Rahim Mohamed: Diaspora politics is coming to Canada
This isn't a good thing or a bad thing. But as Australia shows us, it is inevitable.
By: Rahim Mohamed
As the stereotype goes, Australia is a nation of wanderlust-stricken globetrotters who, at any given point in time, can be found anywhere in the world where there’s Men at Work within earshot, Foster’s Lager on tap, and an available bunk, cot or couch to crash on. (Growing up in a small ski and mountain biking town in the interior of British Columbia, I once had my own close encounter with an Australian couch surfer, but that’s a story for another column).
But the stereotype only captures half the picture. Over the past several decades, Australia has opened its own doors to the world’s wanderers, admitting more migrants than any other large Western country. Today, some three-in-10 Australians were born outside of the country and a remarkable 49 per cent are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
With birth rates in decline across the West (Canada’s fertility rate hit a record low in 2020), Australia sits at the frontier of a demographic tide that will eventually reach most established democracies. Canada, a country where one-in-five citizens were born abroad and the government aims to attract 400,000 new immigrants each year, is on pace to meet Australia by 2040.
One question that remains underexplored is how this global demographic shift will affect the character of democratic politics within countries. How will the nature of campaigns change once immigrants — many arriving from countries where Western “left/right” ideological heuristics have little political meaning; and most maintaining strong ties to their respective home countries — reach a critical mass of the population that empowers them to shape the outcome of elections?
Australia’s recently contested election gives us a fascinating glimpse into how diaspora politics — a style of campaigning that links citizens of one country to a second “homeland” — is likely to be a defining feature of democracy in the 21st century.
After a turbulent three years that saw historic bushfires, a largely successful but at times ham-fisted national response to COVID, and continued tensions over the country’s handling of refugees and asylum seekers, Australians returned to the polls last month, with centre-right incumbent Scott Morrison (widely known as “ScoMo”) looking to capture his second straight majority government. Morrison’s principal challenger, Anthony Albanese, sought to lead the centre-left Labor Party to government after nearly a decade in the opposition benches.
One defining characteristic of Australia’s six-week election campaign was a near-total absence of ideology. Personality took centre stage. Albanese, the eventual victor, emphasized his hardscrabble upbringing in the public housing projects of Greater Sydney, campaigning on the rather tepid slogan “Renewal, Not Revolution.” For his part, Morrison spent much of the campaign trying to fend off questions about his brusque interpersonal style and accusations of bullying.
In the end, Albanese’s “small target” strategy proved successful; the challenger minimized distance between the two parties on a number of contentious policy issues, notably the status of the country’s lucrative coal industry, making the campaign a referendum on Morrison’s leadership (some analysts attributed Labor’s surprise loss in 2019 to an overly bold climate change agenda). Albanese was assisted by a co-ordinated group of mostly female independent candidates, dubbed the “teal movement,” who sought to siphon off support in government-held districts by highlighting climate change and Morrison’s inaction on a spate of gender-related matters (including reports of sexual assault in Australia’s parliament).
A second, more consequential feature of the campaign was the amount of resources that both major parties invested in ethnic outreach. Indian-born residents of Australia, numbering nearly three-quarters of a million and geographically concentrated in the electorally competitive western suburbs of Sydney, were a clear focus of both campaigns. Australia’s Indian-born population has more than doubled over the past decade, making them the country’s second largest immigrant community, behind only Brits. Going into the campaign, three-quarters of Indo-Australians told pollsters that a party’s position on India was a factor they would weigh when deciding who to vote for.
Adding new meaning to the expression “curry favour,” Morrison frequently took to social media to show off his hobby of making Indian cuisine — at one point sharing an image of vegetarian samosas he made in preparation for a virtual meeting with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, dubbing his culinary creation “ScoMosas.” Morrison finalized a major trade agreement with India just days before the start of the campaign; ringing in the deal with — what else? — an Instagram post of himself preparing Modi’s favourite curry. Morrison banked on the trade pact giving way to an electoral breakthrough with Indian voters, particularly those employed in the country’s business and technological sectors. He also made a number of targeted appeals to the 60,000 or so Australians with roots in Modi’s home province of Gujarat (disclosure: I’m of Gujarati descent myself, although no fan of Modi’s).
Albanese took more of a low-key approach to courting Indian voters, dutifully visiting Hindu temples and reminiscing fondly with reporters about his days backpacking through the Indian subcontinent in the early 1990s. While the exit data is still being dissected, it appears that Albanese’s soft sell was more persuasive, with Labor holding a 15-point edge in support among Indo-Australians and the governing Liberal-National Coalition down seven points with the community since the last election (for context, the Coalition narrowly held onto the national popular vote, edging out Labor by just over three per cent).
One possibility is that Morrison’s close personal friendship with Modi ultimately hurt him with pockets of Indo-Australian voters. Always a divisive figure, Modi has endured a challenging past few years due to his handling of COVID (India is thought by many experts to have the world’s highest COVID death toll) and pushback against his Hindu Nationalist agenda from India’s religious minorities. In late 2020, a controversial set of farm laws targeting agricultural powerhouse Punjab, birthplace of Sikhism, set off a global backlash (including a number of Sikh-led protests in Canada). With Punjabi now Australia’s fastest-growing language and Sikhism its fastest-growing religion, its likely that this episode left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of thousands of Indo-Australians. Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Patrick Brown, whose made political hay out of his own bromance with Modi, should take note of ScoMo’s fate (more on Brown below).
It also appears that Morrison’s shameless pandering wasn’t enough to sandpaper over a multitude of unseemly racial slights committed against Indo-Australians over the years. Hundreds of assaults against Indian college and university students have been reported in recent years, with the situation becoming so dire at one point that activists petitioned the Indian government to declare Australia an “unsafe destination for Indian students.” The country’s powerful network of right-wing newspapers and television stations (long controlled by the Murdoch family) have been all too eager to fan the flames of the racial animus against Indians. Just last May, Australia slapped a total travel ban on India in a putative effort to keep the Delta variant from reaching its shores. The ban, decried by human rights groups as excessive, prohibited Australian citizens and permanent residents visiting India from returning home.
Chinese-Australians were another key demographic that helped swing the election in Albanese’s favour. Seemingly put-off by a recent escalation of tensions with China (Australia entered a controversial anti-China naval alliance with the United States and Britain last year), Chinese voters abandoned the Liberal-National Coalition in droves. Australia’s most heavily Chinese districts saw swings of over eight per cent to Labor (versus 3.4 per cent elsewhere in the country). Albanese’s election has stoked cautious optimism for a thaw in diplomatic relations with China — Chinese premier Li Keqiang was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Albanese on his victory.
So what are some of the lessons that Australia’s election — short on policy, long on pandering — imparts for Canada? The most obvious takeaway is that diaspora politics is here to stay; and will only become more consequential as immigrants from non-Western countries comprise larger shares of Western electorates. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it is simply inevitable.
The second key takeaway is that, for all of today’s talk about ideological polarization, there are bound to be opportunities for pragmatic politicians who can utilize targeted appeals to parlay the support of disparate diaspora communities into viable multiethnic electoral coalitions. We’re already seeing this play out in the Conservative Party leadership race.
“What Can Brown Do For You?”
The Canadian politician who appears to most intuitively grasp how demographic change is transforming electoral politics is, of course, Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Patrick Brown.
Brown (who, despite what his surname might suggest, is of British and Italian descent), has always aligned his political star with Canada’s South Asian community. A chance friendship with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (see photo above) helped propel Brown from the Harper government’s backbenches to the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in 2015. (He resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct.) Three years later, he managed to get himself elected as mayor of Brampton, the province’s most heavily South Asian city, despite having virtually no personal roots there. By Brown’s own account, he established residency in Brampton just four months before becoming the city’s mayor.
But Brown’s previous political feats are nothing — in terms of both scale and sheer audacity — compared his leadership campaign. While his competitors Pierre Poilievre and Jean Charest duke it out in the frontpages, Brown has spent much of the campaign in front of small, intimate crowds at temples, gurdwaras, mosques and cultural centres.
Behind closed doors, Brown has pledged to deliver targeted goodies to numerous minority communities in exchange for their votes and organizational support: a new visa office in Kathmandu for Nepali Canadians; a Canadian consulate in Jaffna, Sri Lanka (the country’s historical Tamil capital); critical investments in Canada’s cricket infrastructure (still no word on how Brown plans to make Canada a global spelling-bee superpower). In fact, Brown has been so shameless in making niche promises to targeted diaspora groups, it’s a wonder his campaign slogan isn’t “What can Brown do for you?”
But it’s not all fun and overly-long games of cricket. Brown has also flirted with a more combustible grievance politics, particularly in his appeals to Tamil Canadians. The bulk of Canada’s nearly 150,000 Tamils have roots in Sri Lanka, where untold thousands of Tamils perished over the course of a decades-long civil war with the country’s majority Sinhalese population (7,285 respondents claimed Sinhalese ancestry in the 2016 Canadian census). In his capacity as Mayor of Brampton, Brown oversaw a motion to recognize that a genocide was committed against the Tamils during the war’s bloody conclusion in 2009 (an independent tribunal found in 2010 that the Sri Lankan military committed war crimes against Tamil combatants and civilians, but held that accusations of genocide required further investigation). Brown has reportedly promised his Tamil backers that he will remove the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the “Tamil Tigers,” from Canada’s list of known terrorist organizations once elected prime minister.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this idea, especially with Sri Lanka’s civil war now formally concluded. Several one-time terrorist groups have cleaned up their acts and become respectable political entities, notably Ireland’s Sinn Féin. The question is whether Brown would still support delisting the Tamil Tigers if Canada’s Tamil/Sinhalese population skew were flipped. (I have my doubts.) We should also be concerned about how a rabidly pro-Tamil national climate will affect Canada’s relations with Sri Lanka, as well as our own Sinhalese community.
Questions like when to use the “g-word” and when to “graduate” an erstwhile terrorist organization are serious ones that have important implications for national security and diplomatic relationships. They ought to be guided by expertise and somber reflection, not political opportunism. Unfortunately, our shifting demographics will only create new opportunities for potentially unscrupulous politicians to traffic in this sort of divisive and dangerous politics.
Following the deadline for campaigns to sign up new members, Brown announced that his leadership team had sold 150,000 new memberships (just over 175,000 ballots were cast in the last Conservative leadership vote). This is likely not enough for Brown to catch up to juggernaut Pierre Poilievre but, assuming they hang around after the leadership race is over, Brown’s contingent is potentially large enough to shape Conservative policy on a handful of niche issues — a line in the Conservative platform acknowledging the Tamil genocide; an increase in the number of visas allocated for Nepali students; a special cricket subsidy in the next round of Child Fitness Tax Credits (remember those?). Win or lose, Brown will invariably make the Conservative party a, well, browner place and leave behind a playbook that others will undoubtedly study. He also seems to be enjoying some success among Chinese-Canadians, as the National Post recently reported.
Which way, young man?
So it appears likely that 21st century democracy will move across two parallel tracks: one hyper-partisan track, where demagogues leverage social media (and whatever comes next) to amplify the emotions of the electorate, and a second post-partisan track, where anodyne political hucksters compete against one another to cobble together formless winning coalitions out of micro-targeted odds-and-ends.
Australia’s snoozy election indicates it’s on the second track. The Conservative party leadership race may be a barometer for which track Canada ultimately ends up on.
Rahim Mohamed is Canadian freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky. He is a first-generation Canadian whose Gujarati Muslim parents arrived in Canada in the early 1970s after being forced to flee their birth country of Uganda.
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