I attended a political fundraiser recently with a Bangladeshi politician running for office. What was interesting was that he was running for the conservative side of politics within Australia, which is called the Liberal Party. ( I know this is confusing for Americans in particular because liberals refers to the progressive side there).
The event was interesting in that it brought perhaps a hundred supporters largely of Bangladeshi origin. Most were small businessmen working in say hospitality, financial services or mixed business. This is relatively uncommon in Australia where the dominant migration has been among skilled migrants who then usually work as wage earners. This makes Australia among the most educated and wealthy of the Bangladeshi expatriate community, but it also means there is a much smaller entrepreneurial class in comparison to the United Kingdom.
The candidate, Mohammad Zaman, spoke about the strength of multiculturalism in Australia and why the Liberal Party offered more towards small business and families. Senior figures such Senators Sinodinos and Ferravanti-Wells were also there to lend their support.
The fact a Bangladeshi was running for political office was clearly a source of pride for the other Bangladeshis attending. They jostled to take photos with Mr Zaman particularly in the presence of the other major politicians in the room. The reality is that he has little chance in one of the safest Labor seats in the country, but that didn’t matter.
What is arguably unusual is that the conservative side of politics does not attract more people of South Asian origin. This is rapidly changing, particularly in the United States where the Republicans enjoy considerable support from the highly successful Indian community. Figures such as Louisiana governor of Indian origin Bobby Jindal give a visible presence in the highest levels of Republican politics.
Traditionally Bangladeshis have supported Labor parties because they were seen as more favourable to immigration. The Conservative side of politics was coloured with perceptions of racism such as the White Australia policy. Furthermore, in the early stages of migration ethnic communities tend to be relatively poor and are more aligned to parties favouring greater welfare. This tends to change as they become wealthier.
"It is unusual that more Bangladeshis are not on conservative side given their social values"
There is also an element of aspiration to voting conservative. I remember a late uncle growing up who voted for the Liberal Party and it was clear he saw it as a status symbol, a signal that he had made it economically in the new land.
But as Bangladeshi-American commentator Reihan Salam has noted, it is unusual given the great emphasis Bangladeshis place on family values, conservative social attitudes, greater preponderance of religious observance and greater shame associated with accepting welfare payments that more don’t vote for the conservative side of politics. Furthermore, with greater levels of skilled and temporary migration, it is infact the Labor side that is beginning to oppose migration for it threatens the high labour costs that unionized workers have in Australia.
Many of these old patterns are beginning to change across the Western world. As a relatively small community with limited financial resources in Australia, Bangladeshis hold limited political sway, but this is changing, as illustrated by the recent attendance of Australian Prime Ministerial candidate Bill Shorten at this year’s Boiskahi Mela in Sydney. But be prepared to see more Bangladeshi candidates both in politics generally and on the conservative side of politics also.