Turnbull’s gone and with him, hopefully, his recurrent but incorrect mantra of Australia as the most successful multicultural society in the world. With the next federal election now just over the horizon, understanding how the ethnic vote delivered the last election to the Coalition may help us to understand how Australia’s multicultural present could shape the next government. Moreover the concerns of these over 150 different ethnic groupings, a mishmash of cultural, familial, human rights and political worries, may become vitally important once more at the tips of the voting tails.
In summary, in 2016 a small but crucial number of urban seats in Sydney and Melbourne moved either against Labor, or more slowly to Labor than they “ought” compared with seats of similar socio-economic but different ethnic profiles. These seats include Chisholm in Melbourne, now abandoned by the embittered Liberal Julia Banks, Banks in Sydney held by new Liberal multiculturalism minister David Coleman, Reid held by Liberal ex-multicultural minister Craig Laundy (who may not recontest), Barton held by ALP’s Linda Burney, and Bennelong held even more safely now by John Alexander. All these seats saw significant increases in the Family First vote, preferences flowing to the Liberal Party, urged on by an evangelical campaign on Weibo. No sign of a Chinese government plan to take over, but rather fed by anti-communist religious forces. Since that election the socially conservative aspect of urban ethnic communities has been further outed by the 2017 same-sex marriage vote, which revealed in these marginal seats and in others that had been thought of as rusted-on Labor, a distinct difference between the values of the constituencies and those of their parliamentary representatives.
A most significant change though has occurred among the Chinese Australian electorate, after being so bashed about by the racist rhetoric of the past year. They have reassessed both as individuals and as a network of communities their preferences given to the Liberals in 2016. People who stuck with Howard during the period after 1996 when Liberals like NSW MLC Helen Sham-Ho jumped ship, are now reassessing their positions after a year of fierce anti-Chinese rhetoric from key Coalition figures enhanced by conservative media (both Fairfax and News have been in on this). The evangelical Christian campaign that moved many towards Family First and then the Liberals in 2016, may be re-activated, given the new Liberal leader Scott Morrison is a Pentecostalist. The Chinese Australians are a highly politicised, wealthy, very educated, and engaged group. It is important to remember 2007, when John Howard, widely regarded in the Asian communities as a racist, lost both government and his own seat. Since then his most recent replacement, John Alexander, has worked tirelessly to rebuild the relationship with the Chinese and Korean members of his electorate, a process that served him well in the citizenship by-election of 2017. In NSW State politics there has been a strong move to the Liberals among key Chinese Australian community and business leaders.
In the lead-up to 2016 the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils (FECCA) asked the Liberals, Labor and the Greens what their position would be on multicultural legislation. The Liberals rejected it out of hand, claiming that current arrangements worked well and nothing more was needed. Labor avoided answering the question, proposing though to re-establish the Office of Multicultural Affairs closed by Howard in 1996. The Greens committed to legislation, and in the midst of the Liberal leadership spills last week put forward a Bill in the Senate to create a Multicultural Commission.
The new Government has a number of bubbling issues on which it will have to make decisions. The Ruddock Religious Freedom report sits waiting for someone to do something, torn between the conservatives who want religious rights of Christians protected and conservatives who have a deep fear of the possibilities of Sharia law (the paralysis owes much to the fact these are the same people). The Institute for Public Affairs has not given up on abolishing Section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act, and with a new conservative Commissioner due to be announced, the defence mounted by the previous incumbent Dr Tim Soutphammasane is unlikely to be repeated. Andrew Bolt, Section 18C’s most thwarted victim, may well refocus on assuaging his wounded ego now that his primary target Turnbull has been vanquished. On the other hand the “united nations” of communities that defeated the previous attempts of the Right are well prepared and have their eyes open. The government will have to decide whether the changes to the RDA remain policy to be taken to the election, or not.
The Coalition Right will be working on how to advance its anti-Muslim, anti-African, low immigration agenda, seeking to inflame prejudices in the community to wean deserters (“the base”) away from Bernardi, One Nation, Katter, and the rest. Meanwhile the government leadership will be trying not to lose liberal Liberals to the ALP by being portrayed as “One Nation lite”. With the Right’s Dutton and the “moderate” Coleman both covering the multicultural racialised space, further compounded by the Right’s Tudge on “population”, a state of energetic immobility could be the outcome.
Furthermore Tudge’s last act, a revised Multicultural Council, extended to ensure a balance of men and women, but still chaired by the ultra-conservative Sev Ozdowski, and filled with Liberal Party acolytes including a raft of former candidates, seems unlikely to take an independent line and contribute to the debate. Its smaller predecessor appointed under PM Abbott from 2014 to 2017 remained silent on almost all contentious issues, its chair supporting the elimination of Section 18C, and the diminution of protections offered by the RDA.
While banging the African gangs drum may work to extend Dutton’s brutalist reputation, it has failed to excite voters in Victoria; in NSW his similar but lower key attack on the Lebanese has done little to shift allegiances. This leaves the Government with a problem – holding seats in Queensland by tough-talk cannot offset the losses most likely in the south, though it may position Dutton for a rerun for the leadership after the election if the Liberals lose, Morrison is tarnished, and Julie Bishop lets sleeping dogs lie.
However it does mean that a highly racialised electoral environment might well surge forward., with more than dog whistling In Sydney’s west conservative religious advocates from Muslim, Christian and Hindu faiths have been scoping the opportunity for a multicultural social conservative slate to stand across both Liberal and Labor seats, using their newly discovered potential power to produce unexpected outcomes, even if gaining seats might not yet be possible. Such alliances have been a factor in the constant focus former Minister Fierravanti-Wells has put on expanding the Liberals’ “base” into ethnic city seats, and the danger their attachment to minor right wing parties also presents after the value they produced for the Liberals in the 2011 NSW State election, and the one-seat margin 2017 Federal poll.
Meanwhile Labor’s Tony Burke has been methodically working the ethnic communities, with Mark Dreyfus defending the RDA from its Coalition attackers. In Sydney Bob Carr has been pushing for the ALP to reduce support for Israel, condemn the territorial grab into the West Bank by the Israeli government, and empathise with the trapped denizens of Gaza.
Sitting on the backburner for our new evangelical and pro-Trump PM remains the encouragement from the USA that Australia move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Evangelicals believe after all, that when all the Jews return to Israel, the Messiah will return to earth and Armageddon will erupt, drawing true believers up to Heaven in the Rapture and leaving the rest of us burn in Hell forever.
Andrew Jakubowicz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology Sydney.