Liberals candidate John Nguyen talks to Alys Francis about his battle for the seat of Chisholm
Things were looking good for Liberals candidate John Nguyen just a few months back.
With support for Labor diving under then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, commentators were tipping the Asian-born Ernst & Young partner had a decent shot of winning the seat of Chisholm from Labor Speaker Anna Burke.
But the Labor party was propelled back into contention after Kevin Rudd toppled Gillard in a dramatic leadership spill on 26 June, making Nguyen’s battle for Chisholm that little bit harder.
Nguyen needs a swing of 5.8 per cent to win the seat from Burke.
Despite polls showing Labor is now neck-and-neck with the Liberals, the 39-year-old is quietly confident he still has a good shot at winning the ethnically diverse marginal seat in Melbourne’s east.
“It’s a reasonable chance — I’m positive,” Nguyen said.
“She’s [Burke] been a member here now for a number of years, and she has a personal following, but she’s still part of Labor, she’s part of the mess.”
Political scientist Dr Nick Economou said the battle for Chisholm — which covers parts of Box Hill, Oakleigh, Clayton, Mount Waverley, Ashwood, Chadstone, Huntingdale and Burwood — is going to be one of the toughest.
“If Julia Gillard were still leader, Chisholm would probably have been won by the Liberals but now Rudd is leading it’s going to be a very tough battle,” said Dr Economou, who is a senior lecturer at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry.
“I think it’s going to be touch and go for Mr Nguyen.
“In 2010, Victoria was Labor’s best state. The two party vote was 55 per cent, which is very high. Polls are now showing Labor on a primary vote of 36 per cent, which is 5 per cent less than in the last election, which calculates roughly to a two party vote of between 50-51 per cent.
“Chisholm is on about 5 per cent. Anna Burke’s got quite a good local following and she’s the Speaker which gives her a high profile. She has quite extensive campaign infrastructure behind her. She’s got people who know which areas to target. It’s going to be really close.”
Chisholm is a multicultural melting pot, with nearly 17 per cent Chinese and 5 per cent Indians, according to Nguyen, who has been campaigning since July last year when he took unpaid leave from his role at accounting firm Ernst & Young.
Dr Economou said the concentration of Indian Australians in the area would not be enough to push Nguyen over the line even if they did vote in a block, which would be highly unlikely.
But Nguyen does have a background that many migrants can relate to, having first come to Australia when he was just a child.
Nguyen fled Vietnam with his grandparents and two siblings when he was six years old in 1979. They took a boat to Malaysia and spent nine months in a refugee camp before coming to Australia.
His parents stayed in Vietnam because his father, an officer in the South Vietnamese army, was being held by Vietnamese communists, and the family was not reunited until 1989.
Nguyen said he understands migrants are seeking “a hand up, not a hand out,” and just want opportunities for good start in life.
He is currently in the race not only for the seat of Chisholm but to be Australia’s first Asian-born member of the House of Representatives. Running alongside him for that honour is Wesa Chau, who is standing for the Labor party in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Higgins, and is thought to have a lesser chance of winning.
But Nguyen has said he wants to be seen as a Liberal candidate, not an “Asian” candidate.
“I want people to vote for me on my values, not because of where I come from,” he said.
Nguyen said he’s most passionate about education and fostering innovation to make Australia globally competitive.
“Australia and Australians and Australian businesses need to be more innovative. Australian manufacturing can’t compete on labour costs, we can’t compete on energy, we need to be more innovative so we can compete,” he said.
Nguyen, who studied commerce at the University of Melbourne before securing a graduate job at accounting firm KPMG, said new migrants today did not have the same opportunities he had growing up in Australia.
“University students who spend so much time at uni don’t necessarily get that break in life — I’ve met so many students who’ve not been able to work in the field of their choice, a lot of arts students, a lot of engineering students.”
He said a lot of the Indian voters he spoke to, often small business owners and professionals, felt they had “been let down”.
“They’ve got two degrees in India and now they’re doing office work in the city. They want opportunities so they can get a start in life,” he said.
Nguyen supports the Liberal’s controversial plan to ‘Stop The Boats’ but he says he is “passionate about Australia being a country that promotes multiculturalism”.
“Border security and border protection is very different from a policy of asylum seekers and refugees—basically we want integrity in our system,” he said. And added, “As a rich country, Australia should be considering increasing its refugee intake and immigration.”
Nguyen said the tough border security stance was needed to discourage “economic refugees” and people paying off smugglers for an easy route to Australia.
“I don’t think we can ever stamp out people coming to Australia by boat,” he said.
“What we need is a regional solution. If the only people we are getting are those genuine refugees then we can probably deal with that situation.
“At the moment we have an influx and we don’t have the resources to process them, we don’t have the infrastructure and people are stuck in detention camps for a longer period than they should be.”
He said the current political debate about refugees was “disappointing”.
The 2013 election will be the second time Nguyen contests the seat of Chisholm. In 2010 he managed to gain a 1.3 per cent swing for the Liberals at a time when Labor won a swing of 1.1 per cent in Victoria.
Burke has held the seat since 1998.
Campaigning this year, she told reporters she was working hard to look after the interests of the people of Chisholm, saying locals were concerned about higher education, aged care, open space, urban amenity and the services that affect them every day.
But Nguyen said people have told him they are sick of the Labor party as a whole.
“People are fed up with the disunity in the Labor party, they’re fed up with the whole Rudd, Gillard, Rudd thing.
“The day after Kevin Rudd was re-installed, I was out [campaigning] at a train station and people just laughed and said ‘Let’s just get this circus out of the way’.”
Regardless of who wins this election, Australia could be back at the polls doing it all again much sooner than usual, according to Dr Economou.
“This is a going to be a really close and interesting election,” he said.
“I predict we will be back at the polls in 12 months because of the Greens. Tony Abbott said he would call a dissolution if he couldn’t get his policy through, and I believe Labor would do the same. The Lower House is going to be so divided, so we will see a lot of politics over the next 18 months and not much policy,” he said.