Richard Leo voted for the Liberal Party at the last three federal elections, but this year the Chinese-born disability care worker is giving Labor a go.
“The prime minister … I’m a little bit disappointed,” Leo says, standing outside a busy pre-poll station in Eastwood. It’s Monday morning, but the suburb’s noodle and hotpot restaurants, traditional Chinese medicine stores and vegetable markets are bustling.
Leo, 40, lives in Bennelong, an electorate where Chinese-Australian voters wield more power than anywhere else in the country. One in five voters in the north Sydney seat have Chinese ancestry, according to the latest census.
Bennelong is set to be one of the most competitive seats on election day, with Labor hopeful of winning it for just the second time in history (the first was 2007 when Maxine McKew defeated then prime minister John Howard).
Buoying Labor’s optimism is the departure of popular long-time Liberal member John Alexander, discontent with Scott Morrison and the selection of Jerome Laxale, a well-known former Ryde mayor, as the party’s candidate.
Liberal candidate Simon Kennedy, a former partner at McKinsey & Company, has a lower local profile, having spent recent years living in the United States and then in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Frustration at Australia’s icy relationship with China is also a negative for the Coalition among many Chinese-Australian voters.
“They should be good friends, not enemies,” Leo says of the two countries.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton recently warned Australians to “prepare for war” in the region and Chinese officials have refused to meet with their Australian counterparts after slapping tariffs on Australian wine, barley and lobsters.
Most Chinese-Australians are anything but single-issue voters. When asked to nominate their top concerns, many at the Eastwood early voting centre mentioned the economy, aged care and climate change. But foreign policy is an important factor in the mix.
Swatting away a Labor how-to-vote card with disdain, Jian Min of Marsfield praises the Morrison government for its tough stance on China, including its push to establish an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. On the recently signed security pact between Solomon Islands and China he says: “If we don’t do something what will happen next? Fiji? Tonga? The missiles will be here.”
Dismay at the increased hostility between Australia and China is a more common sentiment, however.
“Our government always does what America wants to do,” laments Patrick Ling, who was born in Hong Kong and lives in Epping. Chinese-born Dundas Valley resident Penny Hu says: “Let’s face it, they’re our biggest trading partner. If we have good relations with China, the Australian economy will benefit from that a lot.”
Such views extend beyond Bennelong, giving Labor hope of winning other marginal seats with high proportions of Chinese-Australians such as Reid, Parramatta and Chisholm in Melbourne.
A survey released by the Lowy Institute in April found a marked shift away from the Liberal Party among Chinese-Australians over the past year. Last year, 42 per cent of Chinese Australians said they identified with the Liberal Party, a figure that dropped to 28 per cent this year. Identification with Labor rose from 21 per cent to 25 per cent.
According to the poll, 73 per cent of Chinese-Australians regard China primarily as an economic partner for Australia while 27 per cent see it as a security threat.
That figure was reversed for the broader Australian population, with 63 per cent labelling China a security threat and 34 per cent an economic partner.
Labor candidate Jerome Laxale says he’s seeing a lot of anger among Chinese-Australians at how the Morrison government has managed international relations.
“Chinese-Australians feel attacked and believe he has been playing politics on China.”
Laxale has picked up valuable endorsements from the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong and the Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Club.
On his Facebook page Liberal candidate Simon Kennedy touts an endorsement from Joseph Cheung, who helped establish the Australian-Chinese Medical Association.
“The aspirations and concerns of these communities are as diverse as the seat itself, and Chinese Australians are no different to any other Australians,” Kennedy says.
“They believe deeply in the importance of family, small and family businesses, rewarding hard work and mutual respect.”
Hugh Lee, the president of the Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Club, is switching to Labor after backing Alexander at the previous four elections.
“I’ve known the Labor candidate for 10 years and Simon Kennedy for maybe four weeks,” he says. He adds he was disappointed the Liberal Party overlooked Chinese-Australian former Ryde councillor Craig Chung for preselection.
Lee’s decision is geopolitical as well as personal.
“I’m not happy with the Liberals’ foreign policy and defence policy,” says Lee, who was born in Macau.
“I hope our government will stand up with an independent policy and not always follow the big brother of America. The comments made by Peter Dutton sound like we will have a war with China next month. He doesn’t need to do that.”
Lee says Chinese-Australians in Bennelong have been abused for speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese among themselves in public. He fears anti-Asian attacks will intensify if the Australia-China relationship continues to deteriorate.
Felix Lo, president of the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong, says: “John Alexander worked with our Chinese community very closely – he has always been there and we love him. Jerome is a bit the same. He worked with us to call out racism and that is fresh in the mind of the Chinese community.”
Commenting on the Australia-China relationship, Lo says: “There has been a lot of aggressive talking and that filters down to local communities. For the Chinese community we look forward to less hostility.”
Although the Liberals hold the seat on a 7 per cent margin, Lo says the result will be “very very tight” on Saturday.
“I think it is very close and Labor has a real chance this time,” he says.
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