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The Liberals’ anti-China rhetoric cost them votes and, likely, key seats

The seats of Chisholm in Melbourne, Tangney in Perth, Reid in Sydney, and Bennelong in northern Sydney have just swung to Labor. What these seats have in common is that people with Chinese heritage comprise a large percentage of the population.

One of the key election campaign agendas of the Coalition was national security, manifesting in a consistently hawkish, anti-China rhetoric. It is telling that Scott Morrison, in his speech conceding defeat, made a point of singling out defence forces, security and intelligence agencies and thanking them for keeping the country safe.

It’s hard to imagine that the Coalition didn’t foresee the risk of alienating Chinese voters by its consistent stance on the “China threat”. And yet, the party strategists must have decided to take a gamble, convinced that maintaining their long-standing national security agenda as a key element of their electoral pitch would be likelier to gain more votes/seats from their base in the wider Australian community than they would lose among Chinese Australians.

But this strategy seems to have backfired. It’s true that people from Chinese-speaking communities who are critical of the Chinese government tend to support the Coalition for its anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy, and many still do. But in a pre-election poll conducted last week by Sydney Today — Australia’s largest Chinese-language digital media outlet catering mainly to Mandarin-speaking Australians — participants were asked whether they intended to vote differently this time from the last election.

About 51% said that they would. It is safe to speculate that most of these would be swings from Liberal to Labor, although there may also have been a relatively small number of voters who switched to the Greens, or perhaps to one of the minor parties or independents.

This speculation seems to corroborate another figure from the Sydney Today poll. When asked, “Which party are you inclined to support in the forthcoming election?”, 72.80% said Labor, 19.24% said the Liberal Party, and 3.64% the Greens.

Not resonating

While the Coalition’s strident foreign policy against China, and talking up the possibility of war with China over Taiwan, has led to a haemorrhaging of Chinese votes, it doesn’t seem to have gained much support among non-Chinese “mainstream” voters. Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at the think tank Per Capita, has made the point that China is not top of mind for most people, apart from Chinese Australians themselves.

“Anyone [who isn’t Chinese] who says China is their number one issue is likely not a swinging voter.” Additionally, he believes that “[most mainstream] people’s views about China are very negative now, but other than hardcore political types or Chinese Australian voters, this has limited issue salience”. It seems both Sydney Today’s poll and Chiu’s predictions are on the money.

If Labor’s win in Chisholm is hardly surprising, it does go some way towards correcting a widespread belief that Chinese voters tend to support candidates of Chinese origin, regardless of their parties’ policies and despite their values and actions as individuals. And to some extent, this seems to be borne out by the Sydney Today poll, which asked whether they “prefer candidates with Chinese/Asian ancestry”. About 57% of participants answered yes, while the rest said no. However, when the political identity, social standing and, in some cases, personal safety of individuals in the community are under threat, Chinese voters appear to privilege political considerations over the ethnicity of candidates.

In the case of Chisholm, quite a few of Gladys Liu’s Mandarin-speaking supporters in the 2019 election ended up deserting her this time around, instead actively campaigning for Labor’s Carina Garland. Many of them commented in their own WeChat groups that this is because they felt let down, believing Liu had overpromised and under-delivered on her original pledge to be the voice of the Chinese population in her constituency.

People now seem to see her as an opportunist who’d rushed to declare her boycott of WeChat when Scott Morrison’s WeChat account was blocked. Some commented that she could be Janus-faced, presenting herself as a Hong Kong pro-democracy voice to the Hong Kong cohort, and then as a mainlander to the mainland Chinese cohort.

Another important message to both the incoming Labor and Coalition politicians — and especially to Peter Dutton, should he end up becoming opposition leader — is that the government can no longer keep denying the cause-and-effect connection between its unrelenting anti-China rhetoric and the growing levels of racism against Chinese Australians across the nation.

Morrison and his government kept saying that their hostility was only directed at the Chinese government, and not people of Chinese heritage in Australia. But that attempt at a distinction didn’t wash. This became especially acute when Morrison refused to criticise Senator Eric Abetz after he singled out the three Australian Chinese opinion leaders who were appearing in a Senate hearing, questioning their loyalty to Australia and asking them to condemn the CCP.

Likewise, Morrison’s call for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 when Australians were in the middle of a nationwide lockdown did not help ameliorate the deplorable situation of Australians of Asian appearance being increasingly targeted publicly in racially based verbal and physical attacks.

Out of touch

These results suggest that the Coalition is clearly out of touch with the multicultural Australian community, and many politicians seem to think racism is simply an unfortunate but necessary outcome of running a strong national security agenda.

In an event hosted by the Sydney-based Chinese Australian Forum in a Chinese restaurant, at which representatives from the major parties were invited to speak to the Chinese community, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg thanked the Chinese community for “putting up with racism”, as if racism were a natural part of everyday life, something that, although unpleasant, had to be endured for the greater good.

Finally, the swing to Labor in Bennelong and Tangney points to an interesting convergence of political interests among Chinese of various heritages, as well as with other non-Chinese Asians. Bennelong has been predominantly a Chinese community where Cantonese and other dialects are spoken. Eastwood, for instance, has a large Chinese population, many of them of South-East Asian origin, as well as a sizeable Korean population, but in recent years, some Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese have moved in.

In this case, a swing away from the Liberals appears to be a protest against anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism, if not against the Coalition’s anti-China rhetoric. After all, on the street a racist attack randomly targets a person of Asian appearance, be they from Hong Kong or China, Korea or Malaysia.

Chinese Australians have high hopes for Labor, despite the fact that so far there is hardly any fundamental difference between the two major parties when it comes to China. We can only hope that Labor sets out to differentiate itself from the Coalition by taking a firm stand against anti-Chinese racism on the domestic front. Internationally, Labor can only stand to benefit from adopting a more independent position vis-à-vis the US as well as a measured and less destructive approach to China.