Australians are invited to vote on Saturday 2 July 2016, to elect their federal members of parliament.
The power to vote is an important aspect of citizenry as it gives every individual in the society the ability to decide on the destiny of the nation through the choice of the leaders and decide what party or parties will run the country for the next four years.
voting is making one’s voice heard in the political process
New Australians, such as members of the African-Australian communities need to be encouraged to vote and participate in the political process of their new country. They also need to be reminded of the need to use their voting power wisely and strategically to achieve gains that align both with their personal and community needs and not just tick boxes and vote for the sake of voting or just voting to avoid being fined.
The destiny of our nation and the lives and future of all Australians depend on the quality of the leaders that we elect, directly or indirectly. Whether we like it or not, politics affect everything in the society even if this is not always apparent, especially in societies such as Australia where there is sufficient economic and political stability to the point where people get a false impression that it doesn’t matter who is running the country, because the major political parties have very little differences, anyways.
There is no available data to inform us on African–Australians’ voting patterns. However, there is enough anecdotal evidence from various community forums, which gives a glimpse on the political views and voting intentions of members of these communities. There are two major parties in Australia: the Australian labour party and the Liberal party. Africans have traditionally voted for the labour party. This is also the case for most migrant groups who often view the labour party as a more friendly party that understands them their needs and struggles and fights for fairness for disadvantaged people in the community who need help to make the most of what the Australian society offers to its citizens.
Like many other migrant groups, Africans have also traditionally looked at the liberal party with a degree of suspicion. They see it as a party that focuses on promoting the interest of business people and other capitalists who take advantage of poor and vulnerable people in the society. They regard the liberal party as not pro-migrant, to say the least. They often feel deeply offended by the statements made by many liberal party leaders, such as Kevin Andrew’s comments in 2004 suggesting that “Sudanese were not integrating” or the more recent statement from Peter Dutton Minister for immigration, who suggested that “refugees were illiterate and taking jobs from Australians”. Many Africans view the liberal party as unable or unwilling to understand their lives, issues and challenges. However, despite this suspicion, there has been a marked increase in the number of Africans who are now voting liberal and dumping the labour party, over recent years. Comments from community discussions and social media forums indicate different opinions regarding some of the reasons why more Africans are choosing the liberal party, despite their reservations on many of its policies and its perceived hostility to migrants and refugees groups like them.
Firstly, many Africans believe that the labour party has moved too much to the left and too far away from their faith-based beliefs and values. They say that the labour party is adopting policies that are morally questionable from a religious point of view, such the issue of gay and lesbian rights. The majority of African Australians are either practicing Christians or Muslims and many reject homosexuality and everything that supports it. Therefore, while many Africans have serious reservations about the liberal party’s policies, their religious faith encourages them not to support the labour party, which is contributing to what some have called the “moral bankruptcy” of western societies. Many Africans like the liberal party’s stance on homosexuality and marriage equality and other similar issues, even if they don’t like the majority of their policies.
Secondly, the liberal party has also improved its engagement with migrant communities in many ways, over recent year, even tough there is still a lot of room for improvement. In Victoria for instance, the former premier Ted Baillieu was very proactive in engaging with African communities from the time he was opposition leader and throughout his administration as Premier. Despite his selective engagement that focused mainly on his connections with the African Think Tank, run by Haileluel Gebrselassie and Berhan Ahmed, his engagement was seen as genuine and not just part of an impression management exercise.
Last, but not least, the change of demographics within the broader African community has also increased support for the liberal party. While the majority of Africans in Australia are from a refugee background, there has been a steady increase of African professionals arriving in Australia from countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, which is bringing a new breed of Africans with different skills, values and experiences. These professionals come with a more sophisticated political capital and many are embracing the liberal party for a variety of reasons. The Nigerian community leadership in Victoria, for instance, has been quite actively engaged with the liberal party over the last few years and many other groups are following suit.
The number of Africans in Australia has considerably increased over recent years to exceed 300,000. However, politically speaking this number remains low and Africans, unlike other migrant groups such as the indians or Asians in general, do not have any significant weigh to attract significant interest from politicians, except in some marginal seats, such as the seat of Melbourne (currently being held by Adam Bandt), where their votes can make a difference to help candidates win in a tight contest situation.
African leaders need to make an effort to educate and encourage the community to engage politically, at the same time as they need to improve their own level of political dexterity to build alliances, partnerships and friendship with other migrant communities groups to be able to play the political game effectively and achieve some gains for their communities. Unlike in many countries in Africa, politicians in Australia do listen to communities and their agendas are often dominated by what the communities want.