The Chinese vote is paramount in the critical battle for Deakin this election. Liberal MP Michael Sukkar maintains the eastern-suburban seat on a 6.3 per cent margin, but Chinese Australians’ unearthed political power may shift his odds.
“Chinese voters are more aware of political systems and they participate more in the elections, and this is good. They are keen to know a lot of things,” said May Hu, president of the Chinese Australian Accord, an organisation that informs new migrants about electoral processes.
Ms Hu argues the biggest asset of Chinese migrants, who form 5.8 per cent of the electorate according to the 2016 census, is their eagerness to join political activity as a collective, many for the first time.
The ability to influence attitudes and voting patterns has been amplified by the unification of Chinese voters on the popular social media platform WeChat.
In 2016, Liberal activist Gladys Liu used WeChat to co-ordinate Chinese voters against Labor in the Chisholm electorate.
According to The Guardian, she incited fear about the then contentious issue of marriage equality by trading on the attitudes of conservative Chinese who see same-sex relationships as “against normal practice” and “ridiculous rubbish”.
Major parties and politicians have since opened WeChat accounts to tap into the market of more than 100 million registered Chinese migrant users.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both relied on the app to soften negativity stemming from various political sagas. In March, Mr Shorten repudiated then NSW Labor leader Michael Daley’s racist commentary, by answering questions on the issue with about 500 users, according to SBS.
Locally, Deakin residents with Chinese ancestry form almost one-tenth of Mr Sukkar’s constituency. Harnessing such power is critical for his campaign.
It’s a campaign under pressure because of Mr Sukkar’s actions as backing Peter Dutton in last August’s Liberal leadership spill and abstaining from the marriage equality vote.
Before the 2016 election, Mr Sukkar enlisted more than 50 volunteers of Asian descent to gather support for his bid to win a House of Representatives seat.
Whatever his position on diversity in other spheres of life, he has celebrated ethnic diversity during his term in Canberra, commenting that the local Chinese community is “vibrant, aspirational and very enterprising”.
On immigration, Mr Sukkar pushed to introduce a Temporary Sponsored Parent Visa, enabling migrants in Australia to spend more time with their parents overseas by cutting the wait times involved in obtaining a visa.
Yet the challenge from Labor candidate Dr Shireen Morris is already highlighting the Coalition’s seat-by-seat struggle, particularly as Bill Shorten used the contentious backdrop of Deakin to launch his own election pitch.
Dr Morris is appealing heavily to minority groups with her fight for social justice, which she credits to “[growing] up with a huge awareness of inequality” that she told SBS stemmed from her own non-white family background.
Greens contender Sophia Sun may be the strongest ally of the Chinese community, as a migrant from Xi’an, although the history of Deakin’s middle-class conservatism puts her on the outskirts of the race.
Politicians are not the only group of people lending enthusiastic support to the Chinese community. Swinburne University’s federally funded Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) – offered at its Croydon campus – awards 510 hours of free English-language tuition to new migrants, the better to help them integrate into Australian life.
AMEP administrator Francis Feleppa believes the program’s benefits ripple through society. “To help them improve their English so they can be in the community and be able to understand, to find work and get into further studies so that will lead to employment in the future, that’s definitely the goal,” she said.
Participation of Chinese Australians in politics is especially vibrant in the neighbouring electorate of Chisholm where, for the first time in Australian history, candidates representing the major parties recently conducted an Australian federal election debate in both Mandarin and English.
Ruby Kraner-Tucci is pursuing a Master of Journalism degree at the University of Melbourne.