Data shows the Coalition’s 2016 election victory hinged on just three ethnically diverse seats – Banks, Reid and Chisholm. This time around Labor is shaping its campaign around winning back these communities. By Mike Seccombe.

Campaigning for votes from ethnic communities

Under the influence of religious conservatives, the vote of ethnic minorities won the 2016 election for the Coalition.

It’s a bold statement, but the evidence is there in the data, says Andrew Jakubowicz, professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney.

More specifically, he says, Malcolm Turnbull’s one-seat victory relied on wins in three electorates – Chisholm in Melbourne, and Banks and Reid in Sydney. These defied expectations in 2016, when the national voting trend ran strongly against the conservative parties.

In a contest that saw the Coalition government lose a net 14 seats, Chisholm was the only electorate the party won from Labor. Reid and Banks were the most important “holds”. And all three, Jakubowicz says, moved in a way they really ought not to have done “all else being normal”.

“I work on the basis that people more or less follow their socio-economic profile,” he says. “But these seats didn’t.”

The behaviour of these voters was a sociological puzzle for Jakubowicz. The solution he offers relies on three elements – ethnicity plus social conservatism plus religion – and it helps explain a great deal about this election campaign.

It provides the reason, for example, why no fewer than seven Labor MPs, including the opposition leader and three other senior frontbenchers all attached themselves to a policy announcement this week on a subject of little interest to most Australians.

It suggests why Scott Morrison attended a Maronite church in Sydney’s Punchbowl on Good Friday, and why the Liberal Party dusted off John Howard to wander the streets and offer a glowing endorsement of a candidate he had never met. And why Labor’s candidate against Gladys Liu in Chisholm is Jenny Yang.

Jakubowicz says that, in most ways, there was nothing to distinguish Chisholm, Banks and Reid from other electorates that followed the general anti-conservative trend in 2016.

Census data shows all three electorates enjoyed somewhat higher levels of educational attainment than average, but otherwise were unremarkable in terms of age and income and almost every demographic measure but one – all three are among Australia’s most ethnically diverse communities. According to the 2016 census, more than 56 per cent of residents in Reid were born overseas. In both Banks and Chisholm, it was almost 44 per cent.

Less than 20 per cent of residents in Reid had two Australia-born parents. In Banks and Chisholm, it was just under 30.

“In particular,” says Jakubowicz, “these were seats with strong east Asian communities.”

As Jakubowicz studied the electoral commission figures, another thing struck him. In all three seats, there had been exceptionally strong votes for religious- based conservative minor parties.

In Reid, where the Liberals’ Craig Laundy held on with a margin of 4.7 per cent, there were two such minor party candidates. Kang Ju, of the Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, won 4.1 per cent of the vote and Marylou Carter, of Family First, won 2.3 per cent. Their preferences flowed strongly to Laundy.

In Banks, Sharon Wu from Family First pulled 1.8 per cent, and Nile’s candidate Greg Bondar more than doubled his party’s previous vote, to 5.32. The Liberal candidate, David Coleman, rode their preferences to claim the seat, on a slim 1.4 per cent majority.

In Chisholm, the Liberals’ Julia Banks won the formerly Labor seat by 2.9 per cent. She also benefitted from strong preference flows from the Family First candidate, who got 2.5 per cent of the vote, and also from Rise Up Australia, another Christian conservative party that gained 1.2 per cent.

“So Turnbull effectively won the 2016 election on the preferences of those voters in those seats,” says Jakubowicz.

“It became clear one of the reasons for that, as I looked at the Mandarin-speaking population, was that social media was being used very heavily by conservative Christian groups, who ran against same-sex marriage and Safe Schools.”

Of course, this tactic wasn’t limited to the minor, fringe religious parties.

Now the Liberal candidate for Chisholm, following Julia Banks’s desertion of the party and the seat, Gladys Liu was the Liberal Party’s communities engagement committee chairwoman for Victoria in 2016. A week after that election she was quoted by Guardian Australia boasting about the role she played in Banks’s victory in Chisholm, organising against Labor through Chinese social media, particularly WeChat.

In the Guardian interview, Liu repeated a number of the false claims about the Safe Schools program that were made in the online campaign. She disparaged same-sex marriage as “against normal practice” and argued that “Chinese people” did not want to see their children “destroyed, they use the word destroyed, by these sort of concepts considered same-sex, transgender, intergender, crossgender and all that rubbish”.

When those comments re-emerged last week, Liu first tried to dismiss them as “fake news”. When an audio recording was produced, she changed tack, saying she was only relaying comments made to her by members of the Chinese community.

However, the evidence suggests otherwise. Not only did Liu organise the online scare campaign, the LGBTQI newspaper The Star Observer reported that she played a role in co-ordinating a 5000-signature Chinese-language petition against Safe Schools and presenting it to Victorian Liberal MPs.

Liu’s official campaign biography for this election still boasts: “After Chisholm ultimately proved to be the only seat in Australia that the Liberal Party gained from Labor to secure a one-seat majority, the Labor candidate acknowledged the Chinese-language campaign as a major factor.”

The Labor candidate, Stefanie Perri, did more than “acknowledge” the success of the campaign – she complained bitterly about its misrepresentations, as did Labor operatives in those other seats where similar operations were mounted against the party’s candidates.

But elections are tough and dirty affairs and the reality is that the Liberal Party, aided by social and religious conservatives, stole a march on Labor in 2016. As one Labor operative says: “It is widely recognised in the ALP that the party did not have a particularly good strategy at the last election for engaging, particularly, the Chinese community. We didn’t have a WeChat strategy. We didn’t fight back against the Safe Schools and same-sex marriage scaremongering.

“This time we have a [campaign] unit entirely focused on outreach to the million-odd voters of Chinese origin.”

But the conservatives have also increased their efforts to target voters from Chinese backgrounds in particular, as well as other ethnic groups. This election, to a far greater extent than ever before, is not one campaign but many micro-targeted campaigns, often invisible if not unintelligible to the broader electorate.

Former Labor senator and campaign strategist Sam Dastyari says for the opposition “this presents a challenge that has been coming for a while – how do you reconcile a progressive political agenda with a socially conservative, highly religious ethnic base?”

That dilemma was apparent in the 2016 election and became more apparent during the 2017 plebiscite on marriage equality.

“In the plebiscite,” says Dastyari, “we saw the highest ‘Yes’ vote and the highest ‘No’ vote within 10 kilometres of each other in the seats of Sydney and Blaxland. And both are safe Labor seats.”

It has long been the case that migrant communities tend to favour Labor. In the late 1990s, after Pauline Hanson arrived in Canberra and was offered tacit support for her racist views about immigration by then prime minister John Howard, the preference was huge. Voters who had migrated from Asia were about 30 percentage points more likely to cast their ballot for Labor than were voters born in Australia.

But that gap decreased dramatically after 2007, when Howard lost the election and also his seat of Bennelong, another electorate with a large Chinese community. In 2016, the gap was about 10 per cent among voters from an Asian background, and 3 or 4 per cent among voters from an ethnic background more broadly.

As a general rule, says Dastyari, “the more people of a non-English-speaking background in a community, the more likely it is to vote Labor”.

“Ethnic and migrant communities are supportive of Labor’s economic agenda, health, education welfare, et cetera. But they also are quite socially conservative. This is the division I think Morrison will be trying to tap into.”

Over recent years, Dastyari says, it has become much easier for parties to target specific sub-groups of the electorate with tailored messages.

It used to be the case that the parties would “wash” electoral roll data in various ways to try to identify targets. They still do, to some extent, but the old ways were pretty crude.

In the case of groups of voters from particular ethnic backgrounds, for example, “both political parties used systems where they did surname/first name matches and tried to make assumptions of ethnicity on the basis of that name.”

“Now, anything political parties thought they were doing well, Facebook does 10 times better,” says Dastyari.

“I reckon this will be the first election where the major political parties will spend more on social media advertising than on mainstream media marketing. And the bulk of that will be spent on ethnic targeting.”


Social media offers political operatives several advantages that traditional media does not. For one, content is less likely to be checked for truth. For another, these platforms allow a two-way flow of information – a dialogue that helps parties identify communities where they’re doing well or poorly, and where what Dastyari calls the “moveable” votes are.

And that, in turn, influences other aspects of the campaign.

Take Morrison’s couple of well-publicised church attendances over Easter. His presence on Easter Sunday at his usual place of worship, the Pentecostal Horizon Church in Sutherland, was arguably the less interesting of the two, for there are few if any moveable votes there, although the publicity would have helped extend the message of Morrison’s strong faith into the broader community.

Arguably more significant was the Morrison family’s appearance on Good Friday at St Charbel’s Maronite Catholic Church in Punchbowl.

Andrew Jakubowicz says that in the days before the former New South Wales Labor minister Eddie Obeid, a Lebanese Maronite, was found to be corrupt, the Maronite community vote split roughly evenly between Labor and Liberal. Since then the community has been “heavily courted” by the Liberals and has drifted towards the Coalition.

At the Good Friday service, Morrison was accompanied by Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister David Coleman, the current holder of the very marginal seat of Banks.

St Charbel’s is in the safe Labor seat of Watson – Labor member Tony Burke was also in attendance at the service – but the Maronite community is spread much more widely, and has a significant presence in Coleman’s seat as well.

On Tuesday, John Howard was sent out to Burwood, in Sydney’s inner-western suburbs, to support the Liberal candidate for Reid, Fiona Martin. A political neophyte, Martin was hastily chosen to replace Craig Laundy, a moderate Liberal who quit following the right-wing coup against Malcolm Turnbull.

Facing a particularly strong Labor candidate in Sam Crosby, Martin needs a boost but things did not go well on Tuesday when media began questioning Howard about how well he actually knew Martin. It transpired he had never met her before that day. The best Howard could offer was, “I’ve read about her and everything.”

However, the big question is why Howard, of all people, was sent to do the job, given his well-known historical concerns about Asian immigration.

Reid is one of the most multicultural electorates in the nation, and the suburb of Burwood is perhaps its most ethnically diverse part. Only a quarter of its people are Australian born. More than 45 per cent are of Chinese ancestry, and there are large populations of other Asian heritage.

While Howard and Martin were doing their uncomfortable presser, Crosby was being supported by Senator Penny Wong. They did a Korean seniors’ event at one venue, then street-walked about 800 metres down Burwood Road to another event for Chinese seniors, accompanied as they went by a 20-member group of professional lion dancers, before adjourning for yum cha.
It was quite the contrast.

Wong’s visit to Reid was more than theatre and glad-handing – she came with a policy offering. One so big, in fact, that its press release announcement carried the names of four Labor shadow ministers – Bill Shorten, Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen, citizenship and multiculturalism spokesman Tony Burke and shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann.

It was a radical change to the visa system, which would allow more families of migrant background to bring their parents to Australia for long stays – an issue that will be of no interest to a sizeable majority of Australians, but of vital interest to migrant communities.

Under the current government policy, the numbers of long-stay parent visas are capped at 15,000 places. Labor promised to remove that cap.

Current policy limits families to bringing in only one set of parents. Labor promised to allow two sets.

It also promised to cut the cost of the visas – now set at $10,000 for five years and $5000 for three years – by three-quarters, and to allow the visas to be extended onshore, meaning parents would no longer have to pay the cost of leaving and re-entering Australia.

It may well prove to be one of the most significant policy announcements of the campaign.

The day of the policy’s release, a joint press conference of unusual size was held in Burwood. There were two shadow ministers, Neumann and Bowen, and three others – Crosby, who is short odds to win Reid; Dr Brian Owler, Labor’s candidate for the seat of Bennelong, where Census data shows 61.2 per cent of people have parents who were both born overseas; and Chris Gambian, who hopes to take back Banks.

There are other indicators of the central role the ethnic vote will play in this campaign – the sudden adoption of WeChat by all significant party figures, including Morrison and Shorten; the first candidates’ debate conducted in Mandarin between the Liberals’ Gladys Liu and Labor’s Jenny Yang in Chisholm; the frequency of visits to key multicultural electorates by party heavyweights. Shorten, for example, has been in Reid four or five times in the past couple of weeks.

And there are many imponderables. Will the relatively high proportion of small business owners among migrant communities make them more likely to vote for the Liberal Party’s lower taxes or will Labor’s commitment to social welfare and services turn them to the opposition?

And what about the role of those religious minor parties? Some of the heat may have gone out of the same-sex marriage and Safe Schools issues, but the religious right is still out there pushing its subterranean campaign. The Christian Democrats are still a force. The Family First party now has been subsumed into Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, and picked up as candidates a number of the leaders of the marriage equality campaign, including Lyle Shelton, the former head of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Sam Dastyari is sure of this much: “A winning majority will have to include a bunch of those socially conservative communities.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Targeting the new crowd".

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