Chinese Australians say Coalition’s rhetoric on Beijing could see voters ‘switch from Liberal to Labor’

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<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Chinese Australian community leaders are warning the Coalition’s use of hardline rhetoric against China is turning voters off – and that it could potentially cost the government in Bennelong.

The electorate in Sydney’s north-west has a sizeable Chinese Australian population and internal Labor polling suggests it could be winnable even though it’s held by the retiring MP John Alexander with a 6.9% margin.

Felix Lo, the president of the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong, said the Chinese Australian community was afraid anti-Asian attacks could intensify if the political rhetoric did not soften.

Lo highlighted comments from the defence minister, Peter Dutton, in April, when he said the only way to “preserve peace is to prepare for war”.

Related: It’s unprecedented for Dutton to label a Chinese spy ship sailing outside Australia’s territory an ‘act of aggression’ | Daniel Hurst

Dutton said China was “on a very deliberate course at the moment”. “The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war and be strong as a country – not to be on bended knee and be weak,” the defence minister said.

Lo said such comments could stoke hatred of the local Chinese community and he argued the Coalition was fearmongering during an election.

“They have been using us, and I think it might backfire. I don’t think our government needs to be so aggressive in their tone and how they say things. Like talking about war as though it is coming tomorrow – that is totally crazy,” he said.

“The language used has an effect on the community. People are genuinely afraid that anti-Asian attacks will intensify in Sydney.

“Many are switching their votes from Liberal to Labor, and this is the main reason. Most Chinese Australians are business owners and for them to switch parties will come down to their wellbeing.

“I know a lot of Liberal supporters are thinking of switching to Labor and it comes down to the anti-Chinese sentiment that is filtering down from the government.”

Labor has been targeting Bennelong with internal polling suggesting 57% of residents in the electorate disapprove of Morrison’s performance as prime minister.

A survey by the Lowy Institute released in April showed that one in three Chinese Australians had suffered discrimination due to their heritage.

Almost 20% of those polled said they had been physically threatened or attacked because of their heritage while one in four had been called offensive names.

Anthony Albanese and Labor’s candidate for Bennelong Jerome Laxale have a coffee with locals in the Top Ryde City mall
Anthony Albanese and the Labor candidate for Bennelong Jerome Laxale have a coffee with locals in the Top Ryde City mall. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Club president, Hugh Lee, echoed Lo’s sentiments. He said many community members would switch their vote in 2022 based on the Coalition’s foreign policy.

“For the past few elections, most of us supported the Liberals, because we believed they would do a better job in managing the economy,” Lee said.

“But this time, I think a majority of us will make a switch to Labor because of the foreign and defence policy of the current government.”

Lee said members of his community had been abused in public for speaking Cantonese and he argued the government’s language was fuelling anti-Asian hate.


“Some of us have experienced signs of Asian hate, such as being abused by locals for speaking Cantonese; we are asked to only speak English.”

Lee noted China was Australia’s biggest trading partner and he said the federal government’s hawkish stance had negatively affected the economy.

“We think that if we can deal with our trading partners [better], no matter if it is China or Europe, our biggest trading partner will help our economy. So if we maintain a better relationship with them, it will help.

“Instead of spending taxpayer money buying nuclear submarines from America, Australia should seek to build a better relationship with China.”

John Howard and the Liberal candidate for Bennelong Simon Kennedy at a campaign launch at the Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club
John Howard and the Liberal candidate for Bennelong Simon Kennedy at a campaign launch at the Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club. Photograph: Dominic Giannini/AAP

In September, the Coalition announced an Aukus defence pact with the US and the UK, including the purchase of nuclear submarines.

The decision to tear up a $90bn contract to buy conventional submarines from France’s Naval Group at a cost of up to $5.5bn prompted concerns of a capability gap with Collins-class submarines to be in use until 2050.

Another community leader, who is a member of the Liberal party and the Chinese Australian Forum, said the fear of racial vilification was high with some people receiving death threats.

“It’s actually pretty bad, it is seriously bad, there is fear in the community, especially after the last council elections, where some Chinese Australian candidates were abused and attacked, some receiving death threats,” he said.

Related: Labor denounces Peter Dutton’s ‘conspiracy theory’ that China wants Coalition to lose election

The community leader, who had previously campaigned for Alexander, said the language used by the Coalition did not effectively distinguish the Chinese Communist party from Chinese Australians.

“Every time they attack China, they don’t say Chinese Australians have made a great contribution to Australia, they don’t clarify that they are attacking the CCP and not the community here.

“It means many people see us as representing the CCP and China in Australia.”

Last Friday, when campaigning in the Victorian seat of Chisholm, Scott Morrison was asked whether the government might suffer a backlash in electorates with significant Chinese Australian populations including Bennelong.

The prime minister said he was “always very careful to make this distinction” between the government and people of China.

“I talk about the assertive and aggressive nature of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people. You know, Chinese Australians are the greatest patriots you could hope for in this country,” he said.

Comment was sought from the Liberal party and Alexander.

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