China-Australia tensions and racism fuelling Asian ‘reluctance’ to join politics

May 13, 2022 GMT

As Australia draws closer to its federal election on May 21, in an era it had once coined the “Asian Century”, one thing continues to stand out: the lack of Asian-Australians in its parliament.

According to an election watch brief released last year by the University of Melbourne, only three candidates with Asian ancestry were elected to the 151-seat lower House of Representatives in the 2019 election, when the current government was formed. Asian-Australians make up between 14 to 16 per cent of the population, but only 2 per cent of parliament.

This compared poorly to achievements seen in other countries such as Britain, Canada and neighbouring New Zealand, said the university’s Asia Institute researcher Grant Wyeth.

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“The ideal of a liberal democratic political system is that its institutions should broadly reflect the make-up of the governed society,” he said. “For a multicultural and migrant country such as Australia, this means its elected legislatures should contain public representatives from a variety of backgrounds, commensurate with their numbers within the population. However, one noticeable feature of Australia’s parliaments is the conspicuous lack of Asian-Australians.”

During a panel discussion with some members of the Asian-Australian diaspora last week, senator from the ruling coalition Andrew Bragg said the talent pool of Asian-Australian candidates was small, and parties were not able to attract more of them to join.

In 2020, when analyst Osmond Chiu and two other Chinese-Australians spoke about the underrepresentation of multicultural communities in Australian politics before a parliamentary inquiry aimed at finding a solution, he was goaded into a loyalty test by another senator, Eric Abetz, and asked to condemn the Chinese Communist Party.

“Among the evidence at the hearing was that Chinese-Australians were reluctant to appear in public debates, because they feared their remarks would be taken out of context and twisted,” said Chiu, a research fellow at the Per Capita think tank. “Is it any wonder, when elected representatives treat us with such scepticism and derision?”

The fact that countries like Britain, Canada and New Zealand fare better at having more diversity in politics showed Australia had structural barriers rather than a lack of talent, Chiu said.

This election, fewer Asian-Australians are contesting as compared to 2019, amid deteriorating bilateral relations with China and a continued absence of support for diversity in politics, new data shows.

Tracking by the Asian-Australian Alliance advocacy group shows 60 Asian-Australians are running this year, down from 67 in the last poll.

There are 21 Asian-Australians with some Chinese background running for the lower house compared to 23 in 2019, the database shows.

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“One of the primary reasons (for the drop) is that there’s more of a hesitancy to run for politics than in 2019, with the fragmented relationship between Australia and China,” Asian-Australian Alliance founder Erin Chew said. “There is a fear of being accused of being linked to the Chinese Communist Party by racists and the court of public opinion.”

Over the past six to seven years, China-Australia tensions also led to a rise in reports by mainstream media outlets about Australians allegedly working as Chinese agents at the behest of Beijing, with no proof that they actually did.

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Just this week, the Australia-China Relations Institute’s updated poll showed about 60 per cent of people surveyed said “Australians of Chinese origin” could be mobilised by China’s government to “undermine Australia’s interests”, up three percentage points from last year.

Chew said anti-Chinese sentiment in the 2019 election, which brought about criticisms of Chinese nationals buying land, property and baby milk formula, had worsened with bilateral tensions and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Barriers aside, Chew said there was some truth to the claim that Asian-Australians were not keen to participate in politics, because the diaspora tended to have a negative perception of the field, including its association with corruption.

She urged the community to move past the view, as she said participation was essential in making sure Asian-Australian needs were conveyed.

KINGSLEY LIU

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Fifth-generation Chinese-Australian Kingsley Liu did not harbour any thoughts of going into politics until much later in life, long after being struck by an identity crisis as a boy in Melbourne growing up during the White Australia Policy.

The lawyer, whose great-grandfather first set foot in Australia 150 years ago to mine gold, now runs the Asian-Australian Lawyers Association and is involved in various advocacy projects, such as defending the retention of racial discrimination laws.

Liu is running for a Senate seat with the Australian Citizens Party, hoping to push for a more independent national foreign policy.

“The growth of (Asians) in our neighbourhoods is being exploited by ranting politicians seeking to stoke and exploit fears that are leading to tensions with our biggest trading partner, China,” he said.

Liu wants to change the way Australia deals with other countries, including those in the Asia-Pacific, and says there is no need for the country to act “as the sole Anglophonic voice in the region”.

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Liu says he still sees major political parties unwilling to give candidates from diverse backgrounds a go.

“My opinion is that significant institutional bias still is manifest, even though we have a well meant set of multicultural policies. There are still a number of acts, policies, practices and legislation that embody this bias in varying degrees,” he said, but added things were slowly changing.

RACHAEL JACOBS

An Indian-Australian and Greens candidate for the electorate of Grayndler in Sydney, Rachael Jacobs was certain virtually all of India knew about her candidacy, thanks to her mother who has been sending relatives her campaign leaflets.

However, the Western Sydney University lecturer said it was not always easy to get her parents’ support for her interests in public service and the arts.

“As frustrating as it was for me as a child interested in altruism and the arts, our parents left us with nothing,” Jacobs said. “And when I say to them I was going to make a risky decision ... that is mortifyingly frightening for people who risk everything to have a better life.”

Jacobs was born in Papua New Guinea but has lived in Australia since she was three months old. A visit to India when she was eight triggered her political awareness.

“I had no idea why I was chosen to live this privileged life in a modern developed country like Australia, while there were people in the same position as I, in age and gender, who lived a different life to me and I knew that privilege came with responsibilities,” Jacobs said. “Once you understand that, you have to do something about it.”

She said she wanted to address critical issues like climate change, affordable housing, and rental homes.

At a dinner party recently, Jacobs was crestfallen when she heard every person at the table say he or she would never be able to buy the house they grew up in.

Racism was also a key concern for Jacobs and the South Asian community in Australia.

“One thing the South Asian community has always been striving for is acceptance,” she said. “That (Prime Minister) Scott Morrison loves a curry ... in the beginning it was a point of pride for the community, but people are starting to find that a bit thin and shallow.”

Jacobs says she is standing in solidarity with Chinese-Australians who have experienced Sinophobia in the lead up to this election.

ZHI SOON

Malaysia-born Labor candidate for the seat of Banks in Sydney Zhi Soon says he can never knock back a curry puff or durian.

Both are beloved food items in Malaysia ” and food is in the hearts and souls of many Malaysians who have relocated to Soon’s electorate.

Known for being multiculturally diverse, the electorate of Banks includes Hurstville, which hosts one of the biggest Chinese-Australian communities in Australia.

Soon, a former diplomat, told a group of voters during a public discussion held by the Australian Malaysian Singaporean Association last month that he decided to run to serve his community, which he had been a part of since he arrived in Australia as a three-year-old.

“I am a proud Asian-Australian. My Malaysian, Chinese heritage is part of who I am but overarching(ly) I am a proud Australian,” Soon said.

His candidacy also showcases Australia’s diversity, he said.

Regarding Canberra’s tensions with Beijing, Soon said many voters in his electorate were concerned that they were not living harmoniously with others in the region.

But more were concerned with the rising cost of living and Australia’s economic stability.

One voter who attended the discussion asked Soon to deepen investment engagement with Asian countries such as Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour. He told Soon he had struggled to get help from Australia’s trade department as it did not seem to have a genuine interest in increasing dealings with the region.

WILLIAM ZHOU

Sydney-born and Brisbane-raised Chinese-Australian William Zhou cares deeply about two things ” how everyday Australians with small businesses can eke out a decent living and how minority Australians like himself get a fair go.

The 24-year-old watched his mother establish a real estate agency and understands the stress businesses face in dealing with red tape, rising costs and never-ending taxes.

When it comes to costs, he says he wants to find a way for young people like him to own a home ” a feat that’s almost impossible, especially in the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, where median house prices run into the millions ” or be able to find an affordable place to rent. Structural reform is key, he says.

Zhou started out as a lawyer but felt something was amiss and is now pursuing a Senate seat with the Australian Citizens Party.

He is concerned that just as there is little diversity in Australian media and business, so there is little diversity in Australian politics.

When asked if he was concerned that he was going to be “picked on” by the media and government because of his Chinese background, Zhou said he would “suffer” whether he ran or not.

“If I don’t do anything about it, the politics will affect me anyway,” he said, adding there was little sponsorship of Asian affairs by the political elite. “If I don’t stand up for myself, who will?”

DAI LE

Local councillor for the western Sydney city of Fairfield and devoted supporter of the working class Dai Le is fired up.

The Vietnamese-Australian, in her early 50s, is running as an independent candidate in the electorate of Fowler, which holds Fairfield and other suburbs.

The boat refugee who came to Australia in 1979 as a child says politicians no longer care about people. They only care about power.

“We are the forgotten people, the state (electorate) of Fowler is the forgotten people,” she said. “Nobody cares or helps them unleash their potential.”

Fowler boasts a proud Vietnamese community.

The opposition Labor Party has long held a seat in the electorate, but recently created controversy by “parachuting” in a “star” candidate, former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally, to run for Fowler, displacing another local candidate, Vietnamese-Australian Tu Le.

“They don’t care if it impacts them. They have no ability to analyse the problems. There is no thinking of, ‘why am I running for the seat?’” she said.

Among things that concern the people of Fowler are reliable pandemic controls, Le said.

“They want to know they can trust the government, that they can still raise their kids, run their businesses, that they can lean on the government to help keep them secure,” the seasoned politician said.

STEVE KHOUW

Some might remember Steve Khouw when he last delivered their pizza as a Deliveroo rider, though more would recall Khouw as a contestant on the reality TV programme Australian Survivor in 2018.

But that’s not what 62-year-old Khouw, who is running for a seat as an independent, wants to be remembered for.

The Indonesia-born Chinese-Australian says he wants to help weed out corruption in the Australian public service, as Morrison faces a backlash for breaking his vow to set up a federal anti-corruption body.

“People who want fame, fortune and power; they can’t help themselves. They don’t want to give it up until people revolt against it,” he said.

Khouw, who was previously a member of the Liberal National Party, gives the example of how the major parties stack key positions with people who are loyal to them.

“The people in power, the factional players, don’t want to lose control, so they appoint anyone they want in the party. The scary thing is the people who are doing this are in government right now,” he said. “You wonder what they can do to their own country if they can do this to their own party.”

He also takes the view that major parties avoid progressing minorities in government to keep their power intact. The systemic bias against Chinese-Australians, especially given Australia’s row with China, is multidimensional.

“Here we have Chinese-Australians who are third, fourth-generation, and sure they can get a job in defence and all that, as part of the inclusion policy, but whether they get further up is yet to be seen,” he said.

Khouw himself left the Liberal Party after he said he got “nowhere”. He hopes that his campaign will serve as a lighthouse for Asian-Australians who want to enter politics.

This Week In Asia reached out to interview many more candidates, particularly from the two major Liberal-National and Labor parties, but either did not hear back or was declined.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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