Banks: Marginal multi-ethnic hub crucial for Coalition

The Immigration Minister must balance government's move to lower immigration cap with his own very diverse electorate.

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By Freya Cormack

In Hurstville, the main street features a Bank of China branch as well as the usual local institutions.

The Federal electorate of Banks lies in the suburbs of south-west Sydney. The Liberal-held seat is a hub of commercial and service industries and home to bustling multi-ethnic suburbs such as Hurstville and Revesby. Though sometimes overlooked in favour of high profile marginal Liberal seats such as Queensland’s Dickson or Victoria’s La Trobe, Banks is the most marginally-held Liberal electorate in greater Sydney, making it a crucial NSW seat for the minority Coalition Government to hold in the May Federal election.

Held by David Coleman, the current Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, since 2013, it represents one of the most multicultural electorates in Sydney. Around 55 per of Banks’ population have parents born overseas, compared with the Australian average of around 35 per cent, meaning there are many second-generation migrants residing in the electorate.

It is a suburb with a shifting electoral profile. Prior to Coleman’s 2013 victory, Banks had been a Labor stronghold since its inception in 1949. Labor MP Daryl Melham first won the seat in 1990 and held it for more than two decades – changes to the Banks’ electoral boundaries eroded his margin of victory steadily until his 2013 defeat.

Coleman’s win ended 64 years of Labor Party representation of the seat. He retained the seat in the 2016 federal election, but by a reduced margin of 1.4 per cent, making Banks a knife-edge proposition for the Coalition in May.

Bound by the Georges River to the south and west, the South Western Motorway to the north and the Princes Highway to the east, Banks includes suburbs such as Panania, Mortdale, Oatley, Padstow and Connells Point. These boundaries have changed four times since the millennium, with the extension of electoral boundaries to the east in 2009 corresponding with a reduced margin for Labor. Mirroring a pattern that can be observed across Sydney, the Liberal vote is represented more strongly in areas with water views, such as the Georges River. The Labor vote is stronger away from the river.

The major electorate-specific issues are concerns on the water quality of the Georges River, hospital overcrowding and a lack of substantial public infrastructure and public transport.

Demographic data on Banks paints a picture of a highly diverse, densely-populated electorate. According to the 2016 Census, the electorate’s 53 sq km footprint is home to 155,806 people. The Chinese-Australian presence is strong in the electorate, with 16.2 per cent of people having Chinese ancestry, compared with the national average of 3.9 per cent. Chinese-born residents make up 11 per cent of the electorate, with Australian-born making up around half. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two languages most commonly spoken in the home after English.  Other ethnicities with a strong presence include Greek, Lebanese, Vietnamese and Nepalese.

In such an immigrant-heavy area, there are questions about whether the Liberal-National Party Government’s recent decision to lower the national immigration cap from 190,000 per annum to 160,000 will negatively the immigration minister in his own electorate. Coleman, in contrast to some other Liberal MPs, has spoken positively about multiculturalism, and how well it has functioned in his electorate.

“The people of Banks embody modern Australia … Some families have lived in the same home for more than half a century; others arrived in recent times from overseas,” Coleman said in his maiden parliamentary speech in 2013. “People in Banks are defined not by race or religion but by values. All that matters in Banks is that you play by the rules of Australia.”

Given the marginal nature of the seat, Coleman’s re-election is not guaranteed.  His most significant opponent will be the Labor Party’s Chris Gambian. Gambian, the son of south Indian immigrants, was born at St George Hospital, grew up locally in Mortdale, Penshurst and Peakhurst. He lost narrowly to Coleman in the 2016 election.

Also vying for the seat are two new players.  Gianluca Dragone for the Greens and Reginald Wright of the United Australia Party.