinese in Bennelong number 12,000 the second-largest such community in Australia. The suburb of Epping, where McKew lives, is known to some white locals as “Ee-ping”. Koreans number about 5000 in the seat. Then there's the 7000 Italian-Australians and 4000 Armenians.

Yesterday McKew spent an hour at the Ryde Multicultural Centre. “Mainly with the old people,” said president Hagop Meguerbitchian, who is Armenian. “Indonesians, Lebanese, Syrians.”

McKew told her audience of 60 that she would like to be invited back whether she won Bennelong or not. She said the area having moved to it from Mosman six months ago was her community now.

Tomorrow Bennelong's battlers