Features Australia

The multi-Culture Wars

Dutton can grab the ‘ethnic vote’ by fighting for conservative values

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

From pink Korans to the Uluru statement, the Labor party has been successful in exuding an early energy around diversity. But as part of its own rejuvenation, the Liberal party can win back and further consolidate the ethnic vote.

The notion of an ‘ethnic vote’ dates back to the government of Malcolm Fraser. Back then, soon after the lifting of the White Australia policy, there was debate whether there were constituents of migrants who might vote on cultural grounds, notably those overlapping with their ancestry. Since then we have developed into one of the most multi-cultural nations in the world, with close to half of our population born overseas.

From the rhetoric around Asian migration in the late twentieth century to tensions with Muslim communities in the wake of global terrorism to the passions surrounding asylum seekers, policy implications towards large ethnic blocs are increasingly significant, especially in some of the most marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

The Liberal party suffered from big swings among Chinese communities towards Labor, largely in response to the muscular confrontation with China around trade and security. The shadow of these tensions loomed large over the election, heightened by China’s deals with Pacific nations such as the Solomons.

But the Morrison government did not adequately soothe the local Chinese community, failing to adequately differentiate them from the Chinese Communist party. Such tensions were already sparked during the early stages of the pandemic.

In Sydney, the Chinese swings were felt acutely in the losses of Bennelong, Reid and Parramatta. In Melbourne, outer suburban seats like Chisholm and Menzies suffered from the backlash.

But there is a silver lining. South Asian groups such as Indians appeared to stay either consistent with prior voting patterns or swing further towards the Coalition. This was especially noticeable in seats like Parramatta or Greenway in western Sydney where booths with large South Asian populations favoured the Coalition.

Internationally there has developed a split among South Asians, with Indian Hindus more likely to vote conservative and Muslims from Bangladesh and Pakistan in the UK and the USA more likely to vote Labour or Democrat.

In 2010, thirty per cent of British Indians voted conservative, whereas it was forty per cent in 2017, further highlighted by Tory Cabinet leaders like Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other ministers Priti Patel and Alok Sharma. But these trends may be changing locally given the Liberal party was able to attract candidates and support from the Sri Lankan, Nepalese and Bangladeshi communities. One example is Sazeda Akter, a Bangladeshi-origin small businesswoman, who ran in the Labor heartland seat of Watson held by Tony Burke. Such groups are changing economically with a growing proportion, especially those that arrived initially as international students, more likely to run small businesses. They have traditionally voted Labor because the leftist parties were the ones most associated with anti-racism. But two decades of high immigration under predominantly conservative governments have muddied that association, in spite of the virulent rage heaped upon conservative governments regarding policies towards asylum seekers.

Figures like former Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock and former premier Barry O’Farrell, now Australia’s ambassador to India, were crucial in improving the Liberal party’s relationship with non-white ethnic communities. But it was the gay marriage vote that built greater suspicion among traditional migrants of Labor’s association with uncomfortable social freedoms. The No vote was especially large in traditional ALP electorates such as those in south-western Sydney with large Muslim populations. The vast bulk of first-generation immigrants from Asia or the Middle East are social conservatives. Their worldview is shaped by an ethos of family, clan and tradition at its centre. They take a dimmer view of human nature which translates into a suspicion of the focus on rights and freedoms favoured by the Left. Freedom is seen as a privilege tempered by the limits of institutions, usually religious but not necessarily so.

I grew up in a Muslim household but am not religious. Yet Islamic culture has drawn me closer to the views held by Christian, Jewish or even Hindu traditions. The Christian Democratic party was able to attract many among this bloc during the 2019 election. Their preferences flowed through to Scott Morrison enabling his miracle win, further consolidated by promised reforms to the Religious Discrimination Act.

The Labor party has taken a clear stance against social conservatism, a factor that has driven its steady divorce from its former base among white, industrial workers.

The ALP also tends to have an allergy for the migration we desperately need to alleviate the dire skills shortage, fearing it will eat into wages of locals. Their plan to train locals into free TAFE places may be initially appealing, but inaccurately diagnoses the problem as being one of locals lacking skills.

An unemployment rate of less than four per cent and an ever expanding membership of NDIS clients not returning to the workforce suggest local desire for jobs in the hospitality and caring end of the labour market is lacking. Beyond social conservatism, the striving immigrant has an obvious resonance with the values of self-reliance, reward for effort and a stigma around welfare dependence. Furthermore, immigrant groups do not tend to share the climate evangelism of the white middle-classes. Many Indians for example expressed pride in Adani, seeing it as a version of reverse colonialism where Indians took resources from a white country to export it to their own citizens. Those originating from Africa or Asia are also more aware that their ancestral lands depend upon fossil fuels to prosper, their most important bulwark against any effects of climate change.

All such trends mean there is every chance conservative parties can win the votes of ethnic groups, who are naturally social conservative, as is occurring internationally in North America and Britain. The dilution of class-based institutions such as trade unions and the dominance of social media in public discourse means the culture wars are a permanent feature of political debate.

The Labor party may be enjoying a moment of triumph, but one which conceals ongoing weakness. Winning back the Chinese community and consolidating its growing appeal among South Asian groups is a critical, and achievable, aspect of the Liberal party’s rejuvenation.

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