Decision Division: A View of Intergenerational Voting in Asian Australian Communities

Decision Division: A View of  Intergenerational Voting in Asian Australian Communities

“The job of every generation is to discover the flaws of the one that came before it. That’s part of growing up, figuring out all the ways your parents and their friends are broken.”

The quote from American-Australian writer Justine Larbalestier’s Zombies vs Unicorns,was printed in 2010 – just over ten years ago. At the time, civil unrest was on the rise due to siloed policy-making, particularly around refugee detention (Mandatory Detention Policy), as well as weakened support with respect to improvements in industrial relations and the working class (Workplace Amendments Act, “Work Choices”). This was reflected in the polls, a representation of the changing hearts and minds of the Australian public. Most noticeably was the spotlight that had begun to be shone on voters from diverse backgrounds and ethnic minorities – their voices as a significant part of the Australian voters, just as the country experienced a brief respite from its Liberal governed state.

From ‘White Australian Policy’ to Close Relationships with Asia

The White Australian Policy was primary rule legislation introduced in 1901 as a part of the New Commonwealth of Australia that effectively stopped all non-European migration into the country. modern generation – most going through an Australian education system post-2000s – learnt and reflected on the White Australian Policy/Immigration Restriction Act and agree it was a regrettable turn in the country’s history. Colonisation in particular has been a term and subject within Australia’s social vernacular, that has recently come under intense scrutiny due to its negative aftermath (Australia Day revision, identifying 26 January as ‘Invasion Day’, ‘Change-the-Date’ initiatives). What has been realised in more modern retrospectives of the White Australian Policy was its driving force of unifying sentiments of the colonies—one that explicitly served the development of a racially insulated white society.[1]

It’s significant to note the change in attitudes, particularly towards Asian immigrants, by way of the national demographic statistics and noticeable shift in societal sentiments, particularly within the larger Metropolitan hubs of Australia’s more populous cities. The population of Australians consisting of those born overseas equalled 24% in 2000, a quarter of whom were born in Asia. Between 1981 and 2000 the Asian-born population of Australia grew steadily, from 276,000 to over a million, and by 2001, made up 6% of Australia’s people.[2] In 1991, over 600 thousand residents were born in Asia, of which the largest numbers came from Mainland China, Malaysia, and the Philippines.[3] Per intergenerational population data taken in 2016, nearly half of all Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent who was born overseas. Of this, 21% of the population were second generation Australians i.e., born in Australia, but have one or both parents born overseas, with further statistics showing that those under 40 in this category had both parents born in an Asian country.[4]

With the numbers in Asian sub-populations in Australia steadily growing, there has been a wider net of acceptance of multiculturalism, particularly with a spotlight on Australia’s history with facilitating and celebrating Asian culture. In the major cities, mass tourism has been welcomed from our Asian neighbours, and although suspicious attitudes toward Asians are still present among a minority of Australians – not helped by the anti-China sentiments that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic – even the Australian government has realised positive yield of strengthening its relationship with Asia by way of economy with  the integration of Asians in the business and financial institutions/infrastructure.

Turning Points: Australian Migration Policy and Kevin 07

Some perceived the evolution and shaping of Australian migration policy since 1975 to be a primary factor in interparty competition for influence within Australia’s ethnic communities. With the entry of the Liberal/National Country Party in 1975 came demographic implications as the result of the restoration of an active migration policy. By 1981 a numerical goal had been hit, with Australia’s migration rate hitting a high of .82% of the total population, a statistic that succeeded the majority of almost all other Western Society.[5] What differentiated this policy from previous federal migration initiatives was the inclusion of a migrant selection system and source countries.[6] By the mid 1980s through to the 1990s, Asia became the dominant place of migration origin, with settlers from India and China trailing New Zealand and the UK as the largest source countries.[7]

Electoral reforms in the late 2000s to 2010s, as well as a slingshot of a general election just months after Julia Gillard had replaced Australian Labour Party (ALP) PM Kevin Rudd, capped the end of a term that saw further development for the nation, particularly from an international/multicultural scope. The ‘Kevin 07’ Campaign that kicked off the Rudd fervor was seen as significantly progressive in its inception: a signed endorsement on the Kyoto Protocol for Climate Change, a parliamentary apology for the treatment of Indigenous Australians—particularly the ‘Stolen Generations’—and an active step towards ‘presidential-style’ politics in Australia, with empowering true leadership of a nation through constitutional reform.  It had an outwards/globally-minded flair to it, with active steps to strengthen relations and loosen trade embargos between the US and China. In fact, a specific aspect of the Kevin Rudd story and brand was his education—a Bachelor of Arts in Asian Studies, with First-Class Honours in Chinese studies, language and history. The former PM is popularly known for his proficiency in Mandarin and even has a Chinese name, “Lù Kèwén” (陆克文). This detail of Rudd’s professional history⁠—one of an internationally educated and therefore minded individual⁠—was perceived as one factor for his soaring popularity in the polls and public image. Here was a leader that rejected the xeno and nostaphobic transgressions of his preceding housekeepers[8]. In the years of his term in office, there was and was and has remained to be a steady influx in immigration from non-English-speaking countries, keyly China.

Andrew Billo, Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society’s New York Public Programs office, put forward the view that, as a result of Rudd’s work and focus on Australia’s relationship with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, some of the country’s successes and failures of the country are now closely aligned with the positive and negative outcomes of the political and economic developments that happen in their backyard.[9]  That’s not to say that Rudd is responsible all on his own for incentivising our multicultural communities to be included in the political paradigms of this country, or that the Asian Australian Experience through the lens of Aus Politics is homogenous. Between generations of Asian Australians, those experiencing Australia especially as children of first generation migrants from the 1980s and 1990s may hold residual sentiments impacted by the previous parliamentary and political landscape[10].

Looking at the concept of multiculturalism within the Australian social and political landscape, it was first presented in the early 1970s with a speech delivered at the time by the Minister of Immigration under the Whitlam Government, Al Grassby, titled ‘A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future’.[11]  Explicitly in regards to the national fabric, he states from observation, of future generations coming to grips with increased immigration and thus, ethnic diversification in the Aus communities:

“It is a fact that 46 per cent of today’s population is under 25 years of age. Thus, 46 per cent have no personal knowledge at all of an Australia without mass migration of great ethnic diversity, nor of the dynamic process of social and cultural change which it has brought about. Such change has always been a part of their lives and must be seen by them to be perfectly normal. In the face of such change and the increasing ethnic diversification which has provided the impetus for much of it, young Australians seem to exercise an admirable openness and tolerance.”[12]

Interestingly, academic, Mark Lopez in his analysis of Grassby’s speech, indicated that while Grassby didn’t show any concerted effort to change the ALP’s immigration policy, the points he raised around multiculturalism did introduce concepts and policies into the advisory system that the Minister had established to provide a reform agenda to address migrant settlement and welfare problems.[13]

Further bolstering of these concepts and overall awareness of acceptance of multiculturalism as a part of the national fabric came in the early 2000s, when the Howard Government issued a new policy statement, titled ‘Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity: Updating the 1999 New Agenda for Multicultural Australia: Strategic directions for 2003-2006’.[14] The statement aimed to promote social cohesion with the arise of adverse global events in the form of acts of terrorism (9/11, and the Bali incident of October 2002) and the war in Iraq in 2003. Actions out of this policy statement extended to initiatives that included the development of a ‘National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security’ (National Action Plan) to ‘address extremism and the promotion of violence and intolerance in Australia’.[15]

The “Ethnic Vote”

During the 2019 federal election, the votes of those from migrant backgrounds, particularly in big cities, cost the ALP polling figures in Coalition electorates that were expected to swing it. Andrew Jacobuwicz, Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology, Sydney, cited “ethnic vote” as major cause of this, noting a correlation between strong social media campaigns targeting local Chinese-Australians in mediums more utilised by their communities (e.g., WeChat) and attacking Labor’s stance on same-sex marriage and Safe Schools boosted the vote for conservative parties such as Family First and Rise Up Australia, which preference the Liberal Party.[16] Prof. Jacobuwicz defines the ethnic vote as one that exists where there are large numbers of people from particular cultural backgrounds, but where their ethnicity and cultural mores – and, where relevant, religious beliefs – shape and observably determine their views and votes on particular issues in an election.[17]

It’s interesting to note from a 2019 election study, the federal election that year showed record low votes from the age demographic of those under 35. Further indicators showed an increase in distrust in government and, within the demographics that showed stronger voting inclination, management (or mismanagement) of the economy being an important factor in voter’s decisioning.[18] This heeds the question: were there key deterrent factors for the ethnic vote, particularly for those under 35 years old? When looking at the population of young Australians today, and particularly of ethnically diverse backgrounds, the subject of political preference and voting continues to be one that is complicated to unpack:

  • Although modern voting patterns in areas dense with Asian populations suggest an inclination towards Liberal Party values, Pauline Hanson who was avowedly anti-immigration in her campaign, was also before disendorsement, a member of the Liberal Party.
  • Former Liberal PM John Howard brought much of the anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism sentiment upon himself, with some injudicious comments in the late 1980s the call to unite Australia under one cultural front as a solution to what was termed the “Culture Wars” (source: National Affairs, The Australian). It largely undid previous Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser’s work where in 1983, he called to resettle some 70,000 refugees from southeast Asia[19]—a decision that marked the definitive transition from White Australia to multicultural Australia in the eyes of the Australian public.
  • Howard’s later misuse of the refugee situation during his time as PM further cemented the anti-Liberal voting pattern[20], particularly among former refugee communities, and irrespective of their demographic. However today this is far less apparent and suggests other drivers for Asian Australian communities in swinging their votes.
  • In May 2019, ALP Frontbencher, Chris Bowen suggested perceptions of Labor among religious people, claiming that “[many Australian] people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them” and that their sentiments must be appealed to by the ALP in the bid for their political support.[21] However, scrutiny on Bowen’s view comes from analysis of his McMahon seat in Sydney, with the Christian Democratic Party owning half of the majority votes from One Nation and the United Australian Party.[22] 

Driving the AA Vote

Historically, electoral data shows that those identifying with an Asian ethnicity have the lowest electoral turnout of any of the broad ‘ethnic’ categories used by government statisticians.[23] This includes those enrolled to vote as well as those ineligible or not enrolled. What accounts for this finding? Looking to recent polling place figures for neighbourhoods which are significantly underpinned by an Asian ethno-centric community—Eastwood and Hurstville, suburbs North and South West of Sydney’s CBD—less than 50% of the population in both cases submitted votes at the most recent Council Elections (source: Australian Electoral Commission[24]). This poses the question as to whether Australia’s political parties, legislatures and political cultures will ever be able to normalise inclusivity of the country’s changing demographics, particularly in light of the changing nature of the ethnic vote through changing generations. This feels presently still reflected in the candidature where, even with AA representatives rising to the ballot, it’s still Australians of caucasian/European descent leading in the polls. It perhaps highlights a lack of identification on a socioeconomic or class level with some of the AA candidature, within the current generation of AA and ethnic Australia, and particularly the youth within these communities.

Not all culturally contextual markers are equated equally across AA populations. Continuing with Sydney as the case study, in areas where key demographics are migrants of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds, a significant number of these populations have been moved to the polls in recent times, with voting analysis showing advocacy for the ALP and its affiliates.[25] This  evidences the potential social impact of historical context on voter values in these minorities, e.g., the mistreatment of refugees and Asylum Seekers, to the rise of highly socially divisive sentiments such as Islamophobia, and support of the far right for more US aligned values. The voting enabled of these communities realigned themselves to an existing party, seemingly swayed by demographic and cultural values, including political support/representation for their religion, and influenced more by community leaders and their affiliations. In the council electorate of Lakemba for instance, saw the election this past term (2015) of the Jihad Dib, the first MP of Muslim descent to both represent the Lakemba seat and to take a position in the NSW lower house. This is significant when considering the fact that the Lakemba electorate includes the suburbs of Greenacre, Punchbowl, Wiley Park and parts of Bankstown, all widely known for their dense Muslim socio-demographics and cultures.

Gladys Liu is another such example, the MP for the seat of Chisolm in Melbourne’s south-east, which has both a large pan-ethnic population—with just over 50 percent of the seat foreign-born—as well as a specifically ethnic Chinese population of close to 20 percent. Liu’s trajectory towards becoming an MP may indicate the length of time and dedication to the cause that migrant communities face to gain the trust of the Old Guard of federal political parties. Liu gained citizenship in 1992. After joining the Liberal Party in 2003, she worked and served under many of the Party’s administrations and associations before being subsequently given ‘unwinnable’ spots on the party’s Victorian Legislative Council.[26]

A marked barrier it seems for Chinese-Australians in particular wanting to become politically active are concerns about national security. For instance, many of the challenges faced by the aforementioned Liu in her bid for the Chisolm seat arose from her connection to an organisation linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[27] Despite this accusation, Liu stated that she left the group in 2016 and that there’s no evidence of ongoing connection or engagement. The rise of the CCP’s presence and influence within Australia in the late-2010s has had an unfair effect on limiting the ability of Chinese Australians, not distinguished by social demographic, to organise effectively and represent their communities as trusted political representatives.[28]

It’s interesting to note that the opposition candidate vying for the Chisolm seat was Jennifer Yang, a senior union official of the ALP, of Taiwanese descent. In her campaign, Yang noted that if she won the seat, she would represent all of Chisolm, not just the Chinese community, viewing herself as a candidate committed to locale and not just standard-bearer for racial diversity, stating to the media, “I just want to be an Australian, representing the people’s voice in Parliament.”[29]

Liu’s appeal to voters was ultimately successful in Chisolm, noting during the respective campaigns, members of the local Chinese community were pleasantly surprised to see two familiar faces plastered on large posters and corflutes throughout the area:

“It has actually raised their interest and I think that’s a very good thing… because we want more migrants to be part of this country, to get engaged.”[30]

Apart from these ideological and politically-related factors suggesting influences on swings either way in the polls and party alignment, it’s also worth considering the broader demographic changes in Australian society within AA communities:

  • Education, a favourable and attractive focus area for AA voters and a key Labor policy platform.
  • Urbanisation, which is again favourable to Labor, especially when contrasted with the rural vote of where sub populations of AA’s are far less dense (votes may tend towards the parties such as the Nationals and away from those favoured by AA’s).
  • Housing, a market heavily influenced in urban areas by offshore financial backing and one that favours young, steady professionals and well-off migrant renters in particular.
  • Collective-voting, a behaviour which is arguably stronger in migrant communities in general.
  • Employment, which is evolving away from a predominantly full time into a part-time or freelance style as younger generations seek to empower their own brand and professional representation.
  • Ethnicity, which is admittedly changing with generations, leading into more of a demography focus – societal factors that contribute to births, deaths, income, or the incidence of disease and ones that illustrate the changing structure of human populations. The importance and prioritisation of demography as a proponent for leading community change and growth, particularly within AA communities today as they begin to grow and modernise, suggests the most significant shift in generational outlook.

AA’s as Active Participants in the Federal Election

While intergenerational discourse may be lacking in Australia, we can explore by specific population insights, studies and reports, where the effect of people’s experiences of transnational migration and their multigenerational family dynamics impact on not only voting behaviours of AA ethnic groups, but also their holistic view of Aus politics. In the Federal Treasury’s publication of the 2021 Intergenerational Report, economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 is the key focus with a sense that economic growth is slowing down due to lower levels of migration as a result of the pandemic.[31] With that in mind, the current and future generation of Australia is set to experience the coming economic challenges head on, with the population continuing to age and productivity expected to lower as a result of this aging, i.e., the baby boomer generation cycling out of the demographic classified as the working age portion of the population. As such, AA participation in the country’s development of policies and strategies that will shape both its economy and global standing becomes more and more prevalent, particularly with borders reopening to many East and South East Asian countries and tourism and immigration already recommencing.

An interesting proxy study in New Zealand suggests that the NZ Asian perspective on the Living Standards Framework—developed by the NZ Treasury—is critical due to a commonality in cultures that centres around collectivism, often with hierarchical relationships and distinct gender roles.[32]  Values that appear to hold steady and transfer between generations within NZA communities, are those of economic stability relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people. In alignment with the LSF, this has been observed as playing a central role in each person’s identity and wellbeing. Much of the same can be stated by observing AA communities here in Australia, given the case study from NZ, that there are several suggested indicators which support the growth of AA participation in the federal polls:

  1. Local council and government supported community, cultural events that promote cohesion, settlement and a sense of belonging in AA’s.
  2. Further racial acceptance and cultural recognition, not only through celebration but also by way of punishing crimes of racial discrimination. A November 2020 study from the Australian National University found 84.5 per cent of Asian Australians surveyed had experienced at least one incident of discrimination between January and October of that year[33], a staggering statistic when considering the boom in Asian cultural events recognised and celebrated publicly over the past five years.
  3. Employability and opportunities, particularly in industries and fields where there is low level of AA participation and higher demand for diversifying hiring standards.
  4. Accessing government services such as English language proficiency, healthcare, welfare, particularly for AA populations in lower socioeconomic areas. This factor in particular parlays into a succinct point made in the NZA study, whereby taking into account the cultural differences within the sub-ethnic Asian groups was considered a priority in positively appealing to the overall NZA population, e.g., saving face was noted as more of a concern for the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani but less so for the Filipino group.[34]
  5. A further desire to disassociate with the “Settler’s Mentality” that has been a part of Australia’s dysfunctional history.

This  health of Australia’s political direction requires political parties to not just see their direct self-interest in fielding both candidates and electorates of minority concentration, but in recognising the broader value of Asian-Australians as civic equals with positive contributions to make to Australian society. The gap that is closing with the shift in the generations of AA voters is the pathways that would give migrant communities the personal security and a greater sense of civic investment in Australia required for more AA’s to become politically active, whether representing the community through votes or by candidacy. However presently, it’s important to realise that the AA experience is not homogenous and such, voting patterns, behaviours and incentives will continue to vary with this disparity amongst the numerous AA communities. Finding socioeconomic common denominators amongst AA populations will continue to paint the larger picture of the part they play in Australia’s national fabric.


[1] “White Australia policy”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Nov. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/White-Australia-Policy

[2] 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2001: Population Composition: Asian-born Australians, Australian Bureau of Statistics

[3] ‘White Australia’ to ‘part of Asia’: recent shifts in Australian immigration policy towards the region. Jupp, J. Int Migr Rev. 1995 Spring;29(1):207-28. PMID: 12319613

[4] 2071.0 – Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia – Stories from the Census, 2016.  Australian Bureau of Statistics

[5] ‘A new era in Australian migration policy’ by Birrell, R. Int Migr Rev. 1984 Spring;18 (1) : 65-84. PMID: 12312930

[6] https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/1011/AustMigration

[7] ABS, Year Book Australia 2005, cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra, 2005, viewed 25 August 2010

[8] ‘Racism in Australia: Is Denial Still Plausible?’ by Gershevitch, C. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts Vol. 3, No. 2, Special Issue: Human Rights, Social Justice, and the Impact of Race (Spring 2010)

[9] ‘Kevin Rudd and Australia’s Role in the Asia Pacific Century’, Billo, A. Asia Society Blog, published January 9th, 2012

[10] ‘Southeast Asia—political snapshots’, Clare, A. Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security, Australian Parliamentary Library

[11] ‘A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future’, Grassby, A. A speech to the Cairnmillar Institute’s Symposium Strategy: Australia for Tomorrow, Melbourne, 11 August 1973

[12] A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future’, Grassby, A. A speech to the Cairnmillar Institute’s Symposium Strategy: Australia for Tomorrow, Melbourne, 11 August 1973

[13] ‘Multiculturalism: a review of Australian policy statements and recent debates in Australia and overseas’, Koleth, E. Social Policy Section, Research Paper no. 6 2010–11

[14] Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), Annual Report 2002–03, DIMIA, Canberra, October 2003, p. 103

[15] Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA), Annual Report 2005–06, DIMA, Canberra, October 2006, p. 223

[16] ‘The rising power of the Chinese-Australian vote’, Chang, C.  https://www.news.com.au/national/federal-election/the-rising-power-of-the-chineseaustralian-vote/news-story/dfaf932cda4210d4652ffa018571a083

[17] ‘Was there an ‘ethnic vote’ in the 2019 election and did it make a difference?’ Jacobuwicz, A., Ho, C. The Conversation. https://itstillworks.com/12524283/a-tutorial-for-mixing-mastering-adobe-audition

[18] https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2019/December/The_2019_Australian_Election_Study

[19] ‘Welcome to Australia? A reappraisal of the Fraser government’s approach to refugees, 1975–83’, Stats, K (2015). Australian Journal of International Affairs, 69:1, 69-87, DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2014.952707

[20] ’Refugee Protection in the Howard Years: Obstructing the Right to Seek Asylum’, McAdam, J., & Purcell, K. (2008). The Australian Year Book of International Law Online, 27(1), 87-113

[21] ‘Labour urged to include people of faith’, Banger, M. The Canberra Times, published May 22 2019

[22] Ibid.

[23] ‘The Political Representation of Ethnic and Racial Minorities’, Athony, K. Briefing Paper No. 03/2006

[24] https://results.aec.gov.au/24310/Website/HousePollingPlaceFirstPrefs-24310-83568.htm

[25] Ibid.

[26] ‘The under-representation of Asian-Australians: political order and political delay’, Wyeth, G. Melbourne Asia Review, Edition 5 (2021) DOI: 10.37839/MAR2652-550X5.17

[27] Ibid

[28] ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s power and influence in Australia’, McKenzie, N., Baker, R., Koloff, S., Uhlmann, C. ABC News / Four Corners Segment. Posted Sun 4 Jun 2017

[29] ‘Chisholm: Gladys Liu, Jennifer Yang vie to make history as first female Chinese-Australian MP’, Dziedzic, S. Updated 18 Apr 2019 ABC News

[30] Ibid.

[31] https://treasury.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-06/p2021-182464.pdf

[32] https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/205383/1/dp18-10.pdf

[33] ‘More than eight in 10 Asian Australians report discrimination during coronavirus pandemic’, Walden, M. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-02/asian-australians-suffer-covid-19-discrimination-anu-survey/12834324

[34] https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/205383/1/dp18-10.pdf

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