By: Philip Bowring

Although the upcoming Australian election is of scant interest to most outsiders, it is but throwing up curious insights into the issue of Australia-China relations. The issue of China and Chinese has nonetheless been stirred by two events.

In the wake of revelations of payments by state-related Chinese enterprises to Australian politicians who subsequently made statements supportive of China, laws were recently tightened to require declaration of interests and prevent foreign interference in elections.

Certainly, foreign policy features nowhere in the debates between Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the Liberal-led ruling Coalition and challenger, Bill Shorten of the Australian Labor Party. Focus from the Liberal side is almost entirely on tax increases, real or imagined, that a Labor government would introduce, while Labor promises more spending on issues ranging from child care to reductions in greenhouse gases as well as ending tax loopholes which mainly benefit the rich.

Immigration issues get some attention but foreign policy almost none despite Labor having a high-profile spokesperson on the topic, Penny Wong.

But unease at the leverage that mainland money enjoys in academia and sections of the minerals export industry has not gone away. It was fanned by a statement by former Prime Minister Paul Keating (1991-96) calling for the dismantlement of ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, on grounds that it was spreading suspicion of and hostility to China. “Nutters” are in charge of foreign policy, Keating claimed.  

Keating just happens to be on the Advisory Board of the China Development Bank, the PRC’s biggest conduit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to spend more than US$1 trillion across Asia and other continents, and other foreign infrastructure project lending. To maintain an appearance of Labor unity, Shorten has thus far not commented on Keating’s amazing outburst.

Meanwhile Liberal party supporters have been caught up trying to exploit Chinese (not anti-Chinese) racist sentiment in support of an ethnic Chinese Liberal candidate in the seat of Chisholm in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. One social media message claimed that Labor’s policy on increasing refugee intake would result in refugees exceeding the Chinese population. Another message claimed that Labor favored immigrants from the Middle East. It is no coincidence that both Liberal and Labor are fielding ethnic Chinese candidates in the division in a blatant attempt to exploit ethnic identity. Some 20 percent of the voters there are Chinese, of whom 70 percent were born on the mainland, a far higher percentage than for Australia as a whole where Chinese are 3.9 percent of the total with only 2.2 percent mainland-born. Immigration from the PRC has now been overtaken by that from India but tends to be more concentrated geographically and the total of PRC-born still exceeds the India-born.

The national debate is more about total numbers, and the size of the refugee intake in particular, but immigration is still favored by almost all parties so this is not a key election issue which is more about taxes and spending.

Polls currently have Shorten in the lead, by a small margin but, if sustained, probably enough to achieve an adequate majority. However, electoral arithmetic is complicated by the increased presence of minor parties and how they will impact the distribution of preferences. Australian voters are required not merely to tick their own chosen candidate but list the others in order of preference. These are then distributed till one candidate has an absolute majority.

The Greens, with around 9 percent of the vote, are the most established minor party but there has been a rise in independent candidates and, mostly spectacularly, in the United Australia Party, which is run and massively financed by a maverick conservative mining magnate, Clive Palmer.

Also in the race is established anti-immigrant campaigner Pauline Hanson, though her One Nation party has been hurt by revelations by Al Jazeera of an attempt to raise funds from the US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

The voting system keeps most of the small parties out of the House of Representatives but their preferences do matter. It is also easier for them to enter the Senate which is elected on a state not constituency basis. They can make life difficult for government if the main parties are equally balanced. Half the Senate is up for election this year and smaller parties seem likely to benefit from what is seen as the poor quality of personnel and debate among the mainstream politicians. However, there is no strong populist tide of the strength which has disrupted established parties in Europe, Brazil and elsewhere.