The Liberals are pinning their hopes on winning back some Chinese-Australian voters who deserted the party at last year’s election in their bid to win the seat of Aston at a crucial byelection next weekend.
The party is forking out thousands of dollars for advertisements for candidate Roshena Campbell on Chinese-language media platforms as it tries to counter a narrative that its criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party have been aimed at the Chinese community.
Then-prime minister Scott Morrison and defence minister Peter Dutton, now opposition leader, were heavily criticised for their rhetoric on China during last year’s federal election campaign, which included claims that Anthony Albanese would “appease” Beijing in government.
The party is also trying to avert any blowback from growing tensions in the Victorian Liberal Party over state leader John Pesutto’s bid to expel MP Moira Deeming from the parliamentary party room over her involvement in an anti-trans rights rally.
About 14 per cent of voters in Aston have Chinese ancestry and retiring MP Alan Tudge suffered a 7.3 per cent swing to Labor at last year’s election.
The Liberals only hold the seat on a 2.8 per cent margin and both Liberal and Labor sources say the byelection, to be held next Saturday, is too close to call.
Along with meetings and forums with Chinese-Australian groups in the electorate, the Liberal Party has been heavily active on Chinese-language social media application WeChat and news websites such as Melbourne Today.
But, as was that case during last year’s election, Labor is also heavily active on the same platforms.
Labor’s candidate for Aston, Mary Doyle, said voters in the electorate were telling her that cost of living pressures were the biggest issues, but the nation’s relationship with China was an important concern.
“People, particularly people from our large and diverse Chinese population here in Aston, also tell me that the improvement in international relations is really important to them – now the adults are back in charge,” she told this masthead.
“They feel more respected and more hopeful that better international relations will mean more jobs and opportunities for everyone in the outer eastern suburbs.”
Campbell, formerly a columnist for The Age, did not directly comment on China-Australia relations but said in a statement that she was from a proud migrant family.
“That migrant story is one shared by thousands of families across Aston,” she said.
At last year’s federal election, the swing against the Liberals was significantly greater in electorates with a higher concentration of voters of Chinese ancestry. In the top 15 seats by Chinese ancestry, the swing against the Party on a two-party preferred basis was 6.6 per cent, compared with 3.7 per cent in other seats.
The party’s review of the election by former federal director Brian Loughnane and Victorian Senator Jane Hume found there was a “perception the previous Government’s criticisms of the CCP government of China included the wider Chinese community more generally”.
“This was obviously incorrect but the Party’s political opponents pushed this perception among voters of Chinese heritage in key seats in 2022,” the review found.
“There is a particular need for the Party’s representatives to be sensitive to the genuine concerns of the Chinese community and to ensure language used cannot be misinterpreted as insensitive.”
Elsewhere in the country, sitting federal MPs from both sides have been engaging with Chinese-language media to advertise their party’s policy positions and criticise the other side.
Labor’s Jerome Laxale, who represents the Sydney electorate of Bennelong, took to the Chinese-language shopping application Little Red Book last week to criticise recent media reporting, including in this masthead, about the threat of a rising China.
“I just want to acknowledge how difficult and triggering this week must be,” he said in a video posted on the app that was also shared widely on WeChat.
“We know that the Labor government are doing all we can, and working incredibly hard, to improve Australia-China relations. The Morrison-Dutton era of division is over.
“Whilst we have our differences with China, it’s in both our countries’ interests to work together.”
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