Ethnically diverse suburbs no longer secure for Labor

By Kathy Marks

The northwestern Sydney seat of Bennelong holds a unique place in Australian political folklore. Held by John Howard for 33 years, it was seized in 2007 by Labor's Maxine McKew, whose stunning win - symbolising the end of 11 years of Howard government - was attributed largely to the support of Chinese and Korean voters.

Today ethnically diverse Benne long will be in the spotlight once again, as Labor seeks to regain the marginal seat which McKew, a former TV journalist, lost in 2010.

But despite his impeccable credentials, the Labor candidate Jason Yat-sen Li is unlikely to reproduce the upset which helped propel the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd into power six years ago.

The broader antipathy towards Labor, and swing towards Tony Abbott's Liberals, is one obstacle he faces. But Bennelong also encapsulates how Labor - once the natural home of "ethnic" voters - is now being beaten by the Liberals at its own game.

For decades, migrants - many of whom arrived poor, settled in areas with cheap housing and took up blue-collar jobs - gravitated to Labor.

The Liberal Party, believing it had little chance of attracting those voters, focused its attention elsewhere.

In recent years, things have changed.

Second and third-generation migrants are better educated, wealthier and more aspirational than their forebears.

The voting patterns of long-established Greek and Italian communities resemble those of everyone else. And the entrepreneurial Chinese, Filpinos and Indians who dominate more recent arrivals are not Labor voters.

Salma Khan, a Pakistani-Australian whose family owns two 7-Eleven franchises, says: "Before, we were in Labor because my husband was working in a factory ... [But] the Liberals are better for business."

The Liberal Party has woken up to this new constituency, particularly in New South Wales, where ethnic support - including that of Lebanese Muslims, traditionally Labor voters - was decisive in Barry O'Farrell's victory at state level in 2011. For the federal election, the Liberals are fielding an impressive cast of migrant-background candidates, particularly in multicultural western Sydney.

Yat-sen Li, a high-flying corporate strategist who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, was born and brought up in suburban Sydney. However, he had no connection with Bennelong until July, when Labor dumped its original pick, Jeff Salvestro-Martin, after he was drawn into the New South Wales corruption inquiry.

Rudd asked Yat-sen Li, who was running his own consultancy in Beijing, advising Australian companies on doing business with China, whether he would step into the breach.

Within days, the 41-year-old had moved back to Australia, where he bought a house in the electorate.

Accusations that he was "parachuted in", in an effort to woo Asian voters, are difficult to refute. And the mostly well-educated, well-off Asian voters of Bennelong can see through such stunts.

Moreover, the sitting Liberal MP, the former tennis star John Alexander, whose majority is 3.1 per cent, has three years of community bridge-building under his belt.

The Liberals - whose social conservatism also appeals to many migrant voters - have been steadily making inroads into Labor's territory. At local government elections last year, they seized control of a swag of western Sydney councils - and many of the new councillors and mayors are from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

- NZ Herald

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