Labor's Jason Li bids to win over Asian voters in Australian election

Star candidate faces tough battle in Bennelong, where Chinese account for 17pc of electorate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 2:22pm

Star Labor recruit Jason Yat-Sen Li, a businessman, lawyer and high-profile figure in the Chinese community, is in the fight of his life for the seat of Bennelong.

Held for the conservative opposition by former tennis player John Alexander with a 3.1 per cent margin, Bennelong will be among the most fiercely contested electorates in tomorrow's Australian federal election.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Li in Beijing and invited him - in Putonghua - to return to Australia to join the campaign after the Labor candidate Jeff Salvestro-Martin was dropped for being implicated in a corruption inquiry.

The Sydney electorate has been something of a bellwether; it was lost by prime minister John Howard when he was swept from power by Rudd's forces in 2007.

Howard's usurper, the former broadcaster Maxine McKew, suffered the same fate at Alexander's hands in 2010 when Labor came perilously close to losing government after three short years.

The conservative coalition is now throwing everything at retaining the seat. When Li turned up to a New South Wales Business Chamber event on August 19, he found he was obliged to speak after opposition leader Tony Abbott, Liberal lawmaker Bruce Billson and Alexander himself.

But Labor is pinning its hopes on Li's strong relationship with Asia. People of Chinese ancestry make up 17 per cent of the Bennelong electorate, with another 5 per cent of Korean background.

"Australia's prosperity is tied to how well we do [in Asia] and we need to focus on how we deepen that relationship to become a real friendship," Li said.

The young candidate described his family as "very Australian": he and his wife Lucy, a white Australian, have three children: Yasmin, eight, Henry, six, and two-year-old Matilda.

Li is the son of two immigrants who met as children when they lived in the same apartment block in Wan Chai. His mother, Pansy, moved with her parents from Hong Kong to New Zealand in 1958 and his father, George, moved to Australia in 1960, but visited New Zealand to search for Pansy. He found her and they married in 1969.

The family settled in Bexley in the Barton electorate, another Sydney area with a high concentration of ethnic Chinese.

Growing up, Li always felt Australian but finally connected with his Chinese heritage when he moved to Beijing in 2005 with Insurance Group Australia to help with its China strategy.

Not long after, he launched his own firm, a corporate service that helps Australian businesses break into the Chinese market. The company has now expanded into the resources sector and owns small iron ore mines.

"As an Australian with Chinese heritage I wanted to belong, not to be different. When I went to China I discovered the Chinese side of myself," Li said.

"Now I understand the Chinese view of the world better. If I'm elected I can communicate with the entire electorate but I can also communicate with the Chinese residents as a Chinese."

Li, who is fluent in Putonghua and Cantonese, has campaigned on a vision for Bennelong as a Silicon Valley-style business district. The challenge he outlines is to build a culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, with the help of "world-class interconnectivity", aided by Labor's much-touted high-speed national broadband network. "We really want to turn this electorate into a hub of activity and put Bennelong on the map. It's a fantastic place to live," he said.

The polls are not encouraging, but Li's election team say the response on the ground has been very positive. "I'm in with a fighting chance, although we're the clear underdogs and I've come into this race late," he said.

If he wins, Li could be the first person of Chinese heritage to hold a seat in the Australian House of Representatives. Hong Kong-born Wesa Chau Wai-sum is contesting a seat in Melbourne, also for Labor. He thinks victory in an electorate named after an indigenous Australian - the aborigine Bennelong, who learned English and served as a liaison between white settlers and natives - would be highly symbolic.

Li first claimed the national media spotlight as a young, eloquent advocate for an Australian republic in the failed referendum of 1999. A year earlier he ran unsuccessfully as the lead Senate candidate of the Unity Party, established to combat the rise of anti-immigration firebrand Pauline Hanson.

There were other offers to stay in politics, but Li was advised by his family to "go learn about the world". He said he feels ready for the challenge. When he told his wife, Lucy, that he would stand for Labor in Bennelong, she said: "I knew this day would come."