Somewhere along the road to May 18, the Australian media discovered multicultural Australia, and began to sense its import and influence. Journalists who could speak Putonghua or track threads through WeChat, or tap away on one of the many desi social media, suddenly found they were in demand. Names never before seen on by-lines suddenly were paired with the old guard Euro-Australian reporters.
While a rigid hierarchy of race and culture persists on the more conservative side of Australian politics, even there the new communities (by which is meant Asian, Middle Eastern and African) have monetised their networks in the political marketplace. So what does this mean for this election?
The ABC’s Antony Green identifies 48 electorates as “key” in the May 18 election. Nine of those or nearly twenty percent have major non-European voting populations. At the margins where the swing may be less than 4% to change party and government, recent immigrants from someplace other than Europe or the Americas (from the last thirty years) may well determine the outcome, and in totally unpredictable ways. Moreover down the track we may realise that Election 2019 was the last White Australia election, in which Euro-Australians dominated the parliamentary seats and both major party leaderships, and where xenophobia was the insistent leitmotif of the Right.
Let’s start with “the Chinese”, all one million plus of them speaking many different dialects, reading one or two mutually comprehensible texts, and holding many political points of view. They make up a rapidly increasing component of middle class Australia, and are heavily concentrated geographically. As immigrants they are very much better educated than the Australian average, and heavily concentrated in key professions and businesses where they expect to be effective and successful.
Their press for educational performance wraps their children in a deep cloak of expectation and possibly to some extent separation from other communities. Any immigrants born since about 1980 and brought up in post Tiananmen PRC were fully socialised with the post-revolutionary hua ren identity of anthropo-nationalism. They don’t like anti-Chinese sentiment, or to have stereotypical Chinese paraded across the nation’s TV screens which label them as corrupt, subversive and untrustworthy. They can even think HuaWei (translates China is Able/ Splendid Achievement) phones are the way to go, and they have social media networks were discussion is vigorous and engaged.
Mainly they blame the Liberal government and its advisors for the appalling sinophobia that has been unleashed. Paul Keating so carefully castigated these people as “berko” about China, and Bob Carr has noted the damage caused by their throw-away hysteria that casts everyone as potential traitors. While very few Chinese Australians (though perhaps too many of their critics) still follow the lead offered by Falun Gong paperEpoch Times with its anti-Labor fake news (now removed) and its closeness to the anti-PRC tripos of the defence intelligence cabal, the ABC and the Fairfax (Nine) coterie, many more are thrilled by Kevin Rudd joking on WeChat, or carefully crafted videos of the ALP Asian ice queen Penny Wong, having the network hang on her every word.
So how has the Euro-Australia White centre come to grips with the multicultural periphery? Over the last decade as Australia has become increasing polyglot and multiracial, the elites have become insistently Euro- if not Anglo-Australian. Cast an eye across the front benches of both parties in the federal parliament (blinking to miss Penny Wong), survey the High Court, check out the Board of the ABC, the chairs and CEOs of the top ASX200 companies, or the Chancellors, Vice Chancellors and Councils of our universities, you will not see a range of people that a quick walk down Swanson St or George St would reveal. So the “multicultural policies” of the majors (the right wing micros have a unity ticket to get rid of both the policy and many of the people who might be covered by them) give a good sense of how the mindscape of diversity looks in the political heartland.
The Government has a complex field to plough, and has chosen a mix of gifts, emergency program fixes, and non-specific programs that include culturally diverse communities in the general population they claim to benefit. The Coalition’s proxy thought tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, which numbers among its supporters Tim Wilson, a self-described “modern Liberal” and other Liberal luminaries, is closely linked to the Murdoch media camp and especially Andrew Bolt, a fierce anti-multiculturalist. The Institute retains as its second policy demand of any Liberal government, that Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act be abolished. While it has been parked for 2019 (the IPA labels it a policy that should be adopted but won’t be), it continues to mark out for many the Coalition’s comfort zone on cultural diversity. Key areas of interest – namely “religious freedom” and “freedom of speech” with their contradictory impacts on different groups – have been left in limbo, despite the press from the IPA to get rid of what it sees as constraints on freedom of speech, and the demands from the religious right for the freedom to act on whatever religious beliefs they hold.
The “gifts” are reflected in propositions such as the $5 million Budget promise for the Greek community in Melbourne for a cultural project (approved following direct negotiations through Sen. Arthur Sinodinos with the Prime Minister), and $2.5 million to the Indians in Melbourne for a cultural centre. The ethnic vote old and new has been identified as crucial. There are over 130,000 people who identify with a Greek ancestry in Victoria, for instance in Higgins (where there is a concentration of Greek Australians). There are over 180,000 Victorians identifying as Indian, with nearly 30,000 in the safe ALP seat of Lalor, but significant groups in Bruce, Gorton, Chisholm, Hotham and Scullin.
The emergencies include support for ethnic small business in dire need of innovation, and “navigators” in response to the crisis in aged care for older non-English speaking citizens for whom access and appropriate services are very hard to find. The Coalition has rejected outright any consideration of a Multicultural Australia Act (in the minority dissenting report from the Senate Inquiry into Strengthening Multiculturalism 2017). In all the low profile on multicultural policy and anti-racism will continue if the government is returned – likely to be pressed into an even smaller space under pressure from the senate right wing (and its own).
The ALP is also holding back on any legislative underpinning for multicultural institutions, priorities and protections. It has however announced a more comprehensive policy than the Government with about $40 million in the pot, plus $55 million in security protection for religious schools and places of worship. The key institutional innovation, “Multicultural Australia”, is a small “body” probably in whatever Department Tony Burke heads, with a string of Commissioners across the country to stimulate take-up of citizenship, research into community issues, and advocacy of multicultural values. There is no indication what will happen to the Australian Multicultural Council, a very conservative group of government appointees whose impact over the past three years has been hard to discern. Also the Government’s Budget promises would be reviewed after an ALP election win.
Funding for festivals and the arts returns, while language schools also get additional support. In a move with many undetailed repercussions the ALP has uncapped parental visas, doubled the number of parents per family to be allowed in, and cut the fee for the visas. The Murdoch media has condemned the move, claiming it would flood western Sydney with older, needy and uneducated migrants, threatening the capacity of transport and hospitals to cope; the NSW Liberal government has also condemned the move.
The Greens offer their already circulating draft legislation for a national multicultural commission, a cog tighter than the ALP “body” and with a legislated commitment to multiculturalism. They have responded to the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils call for an extension of the Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, to include a Multicultural Commission. Many of the Greens’ proposals are foreshadowed in the findings of the 2017 Senate Inquiry, which was chaired by the Greens’ Sen. Richard di Natale.
On the ground
Both the ALP and the Liberal Party, apparently, have chosen most of their non-Euro Australian candidates to run in seats safe for the other side. Thus the ALP’s Clare MP, Bowen MP and Burke MP are confronted by Tan, Singa and Zaman for the Liberals, while Selveraj (ALP) confronts Hawke MP (Liberal). In one of the tightest seats however Gambian (ALP) faces off in the very marginal Banks electorate with Coleman (Liberal). A number of candidates for the conservative side have fallen due to their revealed pre-history of online xenophobia or racism.
This election seems to mark a decisive “coming of age” for communities of colour as recognised and courted players in the political league. However as they accelerate their participation, the whiter political elites also show that they are reluctant to allow their power to be wrested from the tribes to which they themselves belong. Whether 2019 turns out to be the last of the White Australia elections will depend in its aftermath on the state of the parties, and the aspirations and resilience of the citizens in the new cultural diversity that will help determine the election outcome.
Andrew Jakubowicz, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney, publishes the website Making Multicultural Australia.