Why you should care

Australia’s two big parties are targeting the country’s fastest-growing immigrant community like never before.  

When the Australian state of New South Wales voted for its government in March, pollsters were predicting a victory for the Labor Party, with its state leader Michael Daley expected to become its next premier. But a video that emerged showing Daley accusing Asian-Australians of taking away the jobs of “our young people” changed the electoral math. The party lost to the incumbent Liberal Party, including in Labor bastions in Chinese-Australian-dominated suburbs of Sydney. Labor leaders publicly blamed the video.

The episode was a reminder of the growing political clout of the Chinese-Australian community that’s the country’s fastest-growing major ethnic group. The Chinese Australian population nearly doubled, from 669,000 in 2006 to 1,213,000 in 2016, growing from 3.2 percent of the national population to 5.4 percent. And that’s making the country’s major political parties woo it like never before, as Australia prepares to vote in its federal elections on May 18.

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Chinese Australians welcome Chinese Premier Le Keqiang with banners and flags in March 2017.

Source Claudine Klodien / Alamy

They’re fielding Chinese-origin candidates in constituencies where the community has a significant presence. One such constituency, Chisolm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, appears set to send the first Chinese-origin female legislator into Australia’s Parliament, with Labor’s Taiwanese-born Jennifer Yang facing off against Hong Kong–born Gladys Liu of the Liberal Party. In April, Yang and Liu went head-to-head in a first-of-its-kind dual-language debate hosted in a pub, taking on voters’ most pressing concerns in both English and Mandarin.

If candidates [can] … speak to their constituents in the language they are more comfortable in, they should.

Jennifer Yang, Labor candidate

Savvy campaigners are also turning to WeChat, the Tencent-owned messaging app that’s a favorite with Chinese speakers the world over, to win over the community’s voters, says Wilfred Wang, a digital communications researcher at Monash University focusing on WeChat in Australia. Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition Labor’s leader, Bill Shorten, are on WeChat, as are several candidates, especially those in constituencies where the community has a significant presence. Other Liberal ministers such as Alan Tudge, the federal minister for cities, are also on WeChat.

“The Liberals got there first, they’re better at it,” says Wang, of the parties’ use of WeChat to target Chinese-origin voters. “Labor is trying to close that gap.”

Australia also has 600,000 people of Indian origin and 48,000 who identify as being of Indonesian origin. In the past, major Australian parties have tried to appeal to both those communities too. But both their numbers and speed of their growth in population are unique to Australia’s Chinese-origin population. That’s why analysts expect political efforts targeted at them to only grow, even as similar attempts to win over Indonesian-origin voters, for instance, have plateaued in recent years. There are no debates in any of India’s or Indonesia’s languages, for instance.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Australia as early as the first half of the 19th century. Ethnic animosity against the community then made colonial and federal governments restrict emigration from China. Rules were relaxed starting in the 1960s. But the unprecedented boom in the community’s population since 2006 has coincided with a similarly unparalleled expansion in the economic relationship between the two countries. In 2006, China was Australia’s second-largest trading partner — behind Japan — with trade worth $35.6 billion. Today, China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and its trade of $119 billion in 2017 was three times the $40 billion between Canberra and its second-biggest economic partner, Japan. Because many Chinese immigrants maintain close relations with family members back home, winning their support is also useful for political parties in shaping the relationship with Beijing — especially amid recent turbulence over allegations of China trying to spy and buy influence in Australia.

For candidates like Yang, reaching out to Chinese-origin voters in Mandarin also makes sense from the perspective of addressing their needs. “If candidates have the capacity to speak to their constituents in the language they are more comfortable in, they should,” says Yang.

Traditionally, “relatively multicultural seats are Labor” strongholds, says elections analyst Ben Raue, who writes a popular blog called the Tally Room. But as the nature of migrants from China has changed from the working class to more affluent middle-class members, the Chinese-Australian community has grown “less wedded to the Australian Labor Party,” says Raue.

That tilt away from Labor will be tested in the coming elections, where most national polling suggests the Liberal Party will struggle to return to power. Just as Labor suffered from Daley’s comments, the Liberal Party could be hurt by the support it enjoys from far-right minor parties like One Nation, traditionally notorious for its extreme racism against Chinese and other Asian communities, says Raue. “There is an active campaign to punish the government for being seen as too close to One Nation,” he says.

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Members of the Sydney Beijing Association with Chinese and Australian flags.

Source Claudine Klodien / Alamy

The Chinese-Australian community is far from homogenous, though. Around 40 percent were born in mainland China, 25 percent were born in Australia and the rest are from across Asia, according to most recent census data. And WeChat is no silver bullet to win their votes, suggests Wang. He cites Australia’s November 2017 marriage equality postal survey. Ahead of the vote, conservatives blanketed WeChat with calls to take a position against same-sex marriage. “It was a very systematic push from the ‘no’ side and very few on WeChat supported the ‘yes’ side,” he says. “But in the end, Australia voted yes and a breakdown of Chinese voting areas was overwhelmingly yes.” In Chisolm, for instance, 62 percent voters supported same-sex marriage.

To the parties, that uncertainty over which way the Chinese-Australian community will sway means hundreds of thousands of voters in some of the country’s most marginal seats are in play. The community is typically concentrated in a few key seats such as Chisolm, Banks and Reid across the east coast — particularly near and in Melbourne and Sydney — giving it electoral power beyond its absolute numbers.

Wang acknowledges that despite its mixed record, WeChat “has had some impact.” In early May, Labor wrote to Tencent complaining about anonymous posts spreading across the platform in Australia, targeting the party with ”fake and malicious” allegations on issues ranging from immigration to taxes. Just how much WeChat, Mandarin debates and other outreach initiatives to the Chinese-origin community will influence the outcome of Australia’s national elections will become clear this Saturday.

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