Election time. When even the most ardent followers of politics get voter-fatigue. Here’s an idea: could the relentless monotony of election campaigns be made more bearable if it wasn’t all in English? If candidates threw in a few LOTEs (Languages Other Than English) could we be marginally more interested?

The fact is, LOTEs very rarely feature in election campaigns. Which is a bit odd, considering about 1 in 5 Aussies speak a LOTE at home. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all our candidates are monolingual. But it’s actually understandable if you thought so. Many of them keep their linguistic capabilities rather well hidden. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve scoured all corners of the internet to present you with a starter’s guide to LOTEs in the election for those of you keen to know who on your ballot sheet is linguistically gifted:

Kevin Rudd (Griffith QLD, ALP): Our most well-known bilingual politician. He’s a fluent second-language speaker of Mandarin Chinese who has learned it well enough to be able to carry out sophisticated political interviews. Apparently, he kinda blew the socks of the Singaporean government too when they saw that a pasty Anglo-Aussie spoke better Chinese than many of their Chinese-heritage citizens.

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Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (NT Senate, First Nations): Former mayor of the Barkly Shire and star of Australia’s first colour feature film, Jedda, Rosalie didn’t learn English until she started school. Her first language(s) are Aboriginal languages of Central Australia: Arrernte, Alyawarr and Eastern Anmatyerr. As a candidate for a fringe party, she ordinarily wouldn’t receive much attention, except Antony Green points out that with a falling Labor vote and everyone preferencing First Nations above Labor and the Greens, she could actually sneak the 2nd NT Senate spot. That would make her the first Federal politician to have an Aboriginal language as their first language. The video below shows her campaigning on radio in her mother tongue:


Tanya Plibersek (Sydney NSW, ALP): Tanya grew up in a tight-knit Slovene-speaking family home in Oyster Bay and speaks fluent Slovene. Well, as far as we know she does – it’s rare to find instances of her mentioning any LOTE abilities. But it does make sense that “one of the government’s best communicators” is bilingual. And pretty cool that she speaks a (relatively) small language with only 2.5 million speakers globally.

Elizabeth Lee (Fraser ACT, Liberal): Immigrated from Korea as a 7-year-old in 1986, Elizabeth lectures law and gives Body Pump classes at ANU. We assume she’s a fluent Korean speaker but, as with Tanya, it’s hard to find much evidence. In Elizabeth’s case, given that Korean is one of the more common LOTEs in Australia, you’d think that maybe she’d put her bilingualism to good campaigning use.

John Nguyen (Chisholm NSW, Liberal): Fled Vietnam with his grandparents at the age of 5 in 1979 and came to Australia with no English. He recently copped flak from the left for the apparent irony of a former boat-refugee standing for a party that drones on about stopping the boats, but a more balanced article over at Peril shows that those kneejerk reactions weren’t entirely fair. As for his language talents, we assume John still speaks Vietnamese, and with Chinese heritage he may be trilingual. But again, with evidence in the public sphere being so scant, this is just an educated guess.

Maria Vamvakinou (Calwell VIC, Labor): Greek-born and vying for her fifth election win, she’s a first language Greek speaker and also studied Modern Greek at the University of Melbourne. Maria is one of the few politicians who wears her cultural and linguistic heritage on her sleeve. A self-proclaimed “passionate defender of multiculturalism”, she describes the transformation that the political movement of multiculturalism meant for her while in high school in the 1980s:

“…what it did was say to me and not just my parents but say to my generation: ‘Hey, it’s really great that you speak another language. It’s great that you’ve got this fabulous cultural inheritance…. I suddenly realised that I was very lucky because I could speak two languages fluently.”

And just quickly, here’s a bunch of others:

Teresa Gambaro (Brisbane QLD, Liberal): A second-generation Italian-Australian, we assume she knows a fair bit of Italian.
Tony Zappia
(Makin SA, Labor): Italian-born and up for a third-election win, we assume his Italian is pretty good too.
Adam Bandt (Melbourne VIC, Greens): Adam is of German-heritage and speaks pretty good German.
Penny Wong (SA Senate, Labor): With a Chinese-Malay dad and living in Malaysia until aged 8, we guess Penny isn’t monolingual, although if she isn’t she’s not giving much away.
Jason Yat-Sen Li (Bennelong NSW, Labor): Possibly one of the few people in the world that Kevin Rudd would admit that “he makes me feel dumb”. Why? Jason speaks five languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, German, Dutch and English. And he’s on record as a proud father of kids who speak fluent Mandarin and confidently codeswitch with English which Jason says is “such an Australian thing”.
Andrew Nguyen (Fowler NSW, Liberal): 70-year-old Andrew Nguyen has taught vocational education bilingually so we guess his Vietnamese is pretty good. Although it’s not easy to find evidence of it – the Liberal party have been accused of being nervous about giving him too much public exposure.
Andrew Nguyen (Oxley QLD, LNP): Another Andrew Nguyen but this one is the 29-year-old son of refugee parents. His ABC profile states that he’s bilingual in Vietnamese and English but his LNP profile seems a bit more coy about his LOTE abilities.
Warren H Williams (NT Senate, Greens): A country singer from Hermannsburg community, Warren is a fluent speaker of Arrernte and possibly other Central Australian languages.

We could go on but you’d be here all day. (If you do know of more candidates to add to the list, please do so in the comments!)

One point to be made on this issue is how under-recognised and under-used Languages other than English are in politics and election campaigns. In our limited research, we could only find two actually using their LOTEs publicly during their campaign: Adam Bandt and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks. It does seem to correlate that the more left leaning the politician the more likely they are to publicly use and/or be proud of their LOTE.

Compare Liberal candidate for Fraser Elizabeth Lee with Adam Bandt for example: both recently appeared on SBS Radio programs in their heritage languages. Adam did most of his interview in German despite it being a second-language for him and having to fairly regularly switch into English. Elizabeth on the other hand gave her interview on the Korean program in English, leaving the task of translating her English into Korean to the program announcers. I wondered whether Elizabeth actually could speak Korean, until I found a YouTube video from last year of her speaking it fluently.

While there are exceptions, it seems that our bilingual and multilingual election candidates are often happy to conceal their LOTEs. It appears that, particularly for those in mainstream parties, this is part of the wider “race to the bottom” to appeal to some dumbed-down notion of middle or suburban Australia. But it just doesn’t add up when so many Aussies are bilingual and so many of us grew up in bilingual or multilingual households. It’s like our candidates are primed with a linguistically complex undercoat but the election paints over it with a glossy English-only overcoat.

And it’s not as though language issues don’t feature in elections. It seems completely acceptable to tear apart candidates for English slip-ups. Why aren’t we doing more to celebrate those who aren’t just good communicators in English but can communicate just as well in other languages? Perhaps it’s just so the feeble-brained monolingual candidates don’t feel too bad about themselves.

Disclaimer: Greg Dickson is a member of the NT Greens. And bilingual.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to those who provided info about LOTE-speaking candidates, especially Jerry Yik.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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