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What’s the ‘ethnic vote’ going to do in Australia’s top-ten ethnic marginal seats?

Ethnic voters will be important players in at least ten very close seats in NSW and Victoria. AAP/Mick Tsikas

What’s the ‘ethnic vote’ going to do in Australia’s top-ten ethnic marginal seats?

Most heavily ethnic seats – those with a large proportion of voters born in non-English-speaking countries, identifying non-British ethnic heritage, or speaking a language other than English at home – are either safe Labor or Liberal.

So, the results in those seats won’t change much in the House of Representatives. That is, unless the ethnic groups really organise – as happened against Labor in the 2011 New South Wales state election in heavily Muslim seats in western Sydney, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley by Turkish and Arabic interests in 2015, and John Howard in Bennelong in 2007 among Chinese and Korean voters.

But these voters do make up a fearsome slab of the Senate vote, albeit scattered and torn in their intentions by religion, politics, affluence and choices between education and economic growth as the driving factors behind their core aspirations.

These voters will be important players in at least ten very close seats in NSW and Victoria. Which ones and why?

What are the key seats?

The top ethnic marginals, by languages spoken at home per the 2011 Census, are:

  • In NSW, Barton (Greek, Chinese, Arabic, Indian, Macedonian), Banks (Chinese, Arabic, Greek), Greenway (Indian, Vietnamese), Parramatta (Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Arabic) and Reid (Chinese, Greek, Indian, Korean, Italian); and

  • In Victoria, Batman (Italian, Greek, Chinese, Indian), Bruce (Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek, Turkish); Chisholm (Chinese, Greek), Isaacs (Vietnamese, Chinese) and Wills (Italian, Arabic, Greek, Indian).

Three out of five NSW seats are the Liberals’ to lose to Labor. Two Victorian seats are Labor’s to lose to the Greens.

South Asians

The “Indian languages” portfolio covers Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil and Bengali. Labor has targeted all these languages in its SBS TV advertising.

These voters are spread across four of the five aforementioned NSW marginals, and three of five in Victoria. They will be important in Barton and Reid, both Liberal-held, Parramatta for Labor, and Wills and Batman in Victoria – both of which the Greens are targeting.

The Liberals in NSW have been working very closely with leading Indian conservatives, building links with the Sydney circle associated with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is reflected in appointments to government advisory bodies.

Greenway has a strong Indian presence in the local ALP machine. The seat’s incumbent, Michelle Rowland, is shadow multiculturalism minister and will need their support in an otherwise white “aspirational” seat. Labor had an unexpected win in 2013 when Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz stuffed up his campaign.

Parramatta has an all Anglo-Celtic major party field. There, it will be issues – not identities – at play.

The Greens have Alex Bhathal, a Sikh Australian, running in Batman against Labor’s embattled David Feeney. Moreland Mayor Samantha Ratnam, of Sri Lankan background, is standing for the Greens in Wills against Labor’s candidate, Arabic speaker Peter Khalil.

The Greens have a strong multicultural network of candidates drawn from minority, especially Asian, communities. And a trio of Indian Australians are running as independents across the Indian heartland of western Sydney.

Arabic speakers

As with Indians, Arabic speakers are ethnically diverse and religiously differentiated.

The Shi’a communities are more likely to be found in the key Sydney electorates of Banks and Barton, where there are also conservatives and Maronite Catholics. Parramatta has significant Maronite groups, but also concentrations of the Muslim majority Sunni groups. The Sunni population is more likely to be located in the very safe Labor seats of Watson and Werriwa.

A Greek-Australian, Nickolas Varvaris, holds Barton for the Liberals, but a redistribution has made it a nominal Labor seat. The ALP is running former state deputy leader Linda Burney.

Issues associated with the Syria and Iraq wars have salience among local Shia, which encompasses Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Afghan Hazaras.

Local politics also reflects the influence of Hezbollah as an institutional force for social solidarity. Despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosting a Ramadan iftar dinner, the Sunni vote is unlikely to go to the Liberals in Parramatta, unless swayed by the party conservatives’ opposition to same-sex marriage.

Chinese speakers

Chinese-language speakers include those from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and migrants from Vietnam to Malaysia. These languages cover Putonghua (Mandarin), Hakka, Cantonese and other dialects.

They are widely spread, though many of the Chinese speakers listed in the census are international students, 457 visa holders and other temporary residents. Even so, Chinese voters are concentrated in key swing electorates because they are class-mobile and aspirational. In the past they have “swung” against the Liberals, with perceived racism overcoming economic interest – as in Bennelong in 2007.

The diversity of the Chinese means that economic, educational and identity issues all play competing roles.

Key electorates include Reid, which is held by Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Craig Laundy. Labor is running Greek-Australian Angelo Tsirekas, who may pull back the more Liberal-oriented middle-class Greek vote.

Similarly, important concentrations exist in Barton, Parramatta and Banks, and Chisholm and Isaacs in Melbourne.

Banks may be Australia’s most Chinese electorate (around 30%) and has hosted rallies in support of the People’s Republic’s actions in the South China Sea. Chisholm is 10% Mandarin and 5% Cantonese-speaking.

With Chisholm MP Anna Burke retiring, Chinese voters may well determine the outcome between a Greek-Australian and an Italian-Australian in the seat. In nearby Bruce, two new candidates – Helen Kroger and Julian Hill – also have to convince Chinese and Vietnamese voters of their value.

When ethnicity becomes salient

While generalisations based on ethnicity are dangerous, and voting among ethnic communities follows wider generational, aspirational and class patterns, earlier assumptions that immigrants support Labor unless they are specifically drawn from an anti-communist background no longer hold true.

A strong MP who knows and relates well to ethnic groups may build a reputation through word-of-mouth that transcends wider political flows. However, MPs or candidates who do not understand the ethnic dynamics of their electorates may find themselves discarded.

The ethnic vote becomes activated only when issues of ethnicity, religion or race become salient. Perceived racism or international hostility by Australia usually do the trick.

One sleeper issue that may bind together otherwise antagonistic groups that share conservative social values is same-sex marriage. Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim clerics all preach similar antipathies, and share the political space of the Liberal Party’s right wing.

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