Will Indian voters back Jason Yat-Sen Li?

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Stand up for diversity in public life, says Bennelong Labor candidate Jason Yat-Sen Li.

Labor’s candidate for Sydney’s Bennelong says that he hopes the time is not far when there will be more Indians in Australian politics. Speaking to The Indian Sun, Li said that it was regrettable that Australian politics or business had no room for diversity. Bennelong has a large number, nearly half the population, of voters from non-English speaking backgrounds. In the Asian Century, Li says, people from different backgrounds should have a larger role in public life and in business, as media professionals, political leaders, business captains etc. Li’s vision for Bennelong is to turn the area into a Silicon Valley. A plan that, he says, will be music to the ears of Indians and Asians.

Li’s candidacy and campaign have sparked a debate in the Australian media with commentators questioning his legitimacy and suitability for Bennelong, which has a large population of Asians. Some see his campaign as a cynical attempt by Labor to get the Chinese vote, Li being from a Chinese background. However, Li dismisses these allegations insisting that he has real ties with the Chinese and wider community of immigrants just as much as he understands Australians. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Li responded to criticism about his ties to Bennelong and Australia saying that he is an Australian who values diversity and multiculturalism and his Asian heritage and business interests in China are assets to Australian public life.

Speaking to The Indian Sun, Li said it is regrettable that the Australian identity is synonymous with just one particular ethnic group and it is time this changed so the generations that grew up here and those who are settling in Australia, as equal contributors to the community, could confidently call themselves Australian. Li says this can only happen if people from different cultures make their presence felt in the Australian public sphere.

Li says that coming from a family of migrants he understands what matters to Indians and other migrants in the area. Li says he is proud of the fact that Hindi is part of the national curriculum. According to Li, the Asian Century, contrary to general perceptions in Australia, is not just about China but other strong players in Asia like India. In this age of Asian economic and cultural dynamism it is sad that Australia is still dragging its feet in using the skills and talents of people from Asian backgrounds, says Li.

Li has also appealed to Indian voters in the area to look beyond petty differences and consider his professional and educational background. Li’s first famous entry into politics was in the late 1990s to fight the rise of Pauline Hanson. He is also a lawyer and successful businessman who has been representing and promoting Australian companies in China.

Although the number of Indian voters is not significant, Bennelong has a growing community of Indians and other South Asians. Community leaders and observers this reporter spoke to argue that Indians in Bennelong will vote for the party of their choice, and not individuals. Dr Yadu Singh believes that the Liberal John Alexander is liked and respected by many Indians and that may favour him. Councillor Gurdeep Singh of Hornsby Shire too endorses this view. However, Dr Singh pointed out that the relatively low numbers of Indian voters need not mean that their votes are not going to be decisive.

It’s unlikely that Li’s campaign will not resonate with the wider community of migrants, including Indians. Much is at stake, symbolically. And many Indian voters will not be indifferent to the symbolic in public life. As Li says, “Indians and Asians, as migrant communities, have much in common in Bennelong. The two communities have shared aspirations and experiences that have created social ties in contemporary Bennelong”. It is this contemporary Bennelong, struggling to free itself from the past, that may respond to Li.

In his conversation with this reporter Li seemed reluctant to give too much importance to the symbolic. But if the symbolic didn’t matter there would be many more candidates from Asian and other backgrounds contesting and winning the elections in Australia. Since that is not the case, which is to say that the symbolic is extremely crucial in public life, Li’s bid for the seat is important. Regardless of the outcome, the issues and anxieties that Li’s campaign has sparked will not go away. The struggle for the symbolic is just the tip of the iceberg.

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