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Bennelong, Australia and the world

Bennelong, Australia and the world

Nicholas Stuart is right to say that there are no votes in foreign and defence policy, hence these two areas rarely get debated during election campaigns (he might have added foreign aid, too). 

But these issues do creep into the national debate through proxies, as illustrated by the Sydney seat of Bennelong, a seat which has come to occupy a special place in Australian political folklore, and one which says much about Australia's place in the world.

The contest for Bennelong is now being fought out by incumbent Liberal John Alexander and Labor's Jason Yat-Sen Li, who until recently was working as a business adviser in Beijing. The manner of Li's ascension to this candidacy is itself a small portrait in Australia's relations with Asia under the Rudd Government. As Michelle Grattan describes it:

Rudd...recruited the Chinese Australian Li personally – in typical Kevin fashion. Li, based in Beijing, has a business advising Australian companies on operating in China. When Labor dumped then candidate Jeff Salvestro-Martin because he was called to appear before the Independent Commission against Corruption, Rudd rang Li, who has been an ALP member since 1999, and put his Bennelong proposition – in Mandarin.

[fold] Bennelong has one of the highest Chinese-born populations of any Australian electorate, so Rudd clearly understood the benefits of having a candidate with close China connections (though a quick glance at Li's CV indicates he is much more than a mere figurehead for the Chinese community, whatever Paul Sheehan might say; Jason Yet-Sen Li's response to Sheehan's column here).

In the unlikely event he takes Bennelong from former tennis pro Alexander, Li's constituents might feel a little uncomfortable with his 2007 comments to the Weekend Australian that 'Most people think Australian democracy is superior...But the Chinese government does something extraordinary. Every five years it comes together and devises a five-year plan and reports back to the nation'.

But Li is a high achieving Australian with excellent centre-left credentials (he campaigned for the republic, worked on the NSW Ethnic Communities Council and worked on the international tribunal for Yugoslav war crimes on the Hague) and an internationalist outlook that extends to dreams of turning his electorate into the Silicon Valley of Australia. That all adds up to a picture of an outward looking, multicultural and economically diversified Australia, which is a close match with Rudd's vision for the country. Nor, in truth, is it too far from where many in the Coalition want to take the country, though a look at the history of Bennelong shows that Australians have only ever fitfully embraced this vision.

Bennelong is famous for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it was held for 33 years by John Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007. There's no space to give a full rundown of Howard's career as a foreign policy leader here, but for present purposes it's enough to point to his record on Australia's relationship with Asia. In the late '80s, Howard for a short period expressed sympathy with then popular fears of excessive Asian immigration to Australia. The early years of his prime ministership were also marked by rocky relations with Asia. Howard failed to condemn Pauline Hanson's xenophobia and took what critics thought of as a condescending attitude to the region.

But as Michael Wesley argued in The Howard Paradox, Prime Minister Howard oversaw 'a level of Asian engagement his great rival Keating never achieved...making Australia a member of every regional grouping it has sought to join.' Howard could also boast of growing trade, investment, study and immigration links with Asia during his term.

While all this was happening, Howard's electorate was changing rapidly. As Crikey's Poll Bludger puts it, the seat was subject to 'a long-term demographic trend...over the course of (Howard's) 33 years as member, with an influx of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Korea giving it a stronger east Asian identity than any seat other than Watson'.

The second reason Bennelong is famous is that it became only the second seat since federation to be lost by a sitting prime minister. The victory of Labor's Maxine McKew in 2007 emphatically punctuated the end of the Howard era and the beginning of what was promised, among many other things, as a new era of Australian diplomacy. Rudd's victory signaled a change in Australia's attitude to climate change, to security policy (with Rudd pulling Australian forces out of Iraq), and symbolically at least, to our connection with Asia, with Rudd famously being an ex-diplomat and Mandarin speaker.

But it's much too simple to say that Bennelong represents the new, progressive and multicultural Australia which in 2007 threw off the conservative shackles of the Howard era to embrace a globalised Australia. After all, the seat returned to the Liberal Party at the very next election in 2010, a year in which the two major parties raced to the bottom on the issue of immigration, with Labor perhaps winning by a nose. And his reputation among his opponents notwithstanding, Howard ran a very pro-Asian-engagement foreign policy, a stance repeatedly endorsed by his constituents before Howard finally lost in 2007. 

Bennelong is a microcosm of the debate over Australia's future in a globalised world, though it is not nearly as simple as a contest between modernisers (Labor) and nostalgics (Liberal). Both sides of politics have embraced multiculturalism and an open trading economy with strong links to Asia. The difference is that Labor tends to see this change as a definitive break with the past, whereas the Liberals, consistent with the conservative streak in their party, prefer to incorporate such change in a less perceptible way.

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