THE last time the Asian vote came into play in Bennelong, a sitting prime minister was turfed out of office by his own electorate.
During the ‘Kevin 07’ election, purple-wearing Chinese residents known as MSG (Maxine Support Group) campaigned heavily for Labor upstart Maxine McKew and helped her secure an unexpected victory against the formidable John Howard.
This year race politics are again coming into play with warnings that Asian residents are unhappy about “China-phobic” rhetoric from the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
No wonder the coalition is worried.
Polls so far show a close race. A Newspoll survey published on Tuesday put Labor and the Liberals at 50-50 on a two-party preferred basis, while a Fairfax Media-ReachTEL poll published on Thursday put the Liberals ahead 53-47. Both are within the margin of error.
It’s crucial for the Liberals to hold on to the seat, otherwise the government could lose its majority in parliament.
But after winning two elections, former professional tennis player John Alexander, who saw Ms McKew out the door in 2010, is fighting for his political life against a backdrop of criticism over “China-phobic” comments.
Labor candidate, the former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, says the Chinese-Australians and Korean-Australians she had spoken with were becoming alarmed by the Coalition’s rhetoric.
“They see it as China-phobia,” she said. “They see it as scaremongering. They see the suggestion from the Prime Minister that people from Chinese or Asian backgrounds are somehow suspicious and they don’t like it.”
Interestingly, locals tell a different story.
Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Club president Hugh Lee said this year’s by-election was very different to the 2007 election.
“When John Howard was in this seat, he didn’t care about the community, he was ignoring his own seat because he was so confident,” Mr Lee told news.com.au.
But locals see John Alexander differently: “he’s really doing a good job,” Mr Lee said.
The racial politics are also very different.
Back in 2007, the Chinese in the area were worried about the traction Pauline Hanson was gaining.
“She was a very hot subject at the time,” Mr Lee said. “There were some voices in the Chinese community that asked John Howard to really make clear his stance against Pauline Hanson’s message (that Australia was being flooded by Asian migrants) but John Howard just ignored this and didn’t make any stand at all.”
This motivated many people of Chinese background in the area, including Mr Lee, to mobilise and campaign openly against Mr Howard, which was seen as extremely unusual for a community who have historically been reluctant to talk openly about politics.
But while the Opposition was making use of the Prime Minister’s comments about Chinese government influence in Australia and the crackdown on foreign donations, saying it was “China-phobic”, Mr Lee said many locals didn’t see it this way.
“Even though we are of Chinese origin, we have been here (in Australia) for over 20 years,” Mr Lee said.
“The majority of us in Bennelong are quite old because the young people can’t afford to live in Bennelong … so we are thinking like mainstream Australians.
“We think the Prime Minister is defending the national interest of Australia — there is nothing wrong.”
While Mr Lee said the “China-phobic” concerns could play some part in the vote, it was more of an issue among younger more nationalistic Chinese who had closer ties to the mainland.
“They don’t live in Bennelong,” he said.
Australian Asian Association of Bennelong president Justin Li, who also backed Labor in the 2007 election although wasn’t part of MSG, agrees the mood for change is not strong enough.
“I don’t get the overwhelming sense that voters are as greatly enthused about changing governments this time round, not in the same way they were wanting the Rudd government in 2007,” he told news.com.au.
“Also, I think the Australian Conservatives will poll quite strongly because of the same sex-marriage issue. Their preferences will be crucial for John Alexander if he’s to retain his seat. This is a new thing as the party wasn’t around in 2007.”
Mr Li, who is also a board member of Christian Community Aid, said numerically the Chinese vote was even more influential now than it was in 2007 because of the growth of the community.
“But that’s only if they all vote as a single bloc — which they won’t,” he said.
Mr Lee said he had spoken to other members of the Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Club who had already voted, and they had all voted for John Alexander.
He said the Chinese in Bennelong were more concerned about their everyday life and local issues, than political issues.
“People are more concerned about affordable housing, it is really so expensive in Bennelong, and John Alexander is doing something about this.”
Finance | news.com.au — Australia’s #1 news site