What Scott did, and what Labor needs to undo: How to retain the Chinese-Australian Vote

Jun 2, 2022
Chinatown Melbourne at night
Almost all areas that have more than ten percent of voters of Chinese ancestry have swung to Labor. Image: Pixabay

‘Is there anything that you specifically think Anthony Albanese would do better?’ a journalist in the National Press Club asked Grace Tame, the 2021 Australian of the Year, and a fearless champion for women in Australia. Tame answered, ‘All Anthony would have to do is none of the things that Scott’s done.’

If Chinese voters were asked what they think Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong would do better in dealing with the China challenge, the same logic as Grace Tame exercised could be equally applicable: ‘All Anthony and Penny would have to do is none of the things that Morrison, Dutton and their Liberal colleagues have done in relation to China.’

So, what are the things that Scott has done that Labor should seek to undo?

To start, Labor needs to put down the loudhailer, hunt around to find the long-neglected and overgrown diplomatic pathways that once joined the two nations. Internationally, this means avoiding taking the provocative bait from China’s warrior diplomats, or from the jingoistic end of the Chinese state media spectrum. Domestically,

Labor needs to be wary of playing into the hands of those media outlets whose business it is to create fear and anxiety. As some commentators point out, amplifying risk and conflict by framing China’s actions in terms of threat and competition is not in Australia’s national interest. It also alienates Mandarin-speaking Chinese Australians, and gives impetus to racism against Australians of Asian appearance.

Labor needs to learn to talk about China in more sophisticated and nuanced language, and avoid the black-and-white, binary, us-or-them logic and rhetoric that the Coalition virtually cultivated into an art form. The need to display less public aggression and avoid the language of war is emphasised in a recent open letter to the new Prime Minister and Penny Wong, which was signed by fifteen senior China Studies scholars, including the directors of all the major China research centres in the country.

This does not mean Labor should refrain from criticising China when criticism is due, whether it be on issues of human rights, political oppression, media censorship, or other matters where we believe our own performance as a nation is beyond moral reproach.

Rather than considering Chinese-Australian citizens as little more than China’s ‘diaspora’—citizens whose loyalty needs to be tested—Labor should treat Chinese Australians first and foremost as rights-bearing Australian citizens. Rather than viewing them primarily as potential foreign interference assets, or as actual agents of China’s influence, or conversely as victims in need of protection from the Chinese government’s persecution, the new government should respect them as fully-fledged Australians, and seek ways to undo some of the damage that the past decade or so has wrought on these communities.

Labor should reaffirm its policy of multiculturalism, which not only tolerates but actively encourages positive expressions of cultural identity and a dual sense of belonging. Labor should realise—as they seem to do quite easily with other multicultural communities—that expressions of cultural affinity by Chinese Australians are quite distinct from expressions of endorsement and support for the Chinese government and its policies.

Labor should build on its strong track record on fairness and equity, and take concrete steps—in terms of both policy initiatives and rhetoric—to curb racism against Chinese Australians and Asian Australians in general.

Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China in the Whitlam government and one of our country’s most seasoned diplomats, must have been entertaining a similar wish list to this in his discussion of the newly elected Prime Minister’s public response to Premier Li Keqiang’s congratulatory message on behalf of China. Fitzgerald observes with frustration, ‘Instead of waiting to respond diplomatically and privately to Li, he picked up the megaphone and spoke defiantly of Australian values in the way Morrison used to, uncalled for by the tone and content of Li’s conciliatory message and running up the trademark flag of the Morrison/Dutton duo.’

Why Did Chinese Australians Swing to Labor?

Initial analyses of election data indicate that almost all areas that have more than ten percent of voters of Chinese ancestry have swung to Labor. This is borne out by the fact that four electorates with a high concentration of Chinese-Australian voters that I have been following closely since the start of the election campaign—Chisholm in Victoria, Tangney in WA, Reid and Bennelong in NSW—have all swung to Labor. While the overall swing to Labor has also enabled them to retain some seats such as Parramatta, even in safe Liberal seats such as Mitchell, where the Chinese voters are concentrated in a particular area, the swings to Labor is still clear to see at the level of individual booths.

It now seems clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the Coalition’s consistently anti-China rhetoric and policies have cost them large numbers of votes. Many previously rusted-on Liberal voters from various Chinese communities shifted to Labor and, to a lesser extent, to the Greens and independents, in the hope of seeing a substantial shift in the way the government deals with and talks about people of Chinese ancestry in Australia.

I have witnessed an unprecedented level of political engagement during this election on the part of the Mandarin-speaking community. To many Chinese Australian voters, politics has become intensely personal. As one active Labor supporter observed, ‘The only positive thing Scott Morrison has done in this election campaign is [that] his action has led to a much higher level of political engagement on the part of many Chinese-Australian voters who otherwise would not be interested in politics.’

The decision by many Chinese-Australians to vote for Labor must have been based largely on wishful thinking given that, in opposition, Labor had done very little to differentiate itself from the Coalition in its policies on China, and they said and did nothing during the election campaign that could be taken as a promise that a paradigm shift was about to happen in relation to China if they were elected.

To some, while knowing that there is little apparent difference between the two major parties on China, many voters believed that Labor’s reluctance to depart publicly from the Coalition’s actively anti-China stance might have been strategic rather than ideological That is, being acutely aware of the anti-China sentiment in the wider community, Labor may not have wanted to ruin its electoral chances by running a different China agenda. And accordingly, some Chinese voters may have hoped that once Labor was in power, they would gradually turn the loudhailer volume down and adopt a more sensible approach.

Other Chinese-Australian voters told me that they had shifted to Labor because they were simply sick and tired of the Coalition playing the China card for domestic political gains, and showing little concern for the collateral damage such policies had inflicted upon the Chinese-Australian communities. So, their voting decision could have been motivated by a belief that even if Labor did not want to completely re-set the relationship with China, at least they could not possibly be any worse than the Coalition in handling this relationship. And Labor might at least take a stand on racism domestically—there seems to be little downside politically in doing that much—and perhaps even dial down the war rhetoric.

To some extent—if there is anyone in the Party who can remember back that far—Labor may have still been hoping to draw on the superannuated political good will among those PRC migrants who benefited from Bob Hawke’s generous decision to let them stay in Australia after the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. And, looking even further back, despite Labor’s ostensibly bipartisan approach on national security and China policy, some older Chinese-Australian voters might still prefer to support the party that was responsible for normalising Australia’s relationship with China under the Whitlam Government, for officially endorsing a policy of multiculturalism, and for ending the White Australia Policy.

Will Labor prove worthy of this swelling of the Chinese-Australian vote? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: while Chinese-Australian voters have shown themselves to be capable of shifting their political allegiances this time, they will no doubt be capable of exercising their rights as voters again next time, depending on how they score Labor’s performance over the next three years. The swing to Labor in the wider community was due to a wide range of factors—the climate, women, corruption, wages, etc. While all these issues resonate with Chinese-Australian voters, it is Labor’s words and actions in the China space and the Australia–China relationship that they will be watching. Very closely. As one voter reflected after the election, ‘No party can take the Chinese vote for granted any longer.’

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