The Liberals’ review of Chinese-Australian voters betrays more blind spots

Jan 4, 2023
Chinese Australians, Australia Day

The Liberal Party’s problem with Chinese-Australian voters became apparent after its loss in the May 2022 federal election. Post-election number-crunching reveals that in 15 seats with large concentrations of Chinese-Australian voters, the swing against the Liberals was 6.6 percent, in contrast to 3.7 percent in other seats.

And for those who were still not convinced that the Liberals’ anti-China rhetoric would lead to a significant loss of Chinese-Australian voters, the result of the state election in Victoria in November 2022 finally drove the message home. In that election, Labor succeeded in retaining the marginal seats of Box Hill and Ashwood, and also gained Glen Waverley, a previously Liberal seat. Tim Smith, the retiring Liberal candidate for Kew told Skynews audiences on election night that the Liberals’ loss was partly down to some Chinese voters, who had clearly taken the Liberals’ anti-China politics “personally.”

The view that the Liberal Party has a China problem became official in December 2022, when the Party released its internal review of the federal election. A couple of paragraphs from the review make interesting reading. According to the report, one of the myriad reasons contributing to the Liberals’ loss was:

A perception the previous Government’s criticisms of the CCP government of China included the wider Chinese community more generally. This was obviously incorrect but the Party’s political opponents pushed this perception among voters of Chinese heritage in key seats in 2022.

In response to this “incorrect” perception, the review states that “there is a particular need for the Party’s representatives to be sensitive to the genuine concerns of the Chinese community and to ensure language used cannot be misinterpreted as insensitive.”

A few erroneous assumptions are implicit in this assessment, as well as in the public statements made by some Liberal politicians in recent months.

First, the Liberals’ criticisms of the CCP government of China did include the wider Chinese community. This is not just a perception; it is a fact. For evidence, we need to look no further than the comments made by various Liberal politicians. Eric Abetz’s insistent request to the three Chinese Australians to denounce the Chinese Communist Party at the infamous Senate Inquiry is a most chilling example.

And you’d be wrong to assume that this position was limited to only a few individuals in the Liberal Party who are prone to extreme views. Questioning of Chinese-Australians’ loyalty can be much more subtle and insidious. In 2020, while announcing a grant scheme aiming to improve English literacy for migrants, Alan Tudge, Australia’s then acting Immigration Minister, observed with regret that some communities were still seen by their former countries as “their diaspora,” whereas he would like to see Australia’s migrants as “proud Australians.” Tudge did not mention any particular country, but as one journalist reporting on the announcement observed, he was referring to China. What seems to be implicit in his remark is that a Chinese migrant has to choose between being a member of a “diaspora” and being an “Australian.” To Tudge, either refusing to choose or failing to choose “correctly” would not be an acceptable option.

The review seems to make clear that the Liberal Party sees its election loss as not so much due to its position on China per se, but to the “incorrect” perception held by some Chinese Australians. In other words, Chinese-Australians were seen to be the problem; they were susceptible not only to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party but also to the political influence of the Liberals’ political “opponents”. Furthermore, as Tudge seems to imply, they were unable to tell the difference between the Liberals’ stance on China and its attitude towards Chinese-Australians. In other words, previously, it was mainly their loyalty that was questionable; now it seems that they were also gullible and incapable of forming their own judgements.

The Liberal Party’s second assumption is that anti-CCP and anti-China rhetoric has had nothing to do with the lived experience of Chinese Australians. This assumption is clearly wrong. A recent survey found that public attitudes towards Chinese communities in Australia and the US were “influenced by the overall impression of the Chinese Government,” and that the public’s “cold attitude” to the Chinese government in both countries had had a negative impact on the Chinese diaspora.

But ordinary Chinese-Australians – and to some extent Asian-Australians in general – do not need to find evidence from such an academic study to be convinced of such a connection. They know from their personal experience that there has been an increase in anti-Chinese, anti-Asian racism, as well as a public escalation of distrust, suspicion, and even hostility towards people of Asian appearance. This is further corroborated by an Australia-China Relations Institute’s study, which found that over four in 10 Australians (42 percent) believe that “Australians of Chinese origin can be mobilised by the Chinese government to undermine Australia’s interests and social cohesion.”

As I have observed before, when racists walk past a person of Chinese or Asian appearance on the street, in the shopping centre, or on public transport, they don’t pause to remind themselves that the Chinese government and Chinese-Australians are not the same; nor do they bother to ask if their targets support the CCP before hurling abuse or inflicting violence on them.

Blaming Chinese-Australian voters for “taking it personally” is insensitive as well as wrong. How can people not take the Liberals’ China rhetoric personally, if such rhetoric affects them in myriad and profoundly personal ways? Failure to see or acknowledge this key connection will ensure that the Liberals will be very unlikely to regain the trust they previously enjoyed with many Chinese-Australian supporters.

Of course, the so-called Chinese-Australian voter communities are diverse, even within the Mandarin-speaking, first-generation cohort. Interestingly, while some Chinese-Australian voters switched votes simply to protest against the Liberal Party’s hostile China rhetoric, some clearly had other reasons. So, in isolating “the China problem” as the sole reason for their loss of Chinese-Australian support, it seems that the Liberals are trapped in the mindset of seeing Chinese Australians as merely ethnic voters who tend to voting decisions mainly for racially or culturally specific reasons. This has struck some as somewhat a cop-out, if not racist.

A few people I talked to took issue with this assumption. One Perth-based Chinese Australian summarised this point succinctly:

When I walked into the voting booth and cast my vote, what I conjured up in my mind was a smirking Scott Morrison donning hibiscus flowers on his head and a Hawaiian T-shirt on his back. I thought of his attitudes to women, the hikes in my grocery bills, the lack of affordable housing, and so on. I wasn’t actually thinking about the Liberals’ position on China.

While the Liberals have acknowledged that they have a problem with Chinese-Australian voters, they still have no clue why they have such a problem, let alone how to fix it.

This is not simply a story about the Liberal’s obtuseness. It is also a cautionary tale for Labor and the Greens, and there are signs that Labor has begun the delicate and sometimes devilishly challenging task of charting a different direction in relation to China and the Chinese-Australian communities. So watch this space.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!