Moving on from White Australia: Election 2022?

Despite years of critique the Australian national parliament has been overwhelmingly White and massively male, unlike the country as a whole. But something changed at the 2022 election – most clearly around racism and sexism. How might this play out in the negotiations to come?

The Whitlam government supposedly ended the White Australia policy in 1973. For fifty years though, White Australia has hung on in the elite structures –Commonwealth cabinets, the High Court and the ABC Board as examples, even while changing at state and especially local levels. Prior to the 2019 election I argued that we would realise down the track that “Election 2019 was the last White Australia election, in which Euro-Australians dominated the parliamentary seats and both major party leaderships, and where xenophobia was the insistent leitmotif of the Right“. If this election marks an ending for White Australia we would expect to see change in voting, representation and policy.

Just before the election the BBC asked why the Australian Parliament was so White (and male). Sydney Policy Lab director Prof Tim Soutphomassane noted recently that “a celebration of cultural diversity has never been accompanied by a sharing of Anglo-Celtic institutional power”. Peter Khalil, an ALP MP , said in November last year that Australian politics was still swamped by an “Anglo Boys club”. Opting to describe himself as one of the 21% of the population who were NIPOCs (non-Indigenous people of colour) he reflected on years of racism and marginalisation he had experienced and witnessed inside the ALP and outside.

At the 2022 election the trajectories of change differed from each other along almost every conceivable parameter that was not old White male: middle aged well off White women took the elite Liberal urban seats from men. Younger people of colour, usually women, took many of the new Labor seats. Smart mainly young White people took the seats that were turning Green. White Australia was fragmenting along race and gender fault lines. The LNP was left with almost only older White guys in the House.

Voting

The election demonstrated the salience of specific ethnicity in contributing to voter-decisions in many seats, while the more general concern about rising racism played out for a more diverse electorate. “The Chinese vote” has been a focus for interest with many newspaper articles reflecting on the impact of the bellicose rhetoric of the LNP towards China and its impact on the “safety” that Chinese-ancestry voters felt with the conservatives. The Tally Room blog has argued that there was a significant shift towards the ALP (or better put, away from the Liberals) in electorates where the China-ancestry vote was significant. Where the opportunity existed for a potentially-successful Asian or Chinese candidate for the ALP, they were usually successful.

In Fowler, which is a very multicultural electorate with a large Vietnamese community (many with Chinese ethnicity) where the ALP ran the seemingly-resented candidate Kristina Keneally, the ALP vote dropped by nearly 19%. The local Independent Dai Le picked up all nearly all those previously ALP votes, while also taking nearly all the votes that left the Liberals (13%). The Senate vote in Fowler for the ALP also dropped significantly (8%) from 2019, while the Liberal vote rose slightly. In effect the ALP’s safest seat in NSW most likely cost the Party a secure majority.

The key electorates where an apparent anti-Liberal shift in the Chinese-ancestry vote was determinate included Bennelong, Reid and Parramatta in NSW, Chisholm, Higgins and Kooyong in Victoria, and Tangney in Western Australia (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-05-24/chinese-australian-vote-election-swing-labor/101091384). Some benfitted the ALP, some the Independents.

Representation

Peter Khalil (Wills, Vic) and Dr Anne Aly (Cowan, WA) had been fairly lonely non-European members of the ALP Caucus until the election. Aly (her origin is Egyptian Muslim) worked tirelessly during the long COVID lock-down in Perth to build opportunity for candidates of colour. In Perth Sam Lim (a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant) took Tangney with a 11% swing, building on his deep links with communities throughout Perth as a key police liaison person during the lockdown. Zaneta Mascarenhas, born in Kalgoorlie, whose parents arrived from Goa in 1979, took Swan with a 12% swing. Aly herself increased her vote in Cowan by nearly 10%.

In NSW the 9% first preference swing against Liberals in Bennelong was achieved by Jerome Laxale,the popular Labor mayor of Ryde, whose parents were Francophones from Mauritius and Le Reunion. He repeated the victory that Maxine McKew had achieved against John Howard in 2007, also with strong Chinese and Korean support. McKew though was another outsider Capatain’s pick, and could not hold the seat against John Alexander. Kristina Kenneally tried to take it as a Captain’s pick in a Section 44 by-election, but did not get that local support and failed. In Reid a popular local candidate, Sally Sitou, of Lao Chinese background, reclaimed the seat for the ALP with an 8% swing, on the base of very strong Chinese support.

In Victoria both seats that went to the ALP were won by “ethnic background” candidates. In Chisholm Greek-background Carlina Garland saw a 7% swing away from Gladys Liu, though only 4% went to the ALP. In Higgins Dr Michelle Anada-Rajah, a Tamil born in Sri Lanka, saw a 5% swing away from Liberal Dr Katie Allen bring her 3% of first preferences.

In summary of the ten or so seats the ALP won from the Liberals across the country, six were won by “ethnic candidates”, four of whom were people of colour. On the other hand the seven new “teal” seats, though all won by women, are all now represented by Euro-Australians (aka Whites). So how might this matter?

Policy

The ALP released its Election Statement on Multiculturalism under the names of Katy Gallagher (Finance) and Andrew Giles (Multicultural Affairs) two days before the vote and well after most of the pre-polls and postal votes had been cast. The Statement appears pulled out of the 2021 Multicultural Engagement Taskforce Report chaired by Peter Khalil. Two critical additions include a commitment to a Multicultural Framework Review, which will have to consider whether Australia should have a Multicultural Act (which is Green’s policy), and a re-assessment of the standards for measuring Australia’s diversity. The COVID pandemic and the failures to protect multicultural communities have foregrounded the urgencyof these issues .

It is unlikely the LNP or the Teals will have an interest in or an appetite for pushing these concerns to the top of the food chain. However the new ALP NIPOCs and the Independent Dai Le will have a major investment in exactly that dynamic, creating with Aly and Khalil a significant bloc. The new government’s best-known leaders are Albanese and Wong, two surnames drawn from the deep hinterland of multicultural Australia. Farewell White Australia?