In the final days of campaigning in the Bennelong by-election both major parties have been throwing the kitchen sink at each other. The Liberal Party has been eager to remind voters of Kristina Keneally’s connections with corrupt and jailed New South Wales powerbrokers Eddie Obied and Ian McDonald and how she was installed as Premier by Obied and Joe Tripodi. Keneally has been visibly uncomfortable when being asked about them by journalists in the past few days.
Labor’s main line of attack was established last week when they began accusing Malcolm Turnbull and the government of engaging in Chinaphobia. It was originally used to deflect attention away from the scandal engulfing Sam Dastyari. But after Dastyari resigned Labor still ran with the Chinaphobic attack line. The reason this being used in Bennelong is because 21% of voters in the electorate are of Chinese background.
Of course, it is not just the scandal surrounding Sam Dastyari that has led to this accusation of Chinaphobia but the announcement of the federal government’s new foreign interference laws, they are largely seen at countering Chinese influence in Australia politics. They earned a rebuke from Beijing who accused Turnbull of using language that is “full of racial undertones” and that he appeared to be taking on a new role of “China-basher-in-chief”.
Labor clearly thinks it is onto a winning line of attack as it has broadened its accusation of Chinaphobia to include all Australians of Asian background. Keneally has stated on the campaign trail “It’s not just Chinese-Australians, but Korean-Australians too, who know they’re getting tarred by Malcolm Turnbull’s assertion that Asian-Australians are not fully-fledged members of Team Australia”.
As you would expect Malcolm Turnbull has not taken kindly to the thinly veiled accusations of racism “To suggest that somebody whose granddaughter is one of those one million Australians of Chinese ancestry, is anything other than a friend of Chinese people is absurd, completely absurd. It just shows you how desperate they are”.
But is Labor playing the race card actually influence Asian voters in Bennelong? Labor looks to have won the local Korean Australian vote, this effort is being spearheaded by a recently elected Labor Councillor Peter Kim. The President of the Korean Australian Community Support William Seung who is actually a Liberal Party member has claimed “If John Alexander lose his seat that is because of the Liberal coalition party’s recent action against multiculturalism”.
There was also a letter circulated on social media urging the Chinese community to vote against the Coalition. They accuse the Coalition of fuelling perceptions that Chinese leaders and students are spies, going on to say, “They are against China, against Asian migrants, against Chinese international students in broad daylight and under the table”.
But most of this hysteria about a Chinaphobia government has also been viewed by many Chinese voters as political hot air. Justin Li from the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong stated “I tend to think the vast majority of Chinese-Australians, especially those who’ve lived in Australia for a long time, don’t care so much about the motherland politics” and the local Chinese-Australians “They’re far more interested in bread-and-butter issues like paying off mortgages, paying off bills, sending kids to school”.
John Alexander has responded by stating the close relationship he has had with Asian community during his time as the Member for Bennelong, a seat he has won now at three federal election “The Chinese community is a group that I have engaged with for seven years now… I’ve had a deep and ongoing relationship with the Chinese community”.
If Labor is able to pull off an unlikely victory on Saturday night having played the race card it would set a dangerous precedent for future elections. They would feel empowered to use it future campaigns against conservative opponents. It is not just a dirty political trick but can actually smear the personal reputation of many people. But one hopes the voters of Bennelong are able to see through the race baiting and vote on the real issues that face the nation.