Informal votes should not be a third force in Australian politics – but they could change the result of the election on July 2.
The last federal election in 2013 should have been the most engaged in Australian history – with a cast of Game of Thrones proportions.
Full of intrigue and bloodshed: Australia’s first female prime minister, cut down by the man she deposed three years earlier, they face a ferocious warrior, an opposition leader with a polarising personality. But the open warfare between Gillard and Rudd turned the Labor Government into a lurching Hodor, destined to be torn down by an unstoppable Abbott and his army of White Walkers.
The political war made for lead stories on the evening news, countless column centimetres in print and online, as well as damning commentary on talkback radio. You would have expected the intense coverage to translate into record engagement at polling booths. But it didn’t.
In 2013, the House of Representatives turnout rate – the percentage of enrolled voters who turned out to vote – was 93.23 per cent, just 0.01 per cent higher than the previous 2010 election. Apart from 2010, this was the lowest turnout rate since 1925.
While the turnout rate was low, the House of Representatives informality rate – the number of incorrect votes as a percentage of total votes – was 5.9 per cent, the highest in three decades. To be formal, voters must number every box with a series of consecutive numbers starting with ‘1’ being the first choice on the green ballot paper.
NSW was the biggest contributor to the national result, accounting for all of the top 10 electorates with the highest informality rates. Chifley, Werriwa and Barton recorded rocketing informality rates in 2013, with increases of 2.2 per cent or more between the 2010 and 2013 elections.
Watson recorded the highest informality rate at 14 per cent, more than double the national average. The electorate is represented by Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for Finance, and takes in southwestern Sydney suburbs that include Ashfield, Greenacre, Campsie, Lakemba, parts of Canterbury and Bankstown. The 14 per cent informality rate translates to 12,814 informal votes. If informality was a party, in 2013 it would have come third in Watson behind Labor’s Tony Burke (39,126) and Liberal’s Ron Delezio (30,617), and triple the vote of The Greens (4,171).
The Liberal party’s most marginal seat of Barton is held by Nickolas Varvaris on a waver thin margin of 0.3 per cent. The Barton electorate takes in Hurstville, home to more Chinese-Australians than any other suburb in Australia, where more than half the population are of Chinese ancestry. Both Liberal and Labor candidates polled over 32,000 primary votes at the last election. The 12 per cent informality rate in Barton, which is 10,948 in actual numbers, could have changed the result in that electorate.
Similarly in Parramatta, Labor’s second most marginal seat on a margin of 0.6 per cent, if the 9,474 informal votes were cast correctly and they were directed to one party, it could have resulted in a Liberal win, or turned it into a safe Labor seat.
It’s yet to be seen if changes in 2016, such as printing logos on ballot papers will affect informality in the House of Representatives, or if the Senate voting reforms will reduce or increase the Senate informality rate.
Why is informality so high in NSW?
NSW is Australia’s most multicultural state, where almost one in four residents speak a language other than English at home. There is a clear correlation between the rate of informality and low English proficiency – seven of the top 10 low English proficiency electorates are also in the top 10 electorates that have the highest informal vote rates.
An analysis of informal voting in the House of Representatives conducted after the 2010 federal election by the AEC (Australian Electoral Commission) found “a statistically significant link between English language proficiency and informality rates. Divisions where higher proportions of the population have lower levels of English language proficiency are likely to have higher levels of informal voting.”
The AEC found a stronger correlation between English language proficiency and informality than other commonly cited contributors, such as the number of candidates, differences between federal and state voting systems and proximity of state or local elections to federal elections.
Many migrants flee totalitarian regimes in search of democratic freedom. Ironically, record numbers of these migrants have not been able to fully exercise their democratic privilege.
Where marginal seats are in areas of high cultural diversity – Barton and Parramatta are just two – reducing the informality rate could see a different House of Representative candidate elected. In closely contested elections, and the polls are indicating 2016 will be a tight race, reducing the informality rate could potentially lead to a different party in government.
Reducing the informality rate isn’t a “warm and fuzzy” initiative to educate migrants with low English skills on how to vote. Informality should not be a third force in Australian politics. It’s about upholding Australia’s democratic system, making sure the will of the people are reflected at the ballot box by electing the government they want at the end of the day.
Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999-2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.
This Opinion Piece was published on SBS on 21 June 2016.
Over the years, so many “facts” have been casually dropped about Australia’s migrant population that are just wrong.
Here’s a quick guide that might come in handy at the water cooler or BBQ stopper (with the help of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census).
All Arabic speakers come from the Middle East
Wrong. Two in five (41 per cent) of Arabic speakers were born in Australia, while the next largest countries of birth for Arabic speakers are Lebanon (23 per cent) followed by Iraq (9 per cent).
All Arabic speakers are Muslims
While 52 per cent of Arabic speakers in Australia nominated Islam as their religion in the last Census, 42 per cent practised Christianity. And I have it on good authority that all Muslims aren’t terrorists. If we’re talking about the proportion of communities who nominated their faith as Islam then some of the highest proportions are Urdu speakers (96 per cent) and Turkish (88 per cent).
Cantonese = Traditional Chinese, Mandarin = Simplified Chinese
It’s a rough rule of thumb, but it’s wrong. In the 1950s, China “simplified” the written characters by reducing the number of strokes used. Given Mandarin is the official language of China, many equate Mandarin with Simplified Chinese.
That would ignore people from Taiwan who speak Mandarin and still use Traditional Chinese characters and the Mandarin-speaking diaspora who still use traditional characters. In Australia, over 90 per cent of the print publications are in Traditional Chinese with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking readership.
The misunderstanding arises because the majority of Cantonese speakers are assumed to come from Hong Kong and they use traditional Chinese characters. In fact, according to the Australian Census, a quarter of those born in China, speak Cantonese — that means they speak Cantonese and use simplified Chinese.
Fact: Cantonese and Mandarin are spoken forms of Chinese, traditional or simplified Chinese are written forms. There isn’t a one-to-one correlation between the written and spoken Chinese. And while I’m at it, Mandarin and Cantonese aren’t the only languages spoken by Chinese Australians; there are more than 51,000 people in Australia who speak other Chinese languages including Min Nan, Hakka and Wu.
All people from India speak Hindi
English is the most spoken language in the home for Indian-born Australians (28 per cent) closely followed by Hindi (26 per cent) and Punjabi (25 per cent) and Malayalam (9 per cent).
Italians live in Leichhardt
Wrong. Leichhardt’s postcode, 2040 ranks 8thfor Italian speakers in NSW. The top three postcodes are 2046 (Canada Bay), 2176 (Bossley Park, Edensor Park) and 2770 (Liverpool).
Twenty-five per cent of Australians were born overseas
Technically, it’s correct, but often used in the wrong context. According to the last Australian Census (2011), 5,284,502 Australians were born overseas, making up 25 per cent of the Australian population. But that includes Australians born in the UK, USA, Canada and NZ. Factually correct if that’s disclosed, but when used to support translating communications to migrants, it’s misleading (unless you have the urge to translate into Gaelic).
If we just looked at people who spoke a language other than English at home, the figure is 18 per cent. Not inflated but still respectable.
Forty-three per cent have one parent or both parents born overseas
Again, huge number but it’s misleading for the same reason.
There are so many rational reasons why marketers and governments should be communicating with Australia’s diverse population. But those reasons should be grounded in appropriate facts.
Thanks to social media these days, anyone with an opinion has a space to express it. No topic is too taboo, and there’s nothing really there to censor what is said online. When people are talking about sensitive topics like racism, you’re sure to find some heated debate. Sometimes, it seems that being called a “racist” is the biggest cause of dispute. So, should we be so quick to call people racists?
IDENTITY’s Thang Ngo talks to The Daily on radio 2SER, this morning. Listen here.
In 1977, we were the first wave of Vietnamese to hit suburban Sydney. My hair was the first thing the kids at school noticed. Thick, wiry, unencumbered by products, my plume fanned out like a black lacquered miso bowl turned upside down. It was a source of tactile intrigue; just about everyone in my class had a go at patting that bowl. Eventually most of the primary school had a go.
Once the novelty wore off, it was my eyes. Ordinary to me, but apparently they slanted — “socket head”, “slant eye”, “slanty eye”, “ching chong”, “slap head” — I bore the painful slurs and queer looks daily for the first few months.
Not content with patting my head, commenting on my eyes, now they wanted me to talk. The first questions were always, “where do you come from? China? Japan?”. Painfully shy, I always disappoint mumbling, “Vietnamese”. Blank look all round. Not knowing what to do, they decide on stretching out their own eyes and continue to cry “slant eye” until they got bored and walked off, leaving me a trembling mess.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance?
Then in high school it was the gay thing: “you like disco, don’t you”, “you’re a faggot, aren’t you?” I’d keep my head down, hug my backpack and walk through them as fast as I could. Once I attempted to get fit by jogging around the block. Within five minutes, the lads in a passing car screamed out “you run like a faggot”. This is where you’d expect me to call out Australia for being a racist and homophobic country.
I won’t. Because it’s not true.
Being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia
Overwhelmingly, Australians have been kind, generous and afforded me a fair go. Neighbours, friends, school and uni mates make more of an effort to stay in touch than I do. As a child from a penniless family, I have benefited from public housing and free university education. Today, I run an advertising agency that is part of a global communications group.
I reckon being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia. In contrast, my step-sister in Vietnam, during the darkest years, had to pick through the rubbish tip for scrap to sell. She didn’t get to go to uni. With a little help from us, her family is now in a much better place, though her health never recovered from those hard years. So you think I’m one of the few exceptions, a strong-willed survivor? My partner will tell you I’m a wimp, that I have a ‘girly’ voice and that I’m overly sensitive — far from being a fine, survival-of-the-fittest specimen. There are many success stories judging by the names at the top of the HSC honours list. While I get around in a Hyundai i30, others in Cabramatta are floating past in beaming Mercs.
My partner’s grandfather isn’t a racist, though the first meeting was awkward. From Far North Queensland, Granddad fought against the Japanese in WWII. He hated the Japs and he wanted me to know he hated them. After visiting with us for a few weeks in Sydney, his attitude changed. He got to know someone from an Asian culture and found, surprisingly we’re not all that different. Years later, back home, during the rise of Pauline Hanson, he became a vocal defender of the “Asians”. It was the same at primary and high school, many of the “racist” students, once they got past the physical difference, became my friends.
Playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance? Ironically, by rushing in with the racist slur, we divide rather than unite. It’s easier to revert to labels than to understand the cause — Is the person worried about their job? Do they understand other cultures and religions? It’s an easy option to call it out and disengage with them. I believe people’s attitude can change when they are engaged and when they are exposed to people of different cultures. One in three people in Sydney speak a language other than English — diversity is the norm for our children. They are already engaged. The future is bright.
For now, playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed. When I was a local government councillor in Fairfield, the residents claimed the authorities and police were “racist” by containing the drug problem in Cabramatta. The improvements in policing didn’t come from labelling the authorities racist. It came when we united and engaged and successfully lobbied for a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Cabramatta Police resources in 2000.
While I appreciate well-meaning people calling out racism in solidarity, sometimes we need to think twice. Stephen Fry quit twitter recently, disillusioned because that community has become “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended — worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know”. The current US Presidential race is a case in point. Despite seemingly anti-Latino policies such as building a wall along the US-Mexico border, Donald Trump won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus (admittedly the exit polling sample was low). Howard’s anti-asylum seekers policy were backed by the Vietnamese community leadership because they believed them to be economic refugees. When we visit my family in Vietnam, my partner is a constant source of attention. The children run up to poke his belly, stretch his chest hair and rub his head. Fluent in Vietnamese he frequently overhears people remark how obese and clumsy he is.
Racism? Or ignorance?
Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999–2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.
Two hours of fast paced, commercial-free, live radio. Simon was in his element, and I was on my toes the whole time. The team put together some fantastic content, looking at the old and new – with particular focus on the second generation.