(Image: ABC)

In the space of two months, the growing importance of the Chinese community in Australia’s electoral politics has been emphasised by two election campaigns, one state and one federal.

The federal campaign has thus far seen: a candidates’ debate, for the first time, conducted in Mandarin; a related flare-up over a Liberal candidate’s efforts to court social conservative sentiment within the community; a faux pas from a prime minister who had felt it worth his while to commit the Mandarin word for “hello” to memory; and, earlier this week, Kevin Rudd’s first constructive service to the ALP in many a long year, when he put his language skills to use in a street walk through Hurstville in Sydney.

This follows a New South Wales election that reached a turning point when it was revealed Labor leader Michael Daley had raised concerns about the impact of Asian immigration on Sydney’s employment and housing markets.

Weight of numbers alone should suffice to establish that the growing Chinese communities of Sydney and Melbourne demand that politicians sit up and take notice.

Between the censuses of 2006 and 2016, Chinese language speakers went from 2.6% of the Australian population to nearly 4%.

Chinese-Australians also punch above their weight in the parties’ strategic calculations when compared with other migrant communities who established themselves in low-income suburbs and adopted the locally prevalent tendency to vote Labor.

As well as being conspicuous elements of a number of key marginal seats, Chinese communities represent the first wave of immigration that the Liberals have been able to view with equanimity since the post-war arrival of anti-communist Balts that famously displeased Gough Whitlam.

However, it wasn’t always thus. Labor won enduring loyalty among many Chinese voters after the Hawke government allowed students to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and John Howard did lasting damage with his suggestion that Asian immigration should be curtailed during his first stint as leader in 1988.

When Howard himself suffered his historic defeat in Bennelong in 2007, the result was widely attributed to the transformative effect of Chinese immigration on the once white middle-class electorate.

Increasingly though, the rise of China’s middle class is bringing affluent new arrivals with economic priorities to match, together with a measure of cultural resistance to the broader community’s progressive turn on sex and gender issues.

These developments were reflected to some extent in voting patterns for the 2017 same-sex marriage survey — and also in Labor’s persistent failure to repeat its win in Bennelong, where a Chinese community already considered decisive in 2007 has since doubled in size.

After Bennelong, the three seats with the highest Chinese populations all gave the Liberals crucial victories amid their otherwise dispiriting performance at the 2016 election.

This included the historically Labor seats of Banks and Reid in Sydney, where the Liberals held on even as the more typically marginal seats on the city’s fringes fell away.

Still more remarkably, the Melbourne seat of Chisholm, which has been the focal point of the influx in the city’s eastern suburbs over the past two decades, was the only seat in the country the Liberals gained from Labor.

Nonetheless, Labor is confident these results don’t represent a trend that will continue through to the coming election.

A finely targeted pitch has been made through its promise to trump the government on visas for migrant families’ elderly parents, and the party has improved its ground game to the extent of recognising the significance of the Chinese language social media service WeChat, on which it was blindsided by a campaign against it in 2016.

The architect of that campaign, Gladys Liu, is now running as a candidate, trying to keep Chisholm in the Liberal fold after the messy departure of Julia Banks. But reports have consistently indicated that Liberal strategists do not fancy her chances.

However, it may be a different story in the Sydney seats, where the Liberals are hoping the damage done to the Labor brand by Michael Daley’s imprudent observations will prove to be enduring.

Peter Fray

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