Posted on April 11, 2024

Labor Fears Muslim Backlash at Polls

Alexi Demetriadi and David Tanner, The Australian, April 10, 2024

Labor powerbrokers fear key western Sydney heartland seats with large Muslim populations are vulnerable to high-profile community independents running on pro-Palestine platforms, a key factor behind the ALP’s hardening stance against Israel.

The development comes as sources cited a multi-prong pressure push of Labor leaders waking up to a “moral” but also “political” imperative as key seats threatened to desert the party.

Israel’s actions across the past ten days, starting with the death of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom, had also given the party the reason and safety net to alter its stance and language.

Southwest Sydney seats with large pro-Palestine and Muslim voter bases that most concerned party figures include Jason Clare’s Blaxland, Tony Burke’s Watson and Anne Stanley’s Werriwa, as well as places like Parramatta, in western Sydney, and Wills, in Melbourne.

“The government has responded to recent events, and intense pressure both internally and externally,” said NSW Labor MP Anthony D’Adam, a key figure behind the NSW Labor Friends of Palestine.

“The moral case against Israel grows and the government is unable to continue ignoring it. (But) there is genuine concern that our position on the situation in Gaza threatens our hold on a range of southwest Sydney seats. This combination has forced the shift.”

Mr D’Adam said there was a sense electorates “loyal” to Labor were “looking for alternatives”.

“Dai Le (winning in Fowler), figures like (Fairfield mayor) Frank Carbone – they are proof of concept,” he said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 29 of the 151 federal electorates have 5 per cent or more people of Islamic faith. Significantly, 27 of those 29 seats are held by Labor.

Of those 29, four are marginal – Labor-held Werriwa and Parramatta; Fowler, which Labor lost to Ms Le at the 2022 election; and the Liberal-held Banks – while 16 are held by Labor on margins of 10 per cent or more.

Although Anthony Albanese led Labor to victory two years ago, the party suffered primary vote swings against it of up to 18.5 per cent. Six of the 10 biggest swings were in seats with large Muslim communities. Internally, particularly in NSW, there are fears that those Muslim voter bases – historically loyal to Labor – could desert the party if viable independents in certain seats chose to run on pro-Palestine platforms.

A pro-Palestine “Dai Le-type candidate” – the independent who took Fowler in 2022 ahead of Kristina Keneally – could be a “formidable challenge”, insiders said.

Mr Clare’s Blaxland and Mr Burke’s Watson are both held with about a 15 per cent margin. Muslim voters make up 35 per cent and 27 per cent of the community respectively in the two seats.

“Labor is realising western Sydney is turning on them … it’s in trouble,” said one powerbroker, observing the party couldn’t risk turning away the demographic.

Popular Liverpool mayor Ned Mannoun – a senior Liberal of Lebanese descent – was a frequent name on Labor lips as an example of the party’s worst electoral nightmare, particularly in Werriwa or a potential new southwest Sydney seat at Bird Walton.

The AEC is likely to reveal the new distribution in a matter of weeks, which would also provide Labor with a better picture of any electoral threat.

Mr Mannoun, and his wife Tina Ayyad, the NSW MP for Holsworthy, are two of the party’s strongest pro-peace voices.

“There’s no question that Ned Mannoun is manoeuvring to have a tilt,” one Labor figure said.

Mr Mannoun shared a stage with Mr Albanese at the opening of Liverpool’s new Civic Place last week, where the mayor urged the Prime Minister to “use his voice for peace”.

The Australian understands thereafter the Prime Minister also made a few remarks on the situation in Gaza, although those are not included in the address published online by his office.

Those areas have large, growing Muslim and Arab populations, whose pro-Palestine stance aligns most closely with the Greens, but whose other values don’t.

“Both federal and state Labor have thought ‘who else are they (southwest Sydney voters) going to vote for’,” one senior party figure said. “That’s a misunderstanding of southwest Sydney politics. If there is an independent running on the right issues, people will vote for them.”

Mr Mannoun declined to comment on political or party matters, but told The Australian the ethnicities he represented were growing tired of the government’s stance on Palestine and “double standards”.

“We as Australians don’t believe Palestinians are getting a fair go,” he said, adding the Muslim community had been “asked to condemn extremism” for decades, which it did, and it wasn’t extreme to want peace for Palestinians.

Multiple movements have emerged aimed at Muslim voters, with “focus seats” where the population was largest, like The Muslim Vote which ranks MPs on their Palestine stance.

The Australian understands a key figure behind that campaign is Wesam Charkawi, a prominent pro-Palestine activist and researcher at Western Sydney University, and that the semi-formal movement is well-funded and ready to run candidates.

In March, Mr Charkawi spoke outside Labor MP Andrew Charlton’s Parramatta electorate office – a seat targeted by the campaign – where he warned the MP that “we’re going to make a change and you’re going to hear our voice”.

“We’re going to campaign against you, we won’t forget the rivers of blood (in Gaza) you allowed to unfold on your watch.”

In Victoria, the party faces a potential split between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions at next month’s state conference over a strongly-worded resolution being considered by members of the ALP’s dominant Socialist Left faction in support of Palestinians.