When our family migrated in the early 1980s from Bangladesh, Australia was making a slow transformation in its immigration program, away from the relatively unskilled, rurally derived Mediterranean populations that emigrated through the 1960s and 1970s, to a more skilled, Asian program.
While growing up I was always taught that the Labor Party, particularly the stalwarts and hall-of-famers such as Hawke and Keating, whose immigration program was centred on family reunion, were the true party of non-white immigrants. It was further entrenched by the fact that we were living in outer metropolitan suburbs. Our neighbours were either factory workers or tradesmen, or other newly arrived immigrants. They all voted for the Labor Party. That’s just what you did, as well as support the local football team.
The message that filtered through my South Asian community was that the Liberal Party was very much the party of the establishment, of white imperialism, racism and the British Empire. There would be rumours during election time that the Liberal Party was eager to bring back the White Australia policy, especially around the time the historian Geoffrey Blainey questioned the levels of Asian immigration in 1984. I was only attending primary school at the time, but I remember paranoid discussions among members of the Bangladeshi community.
But in spite of John Howard’s association with anti-Asian rhetoric, his government settled more immigrants than any before. Furthermore, he did more to Asianise this country than any government previously. So much so that the last census figures clearly show that the fastest growing ethnic groups are the Chinese and Indian, and the fastest growing religion is Hinduism. There has been a marked shift away from family reunion to highly skilled workers, usually on temporary visas or as students.
Despite these trends, there remain large swathes of migrants and children of migrants who remain wedded to their football team instincts, voting ALP reflexively and viewing Labor as the party of migration. That the ties have weakened was evident in the most recent New South Wales state election, where Barry O’Farrell’s coalition received huge swings after many loyalists voted Liberal for the first time in their lives. This included many Asian immigrants who, sometimes painfully, cut their supposed umbilical cord with the ALP mother.
But whether the trend translates federally remains to be seen. As with local elections, voter behaviour can shift when people consider the issues less ideologically. While running for local council, I regularly encountered voters who said they voted one way in state and federal elections, but were happy to vote differently in the municipal election due to the perceived quality of the candidate.
The importance of conservative parties attracting immigrant voters is particularly noteworthy around the world in the wake of the recent US election. A key criticism of the Republican campaign was that it alienated many immigrant voters, most notably Hispanic groups, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
Romney received less than 30 per cent of the Hispanic vote, a marked change from George W. Bush’s second term when he garnered 44 per cent of Spanish-derived groups, which he courted aggressively. The Hispanic bloc was touted by Reagan as being Republican but just not knowing it. If Reagan is right, Hispanic ignorance is currently sky high.
The panic Romney’s failure among Hispanics created in Republican circles was evident when the response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech was undertaken in Spanish as well as English by Senator Marco Rubio, an unprecedented move.
The Democrat vote among Asian Americans, which include those of Chinese, Korean or Indian origin, was also above 70 per cent, equalling the vote among Jews, who have traditionally leant towards the Democrats.
For many, the Republican Party appeared too white and too middle-aged. More specifically, the Grand Old Party appeared to be a conclave of angry, white, evangelical men.
Asian immigrants and their children mirrored the voting patterns of other white, educated professionals throughout America. The so-called “creative classes” with tertiary academic credentials and clustered around urban centres, contrasted with rural, white voters who voted disproportionately Republican.
The obsession of so many Republicans and conservatives with Obama’s alleged Muslim faith and with the belief that Obama was not born in the USA and is therefore ineligible for the presidency only helped to accentuate the notion that Republicans are hostile towards immigrants and towards Americans who are non-white and non-Christian.
A similar problem exists for the British Conservatives, where David Cameron was only able to garner 14 per cent of the vote of those who were born overseas. It is a statistic that raises the prospect of Boris Johnson challenging Cameron, given that Johnson is known to have great support among the very large Indian community in London. This is not least because his wife’s mother is a Sikh.
Johnson’s rise and defeat of the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, in past polls illustrates the danger of courting Muslim communities too enthusiastically. An Indian-born Labour councillor in eastern London told the Telegraph that Livingstone might well have won the election had he not alienated a great many Hindus. Livingstone had stated in several public speeches that the future of London is Muslim. Livingstone went to the Finsbury Park Mosque, once the recruiting ground for the radical preacher Abu Hamza, and pledged to “educate the mass of Londoners” in Islam, a move that many Hindus and Jews interpreted as outright threatening to their own communities.
For all of Johnson’s popularity, studies by the British Conservatives, and reported by the BBC, suggest the overwhelming reason for Cameron’s poor immigrant vote is a belief that he is anti-immigration and likely to dilute family reunion laws. Many voters of South Asian origin said Conservatives were more likely to hold racist views, a trend that mirrors the environment of my childhood.
The Economist reported several senior Tory figures worrying that the number one predictor of voting Conservative was being white. This presented an existential problem not dissimilar to the US Republicans.
In 2011 the Runnymede Trust, a UK research body, published the largest-ever survey of British voting by ethnic background. In 2010 this showed only 16 per cent of ethnic minorities voted Conservative, compared with 37 per cent of whites. Among non-whites Mr Cameron’s party did best among voters with Hindu Indian roots, of whom one in four voted Tory.
Overall, Labour enjoyed a crushing dominance among ethnic-minority voters—even among British blacks and Asians whose affluence, or robust views on crime and public spending, might seem to make them natural Conservative voters. This same group were often found to harbour surprisingly harsh views on immigration. In Tory-sponsored focus groups, researchers found minority voters ferocious towards asylum seekers on benefits or eastern Europeans “stealing British jobs”.
The contradiction of Asians voting for leftist parties is a source of study and consternation amongst conservatives globally. It is contradictory because on their values Asians would appear to be model conservatives—valuing self-reliance and being suspicious of welfare, often running small businesses, being highly aspirational and emphasising education and ties to the bedrocks of family, tradition and faith. If their gods were political philosophers, they might be devotees of Edmund Burke.
One of the more durable veterans of ethnic politics in Australia is the federal Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, whose seat is in western Sydney. He felt there had been a decisive change among Liberal Party activists in the past few years. “Barely five years ago, they really didn’t care much about engaging ethnic groups. They were not comfortable at the functions, if they turned up at all.”
He counts Philip Ruddock and Barry O’Farrell as the seminal personalities who have transformed this culture. “Never underestimate the power of someone who turns up to absolutely everything,” said Ferguson, in reference to both O’Farrell and Ruddock, adding that O’Farrell was doing it even before he was elected to parliament.
In the past, politicians used to gloat that they could influence the voting behaviour of ethnic groups in blocs. “If you had the key community leaders, it would filter throughout the entire community. The lived in the same places and worked in the same jobs,” said Ferguson. Reflective of the more flattened, less hierarchical world we live in, Ferguson says those days are gone. “Rarely, a key foreign policy issue may push votes away from socio-economic lines,” he said, referring to groups like the Tamil community who are fiercely passionate about the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
It was symbolic that a victory celebration held by the Liberal Party after the New South Wales state election was held in the Parramatta Leagues Club. The suburb itself is sometimes jokingly called “Little India” due to its substantial South Asian community and plethora of curry restaurants.
“The Indian community is possibly the single biggest battleground in ethnic politics, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne,” said Ferguson, a view echoed by South Asian community leaders.
“Anything to do with India now, they all want to come, and from the highest levels,” says Pawan Luthra, CEO of Indian Link Media, referring to community events. Luthra believes that like many other ethnic communities, the growing Indian community, which now comprises 2 per cent of the Australian population, is in transition. Indian Australians are wealthier and more assertive. “Many no longer automatically see the ALP as the natural party for immigrants,” he says, making particular reference to disappointment amongst many Indians at the handling of the Indian student crisis and the marked delay in approving uranium sales to India.
The recent decision by the Gillard government to restrict temporary working visas will add to perceptions that the modern ALP is not quite so friendly to immigrants when their interests clash with trade union concerns. The 457 visa issue has an overlap with the banning of Chinese workers at the time of Federation, a move that also arose from union pressure, and passed the baton of racial exclusion to the Left. “The association of conservatives and racism is not so strong any more,” says Luthra.
Canada perhaps provides a closer example of trends in immigrant voting patterns, especially as it has a similar emphasis on skilled migration and, much like Australia, little ethnic “ghettoisation”. British and US conservatives are looking to Canada to learn from its example, where the conservative parties have received record swings from ethnic groups who had previously voted for the left-leaning Liberals.
A key figure has been the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Jason Kenney, who has worked tirelessly to reach out to previously hostile ethnic communities. “Instead of engaging on a patronage basis, Kenney appealed to the conservative instincts within some of these groups, often dealing with niche issues within different groups,” said Ezra Levant, a Canadian conservative commentator.
After the Conservative Party’s 2006 federal election victory, the Party went community by community to identify issues that were important to them, and then tried to deliver on those issues. Kenney explained to conservative blog FrumForum:
They weren’t hearing our message on taxes, on crime and on opportunity because there was so much static. We had to break through the clutter … That’s where we came out with a series of issues for each community … and by focusing on those issues … we were able to get them to tune in.
For example, the Conservatives reached out to Canada’s Polish community by lifting visa requirements to visit Canada; in a nod to former Vietnamese refugees, they condemned the socialist government in Vietnam; the process of visa applications for Croatians was also simplified.
Most people outside these communities took little notice of these seemingly minor acts. But for each beneficiary group, the symbolic gestures gave them a reason to look favourably at the rest of the Conservative Party’s platform.
The strategy proved highly successful. In 2006, an ethnic-minority voter was three times more likely to vote Liberal than to vote Conservative; by the 2008 federal election, the Conservatives were just as popular among ethnic minorities as the Liberals.
As in Canada, a host of different ethnic communities in Australia are in transition and are no longer affected by the prior stigma surrounding racism in the Liberal Party.
Dai Le, a Vietnamese refugee who stood for the Liberal Party in the last federal election, needed a record 29 per cent swing to win the heavily Asian working-class seat of Cabramatta and beat Labor incumbent Nick Lalich. She fell short with a swing of 26 per cent, but that in itself was a remarkable shift.
Now a councillor in the same locality, Le says that many of her Vietnamese constituents are worried about cost-of-living pressures, favour private education when they can afford it, and are resentful of the benefits that accrue to modern asylum seekers.
“They go on about their housing, mobile phones, welfare … where do they hear about this?” said Le, in reference to the Vietnamese community’s views on asylum seekers. “They are angry because they got none of this when they came thirty or forty years ago.”
In the last federal election, the Liberal Party fielded a number of Asian candidates—Wayne Tseng, John Nguyen and Fazal Cader in the Victorian seats of Calwell, Chisholm and Hotham respectively, and Thomas Dang, Ken Nam and Jaymes Diaz in the New South Wales seats of Fowler, Watson and Greenway. They all lost, but the experiment was symbolic of a greater urgency about attracting minority ethnic groups.
Communities such as the Chinese and Indians are strongly represented in high-income professional and business spheres, which lean more to the Liberal Party. The last census showed they were the key immigrant groups that were likely to be earning more than their Australian counterparts within a generation.
The other party that has fielded a significant number of Asian candidates has been Family First, which draws substantially from a large Chinese contingent in the Assembly of God movement.
However, people from minority ethnic groups are also among the most likely to become disengaged by the political process and the broader society, regardless of education and income. A Scanlon study in 2012 found ethnic groups were more likely to have little or no interest in Australian politics. This is made easier in the fragmented media landscape where many people read only local ethnic newspapers and watch programs from their country of origin on satellite television.
The Scanlon study’s authors, who interviewed some 2000 residents in four of Australia’s highest-immigrant, low-income local government areas—Fairfield and Bankstown in Sydney, Hume and Greater Dandenong in Victoria—found that the lower levels of social cohesion in the areas of high immigrant concentration “cannot be simply attributed to the consequences of economic disadvantage”.
The shadow Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, referred to this study in an important speech to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London in February, as part of justifying a greater emphasis in the Coalition on unity above the celebration of diversity. He said: “it surely cannot be the purpose of multicultural policy that Australians elect to disengage from our society for religious, cultural or ethnic reasons”.
In a study by Joshua Zingher of the State University of New York, looking at Australian immigrant political behaviour, published in the Australian Journal of Political Science in September 2012, his analysis of voting patterns from 1993 to 2007 established that ethnicity along with traditional socio-economic factors are the two primary forces that determine immigrant political behaviour. In Zingher’s opinion, “immigrants’ ethnic differences from the native population [in areas] such as language and residential segregation increase information costs and create barriers to participation in politics as well as influence partisanship”.
His study essentially confirms the Scanlon findings that unless there is a defining foreign-policy issue or acute perceptions of racism, ethnic groups will increasingly vote along socio-economic lines but can also cocoon themselves.
The transformation in Australia’s immigration program towards a highly skilled and Asian variety, one that is increasingly clashing with core trade union concerns, suggest another in a long line of headaches for the wobbly beast that is the Australian Labor Party. This year’s federal election may well be the first where conservatives feature equally or even favourably among the myriad of ethnic groups.
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, a local councillor and a member of the Liberal Party. He is the author of the migration memoir The Exotic Rissole (NewSouth Publishing, 2011) and a member of the federal government’s Australian Multicultural Council.