Chinese ties could be the deciding factor
Labor played well to changing demographics in 2007 when it fielded Maxine McKew as a respected outsider in the federal seat of Bennelong. McKew had no left-wing pedigree, and she spoke engagingly with locals.
Critical to Labor’s successful push to oust John Howard was the unthreatening prospect of its candidate appealing to the Chinese population of Bennelong.
In normal circumstances, Howard, despite his criticism of Asian immigration earlier in his career, was respected and still a good fit for Bennelong, because he was a conservative.
McKew needed to be capable of competing for the support of voters in the seat, many of them Chinese businesspeople who might be reluctant to vote out the prime minister as their local member.
The trend in demographics for Bennelong has continued apace in the seven years since John Alexander won the marginal seat back from Labor in 2010.
The make-up of key Bennelong suburbs in Sydney’s northwest has shifted still further away from middle- and workingclass people of Anglo-Irish descent. Eastwood, Denistone, Marsfield and Ryde have become very much Chinese suburbs.
Labor has responded by pouring in huge resources to win the support of this community. It has embraced Chinese associations and cultural groups. And it has attracted Chinese candidates to run for the party to a greater degree than the Liberals.
Ernest Wong, a former mayor of Burwood and now a NSW Labor upper house MP, has deep ties with the community leaders he regularly lunches with.
He is a close associate of the rich local Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo, who runs influential Chinese lobby groups that reach into Bennelong, in Sydney’s inner northwest, and heads a building development company with advanced multimillion-dollar plans to revamp Eastwood’s shopping centre.
Wong served as a mentor to two Chinese candidates on Labor’s Senate ticket at last year’s federal election who were backed by party head office: Simon Zhou and Paul Han. Neither won, but Mr Han is now a Labor councillor on Parramatta Council and works for senator Sam Dastyari. Zhou is now an independent on Ryde council whose vote was critical in helping mayor Jerome Laxale retain his position in September.
When Kaila Murnain, the ALP’s general secretary, sets out to win Bennelong for Labor in next month’s by-election, she has the advantage of Wong’s support in garnering the local votes. Even if Zhou has left the ALP, the backing he got from the Chinese community of Eastwood and Marsfield in September’s council elections could be reactivated to help Kristina Keneally.
On Shorten’s instructions, Labor MPs are no longer permitted to have any association with Huang because of his alleged connections to Chinese Communist Party interests, as reported by an ABC-Fairfax Four Corners program in June.
But the back channels Huang enjoys with local constituents of Bennelong could help Labor all the same. It is doubtful that John Alexander, despite his best efforts over the past seven years of holding the seat, has the connections to match Labor.