With campaigning for the Sydney federal seat of Bennelong reaching its final week, Liberal John Alexander and Labor’s Kristina Keneally are both trying their hardest to get votes in one of Australia’s most diverse electorates.
Only a decade ago, Bennelong was considered a “safe” Liberal seat under former prime minister John Howard.
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, there is around 17,000 people of Chinese background, making it one of the single largest ethnic groups in the seat, which covers Sydney’s north-western suburbs.
Combined with nearly 4,000 Korean Australians, along with other Asian communities such as Vietnamese Australians — the “Asian” vote makes up approximately 15 per cent of the electorate.
Add the large Italian-speaking community of 2,500 people, and the single largest Armenian electorate in Australia, and it truly is a “diverse” prize being chased by both parties with multilingual voting material and ethnic-specific community events.
Community leader and president of the non-partisan Ryde Community Forum Tony Tang is from an ethnic Chinese background from Malaysia and came to Australia 40 years ago.
He said those numbers were making the major parties sit and up listen, especially with the Liberal margin of 7.8 per cent in the last election.
“If any party can capture the Asian vote I believe they can win the by-election,” he said.
But Mr Tang said local issues were the key, rather than any community-specific issue.
“I have been in this area for 30 years and I can see how it has changed,” he said.
“There has been a problem with infrastructure not keeping up with the massive population growth — traffic and parking are appalling around areas like Eastwood.
“Education is also critical, with not enough schools being built to keep up with demand. We value education in our culture and health facilities for the elderly when they get sick.”
Korean Australian leader and president of the Korean Community Support Inc, William Seung — himself a Liberal Party member — agreed local issues were the key.
“I think most of the residents are thinking about the education of their children, and health services,” he said.
Mr Seung said there were federal issues important to the area.
“I am personally very concerned for multiculturalism in Australia. We know it is very good for Australia, making us richer and more diverse,” he said.
“There could be a backlash against the Coalition about their proposed changes to citizenship laws earlier this year, especially about the level of English needed to become an Australian citizen.
“The level that was initially required by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was near university level.
“I think those actions will affect the Coalition [in the ballot box].”
John Alexander’s dual citizenship
On the issue of the former incumbent having to resign as MP, Mr Seung said no-one in the electorate was holding that against him.
“It is because of his parents. He did not know about it. I want him to finish his term as elected,” Mr Seung said.
Sean Kim from the Sydney Korean Society — who is a member of the ALP — said the community was concentrated in the Epping and Eastwood areas.
“Most shop owners are concerned about shopping in the area and the lack of parking. Housing affordability is also key to young Koreans, like the rest of Sydney,” he said.
Mr Kim said tensions on the Korean peninsula were also affecting many in the seat, with most having family and friends in the region.
“We want peace. We want Australia to take an active role in promoting peace and not necessarily following the United States with any military talk,” he said.
What the candidates have to say
Mr Alexander said the multicultural vote was critical.
“I have been working with kids from diverse backgrounds with table tennis in local schools for the past seven years to bring everyone together,” he said.
“It is a marginal seat — as it should be — any party holding the seat should have to work for every vote.
“We are in unchartered waters, it might come down to 50 or a 100 votes — it could happen here.”
Ms Keneally said the diversity of the community was what made it a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family.
“Like others in our community, I am concerned that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s China-phobic rhetoric is damaging to our multicultural community,” she said.
“Mr Turnbull’s extreme citizenship test are all practical examples of the attack on diversity.”
Mr Tang said he hoped the best candidate wins.
“Last election, the Liberals increased their vote. This time I think it is very close — it will probably depend on preferences.”