One-time Liberal Senator Helen Kroger is fighting to return to parliament, targeting a lower house seat in next week’s federal election that is one of the most diverse in the nation and which the Liberals have not held for 20 years.
Covering the migrant-dominated eastern Melbourne suburbs of Glen Waverley, Dandenong and Mulgrave, the electorate of Bruce is as multicultural as they come: the 2011 Census shows that more than half of its residents were born overseas, while the proportion born in a non-English speaking country (45.4 per cent) is the third highest in the nation.
All of which talks to the unique challenges of campaigning in an electorate where a Chinese native can feel very much “at home” on commercial shopping strips such as Glen Waverley’s Kingsway, where copies of Beijing’s BQ Weekly are as prominent in stores as the Herald Sun and where shop signs more often than not are written in Mandarin.
In recent years, some in the community have chosen to highlight that a large number of people from ethnic minorities in Bruce do not speak English well, and will struggle to grasp the concept of Australian democracy. They include Ms Kroger, who has previously questioned the issue of English competency.
“There are over 150 communities with different ethnic origins residing in the area,” Ms Kroger wrote in a letter to Liberal members last year. “It is concerning that many of these people do not speak English as their first language and this needs to be addressed.”
Now, when asked about the challenge of wooing these voters, Ms Kroger, 57, said: “I haven’t found this a challenge at all.”
During the course of her campaign, Ms Kroger said she has been actively involved with local gatherings and media to pick the brains of Bruce’s migrant residents.
“During the course of the campaign, we have had material translated and have had conversations with local ethnic newspapers,” she said. “I have also been pleased to participate in many local ethnic gatherings. Nothing beats having a direct engagement with ethnic communities.”
“[Migrants] have come to Australia so that they can have an opportunity to improve their social and economic circumstances, and ensure that their families and children can have the chance to build a safe and secure life.” — Liberal candidate Helen Kroger
The Liberal candidate said her number one priority was to create jobs, while she expected her political savvy would help the Coalition score its first win in the south-eastern seat since the Liberal’s Julian Beale was defeated at the 1996 election.
A life-long Liberal member, Ms Kroger served as the State President of its Victorian branch from 2003-2006 and represented Victoria in the Senate from 2007-2014.
Bruce was once a safe Liberal seat, held by former party leader Billy Snedden from 1955 to 1983. Labor’s Alan Griffin won it for the party for the first time in 1996, after a redistribution of the division’s boundaries changed its political complexion. His retirement has paved the way for an election jostle, with his party successor defending a slender 1.8 per cent margin.
Five other candidates. led by Stefanie Bauer of the Greens, are contesting the seat.
The battle to become Mr Griffin’s replacement is a challenging one for all political comers, with recent demographic changes adding a layer of complexity. Over the past decade, the makeup of the dominant Chinese community (10.6 per cent of Bruce residents identify with Chinese ancestry) has evolved, with the wave of arrivals from Hong Kong and Malaysia being increasingly overtaken by migrants from mainland China, whose political experience is rooted in the antithesis of democracy.
Mr Griffin told The Citizen that while migrants overwhelmingly voted on key policy issues that most Australians were concerned about, such as the economy, health and education, newer arrivals tended to vote on more pressing needs.
“For example, issues around settlements, asylum seeking and migration, particularly around family reunion, and policies regarding resident status,” he said.
With Mr Griffin’s retirement, the man now carrying Labor hopes is first-time candidate and senior public servant Julian Hill, 43, who expects the electorate to vote Labor again on July 2.
“The Chinese-Australian community, particularly, has a genuine and huge affection for the Labor Party,” said Mr Hill, referring to the enduring impact of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s China policies, which saw 42,000 Chinese students granted permanent visas in Australia in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
“There is a politically progressive viewpoint among migrants who moved here since the 1980s or 1990s . . . a deeper appreciation for democracy”.
Mr Hill has held a number of senior positions within the Victorian public service, most recently in the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. He was Mayor of the City of Port Phillip from 2000-2002.
Liberal supporters believe that the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership have lifted the party’s chances in Bruce, citing his strong China credentials, underscored by the coming into force last year of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
“In terms of engaging with Chinese voters, we distribute print materials in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, reach out to them via Chinese community media and Chinese social media platforms such as Wechat. I also take Mandarin speakers with me [when campaigning].” — Labor candidate Julian Hill
But migrants do seem to follow a voting trend. In 2013, researchers at the Australian National University found there were clear patterns in the way migrants from a non-English speaking background voted, although these started to dissipate through successive generations.
ANU politics professor Ian McAllister has conducted surveys after every federal election since the late 1980s, and found that voters of Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds tended to support Labor ahead of the Coalition. By contrast, those from Eastern European countries were more likely to support the Coalition.
This may be due to foreign policy decisions and homeland experiences sometimes extending back a number of decades, Professor McAllister said.
“With the Whitlam Labor Government in the early 1970s, they did two things: they recognised the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states and they also recognised the position of China, and Gough Whitlam visited China at that time,” Professor McAllister told SBS Radio. “From that period onwards, Eastern Europeans became very anti-Labor to the extent of about 20 percentage points in the late 1980s.”
Migrants’ backgrounds can also affect the level of their engagement in Australian politics, according to Labor’s Mr Griffin.
“The fact that many migrants are from different political systems often impacts how comfortable they are with engaging in politics,” he said. “Politicians being treated differently in their home countries or suspicion about authority, for example, mean that migrants’ experience may be alien to the democratic experience in Australia.”
Mr Hill said that there was a challenge for all political parties in engaging new voters in the community, while the key to getting their messages across was a “multi-layered strategy.”
“In terms of engaging with Chinese voters, we distribute print materials in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, reach out to them via Chinese community media and Chinese social media platforms such as Wechat. I also take Mandarin speakers with me [when campaigning],” he said.
However, despite extra efforts connecting with migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, Mr Hill said it would be “wrong” to judge or criticise people for having first languages other than English. “We should never look down on them just because their grasp of English is not perfect,” said Mr Hill.
The Labor candidate also warned that it was important not to stereotype migrants, who collectively did not have “one mind”.
“The Chinese community in Bruce is just as diverse as the whole electorate, while their concerns are no different from people of other backgrounds,” said Mr Hill, who from door knocking over the past 12 months had deduced as the number one issue for people of all ages and backgrounds was education.
Chinese student Alice Zhong moved from her home town in China’s southern Guangdong province last year to Melbourne to study. Now completing her masters degree in marketing communication, the 25-year-old lives in Glen Waverley with her family, who moved to the area about three years ago.
Ms Zhong said her family, now permanent residents in Australia, chose Glen Waverley for a number of reasons.
“It’s safer compared with other major Chinese communities such as Box Hill, while being in an area with a significant Chinese population also means that it’s pretty convenient getting around — I quite like it overall,” said Ms Zhong.
Krati Garg, also a resident of Glen Waverley, said good schools in Bruce were also a major attraction, driving growth in the number of new migrants particularly from China.
“Glen Waverley High, for example, is one of the top performing schools in the state,” she said, highlighting the competitiveness that parents face getting their children into elite institutions.
“The private schools here are overpriced, while public schools are overcrowded to an extent that schools have to impose strict zoning criteria,” said Dr Garg, an oral surgeon originally from India.
Ms Zhong agreed that getting quality education in the family-oriented and academically driven electorate area was a key focus.
“My brother got married recently, so my parents were also concerned [about the next generation],” she said.
Such popularity was also reflected in the real estate market, with median housing prices in Glen Waverley rising by 43 per cent from 2012 to 2015, according to property information, analytics and services provider CoreLogic RP Data.
In recent years, the impact of foreign investment on property prices has raised many concerns in Bruce, particularly in its more politically conservative areas to the north, according to Labor candidate Mr Hill. However, such sentiment was not specifically directed against Chinese buyers.
“There is a clear understanding that it’s about non-citizens not abiding with the laws and illegally purchasing properties, instead of the Chinese people,” he said.
He added: “In any community, the pace of change will concern people: it’s only part of the human condition — fearing the unknown.”
Ms Kroger believes the rich tapestry of cultures and customs in Bruce makes it a great electorate to represent. Like many Australians, she said, migrant communities wanted to ensure that their families had a secure job, had the ability to grow their business and give their children a good education.
“They have come to Australia so that they can have an opportunity to improve their social and economic circumstances, and ensure that their families and children can have the chance to build a safe and secure life,” said Ms Kroger.
“They are respectful of what Australia offers . . . and what the ‘lucky country’ can offer.”