News National Liberals warned about clumsy rhetoric as ‘Chinaphobia’ becomes an issue in Bennelong

Liberals warned about clumsy rhetoric as ‘Chinaphobia’ becomes an issue in Bennelong

The Chinese-Australian community will be pivotal in Saturday's Bennelong byelection.
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Labor has ramped up its suggestion the Turnbull government is “Chinaphobic” in the hope the Prime Minister’s strong rhetoric against foreign interference might win over Chinese-Australians in Bennelong.

Local Chinese community leaders were unsure the ‘Chinaphobia’ claim, repeated again by Labor leader Bill Shorten and candidate Kristina Keneally on Tuesday, would sway many Bennelong voters ahead of Saturday’s election.

But they warned the Coalition to tone down clumsy rhetoric used by some government ministers as they attacked Labor’s Sam Dastyari over his links to China in recent weeks.

Australian Asian Association of Bennelong President Justin Li told The New Daily he believed most voters would distinguish between rhetoric and vilification when considering the government’s use of names such as ‘Shanghai Sam’.

“Having said that, I agree the Liberals would need to take care not to go overboard with the name-calling as some voters won’t like their hometowns mentioned in a derogatory way,” he said.

Malcolm Turnbull sparked a war of words with Beijing last week after accusing China of interfering in Australian politics, while government ministers have used names such as ‘Szechuan Sam’ and ‘Shanghai Sam’ to describe Senator Dastyari, who resigned in disgrace on Tuesday.

Campaigning with Ms Keneally at a school in Bennelong on Tuesday, Mr Shorten said Senator Dastyari’s resignation meant the government should “drop its Chinaphobic” attacks.

“I think the Chinese community would be unimpressed by the constant Chinaphobic comments from Malcolm Turnbull,” he said. 

War of words on China

The attack line is an attempt to make xenophobia an election issue in an electorate where 21 per cent of residents say they have Chinese ancestry, compared with 3 per cent nationwide.

It comes after China’s Community Party-backed The People’s Daily newspaper labelled Australian media racist over its reporting of Chinese interference. Beijing lodged an official complaint.

The seat is held by Liberal MP John Alexander, who has built a strong relationship with the Chinese community by supporting their local events, and creating a school table tennis tournament, according to local leaders.

Labor’s Kristina Keneally is known as a former premier of the state. Photo: AAP

Mr Li said the “vast majority of ordinary Chinese-Australians” in Bennelong were not “all that interested in motherland politics”.

“On the issue of Australia-China relations, the views within the Chinese community itself are fairly diverse,” he said.

“To the extent Turnbull’s recent rhetoric may turn off some voters with more pro-China leanings, it’ll be offset by other voters with opposite leanings.”

Eastwood Chinese Seniors Club president Hugh Lee, who has endorsed Mr Alexander, said some Chinese-Australians would be turned off by Mr Turnbull’s tough talk towards China.

“Some people, when they still have very strong links with China, they may think it’s not a good comment by the Prime Minister,” he said.

But the issue would not be a vote-changer for most older Chinese-Australians and some, particularly those from Hong Kong, would back the PM’s tough rhetoric, he said.

“We really don’t care much about whether Australia takes a strong stand against China because we consider ourselves Australians.”

The PM visited Bennelong with Mr Alexander to court the Chinese community. Photo: AAP

Asked about the issue on Tuesday while campaigning with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Mr Alexander said he had a “deep and ongoing relationship with the Chinese community”. 

Ms Bishop also claimed Senator Dastyari’s exit from the Senate was “stagemanaged” in order to create a place for Ms Keneally if she lost in Bennelong.

Ms Keneally did not rule out taking the NSW senate vacancy when asked on Tuesday.

A poll released on Tuesday by The Australian found the election on a knife-edge, with the Liberals and Labor tied 50-50 on two-party terms.

Mr Alexander holds the seat by nearly 10 per cent and has increased his margin at each election since 2010, but frustration with the government is expected to result in a swing against the Liberals.

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