China syndrome leaves unanswered questions about Australian politics

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and newly elected John Alexander celebrate at a by-election party in Sydney. Photo: AAP Mick Tsikas via Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Government won a crucial by-election in Sydney during the weekend, but the result posed more questions than it has answered.

What we do know is that the Liberal Party incumbent John Alexander, forced to seek re-election by revelations that he may have British dual citizenship and therefore unable to sit in Parliament, hung on to his seat despite a 5% swing to the opposition Labor Party.

On a two-party preferred basis under Australia’s system, Alexander won 55% of the vote and his Labor opponent 45%. Strangely, for a by-election, both sides are claiming they are winners.

The victory for Alexander, a popular former tennis champion who represented Australia at Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup, means that the Turnbull government has hung on to its one seat majority in the Australian House of Representatives.

But this is where certainty ends. Key questions still need to be answered. For example, can the 5% swing against the government in the Bennelong seat be replicated in the next general election?

After all, Labor fielded a star candidate in former New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally, and she may have been responsible for much of the swing.

Also, if the 5% swing was repeated, Turnbull would be out and the Labor Party would win more than 20 seats and be in government. Yet that raises another question: Could the swing in Bennelong be repeated nationally?

Another intriguing question is whether the Bennelong result will re-boot the government, which has endured an horrorific 2017? Turnbull, naturally, is talking it up but the closely watched Newspoll survey shows the popularity needle has barely moved for the government.

Put together during the same weekend as the by-election, the News Ltd opinion poll showed Labor leading Turnbull’s conservative coalition by 53% to 47%. This is the 25th consecutive Newspoll the government has lost.

It is worth recalling that Turnbull moved on previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott and challenged him after he lost 30 consecutive Newspolls. If the trend continues, will that embolden Conservative rivals to mount a leadership coup attempt?

Finally, what was the impact of the Asian, and particularly Chinese, vote in Bennelong? The election took place immediately after a scandal in which Labor senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign because of his links with Chinese businessmen close to the Beijing Government.

Turnbull’s administration leveraged the revelations that Dastyari had accepted Chinese donor funds and had also lobbied colleagues against meeting with Hong Kong democracy activists as a sign that he had questionable loyalty to Australia. One called him a “double agent.”

Media coverage of Beijing’s influence on Australian public affairs has been a running story in the country for most of 2017. The Dastyari affair brought it to a head, prompting a ban on foreign political donations.

But how did this influence the large number of Chinese voters in Bennelong? Did they agree with the government line that interference from Beijing was compromising Australia’s sovereignty?  Or did they view it as “China bashing” and react against it by voting Labor?

For observers of Australian politics, this final question is possibly the most relevant because it addresses the changing demographics of the country and the political sentiment of Asian voters.

According to the 2016 Census, 21% of the population of Bennelong, an electorate on the north-western suburban fringes of Sydney, are of Chinese ancestry, while 4.7% are Korean. This 21% is significantly higher than the national average of 3.9% with Chinese ancestry.

So what did Chinese voters do in the ballot box on Saturday, in an election where the “China Issue” was front and centre, and a major campaigning point for both leading candidates?

On the one side was a government pointing the finger at Beijing, and at Labor opponents, for seeking undue Chinese influence in Australian politics. On the other side, Labor’s Kristina Keneally blasted the government’s “China phobia.”

Analysis of the Bennelong vote by The Australian newspaper found that Chinese voters had largely swung to Labor. The biggest swings against the government came in polling booths with the largest Chinese populations.

In two suburbs, where voters of Chinese ancestry accounted for 34.5% and 32% residents, the swing to Labor was 12% – more than double the average swing of 5%.

Of the 16 voting booths where the swing to Labor was higher than average, voters of Chinese ancestry made up more than 20% of the population. All of which goes some way to answering one of the key questions about the Bennelong vote.

Chinese voters were unimpressed by the government’s attack on China’s political influence, and if they were hoping it would win them votes they were wrong. How that will play with the rest of the Australian population is another question, and we will have to wait for the next general election for that answer.

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