The shopping malls of the Deakin electorate, which extend from the middle eastern suburbs into the shadow of the Dandenongs, tell a rather more diverse cultural story than the one documented in the most recent census.
On paper, locals are still overwhelmingly of Anglo heritage. In reality, in downtown Mitcham, there’s a Chinese choir gathering for rehearsals, an Asian grocery, and crowded English language and Sri Lankan cooking classes at the nearby community house. A melting pot of ethnicities and foods to suit all tastes can be found in Ringwood’s Eastland megacomplex. In the old-school Main Street of Croydon, shopfronts are dressed up for a multicultural festival, a Hungarian costume in the bookstore and a red kimono in the bridal store.
With Deakin the scene of a nail-biting political contest this weekend, the votes of these communities are powerful. And on the entangled issues of immigration, asylum seekers and ‘Stop The Boats’ campaigning, seismic political issues in the last two national elections, word on the street indicates that for many people, they have lost none of their potency.
Fast-growing Deakin, which has experienced a population increase of 21.6% in the past decade, has also seen significant Chinese immigration, boasting over twice the national average of community members from Chinese backgrounds. There are signs that the pace of change has discomforted some parts of the community, even as others embrace it.
Asked by reporters from The Citizen about their attitudes on immigration, two women in Mitcham who decline to give their names, themselves immigrants from Europe, don’t hold back. “I am not happy,” declares one, arguing that new arrivals from Africa are not undergoing enough checks, that they aren’t working. She draws a sharp line between her own immigrant history – “normal and working people” – and the story of new arrivals. “Now, they just bring anyone.”
Her friend says that “Aussie kids cannot buy a house here … it was on the news that Chinese people bought a house here, invest (in) it and go back to their country. The house is empty here. There are plenty (of) empty houses.” She adds: “Every night, when you listen to news, there is someone who is killed or robbed. Because they [young people] do not have a job. They are from everywhere like China or Mexico.”
A short stroll away Alice Zheng, a permanent resident who came to Australia from China almost five years ago, is leaving her English language class at the Mitcham Community Centre. She’s working hard to master the language because she sees it as critical to her ambition to participate fully in her new community. Though she’s not entitled to a vote this weekend, she’s hoping whoever wins government will invest more in education, and in language classes for new arrivals.
She and her elderly father “want to be part of the society … we want to have more opportunity to communicate with others”. Her children are picking up English at school, but her father is still isolated by lack of language. “So, it’s hard for him to communicate with our neighbours.
“But people here are very nice. If the community can provide more opportunities for those people to study English, not only for permanent residents or citizens, that will be great.”
While nationally, it appears the issue of immigration and refugees is not getting the traction in this campaign that it did in 2016 and and 2013, it remains one of Neville Rouloton’s priority concerns. Over his morning coffee in Ringwood’s Eastland Shopping Centre, he says: “I am against illegal boats. Manus Island is a deterrent for illegal trade. So these people get on the boats, they should know where their destination will be.”
Sitting Liberal member, Michael Sukkar, himself of Lebanese parentage and a prominent player in the conservative ranks of the party, has consistently aligned himself with Liberal’s ‘Turn Back the Boats’ policy and regional processing of asylum seekers, which the UN has condemned as illegal and inhumane. He also stood with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton after his controversial comments labelling Lebanese immigration to Australia in the 1970s “a mistake”, saying Dutton’s statement was “spot on” and that his multicultural Deakin constituency had no tolerance for terrorism.
Loretta, working at an Eastland fruit market, also names immigration as a hot topic for her, though she’s ambivalent about the strategies both sides of politics have enlisted to deter refugees. “You don’t get the boats coming in anymore, but they don’t treat them fairly. When the boats do come in, they put them in the detention centre, that’s not human.”
Jack Stein, 46, a father of three, is firmly against turning back boats of asylum seekers.
“We got so much room here and the rest of the world is in civil war.”
Other constituents express worries that current immigration levels put too much pressure on infrastructure or would reduce facilities for those already living in Deakin. Roads and public transport through this outer-suburban commuter zone are notoriously jammed.
Peter, a hairdresser, says: “People that migrate to this country – I think they make the big city too busy, why we gotta be so much on top of each other, when we can expand a bit more out?”
The Liberals have proposed a reduction in immigration over the next four years, capping permanent immigration from 190,000 to 160,000 and capping asylum seekers granted refugee status at 18,750. This might address some concerns constituents have raised about overcrowding in the CBD and suburbs, although some commentators have criticised the framing of congestion as an immigration issue rather than as a failure of urban planning by successive governments.
Meanwhile Labor has pledged to remove the cap of 15,000 places from the temporary sponsored parent visa program, and allow families to sponsor parents on both sides.
Alice Zheng captures the hopes of many migrants to Australia, like those who have decorated Croydon’s High Street with mannequins in their national dress, to be a part of their new society.
“If we can make some contribution such as, if we can have a job here, or even be a volunteer, that will make difference. It will also make us feel it’s our home here.”