investigation

Muslim votes: New campaign to target Palestine supporters in Islamic areas threatens future of major parties

Remy Varga and Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
A new political push around religion risks further splintering social cohesion and raises questions over the future of the two major political parties.
A new political push around religion risks further splintering social cohesion and raises questions over the future of the two major political parties. Credit: The Nightly

When incumbent federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg conceded defeat in the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong after the 2022 election, it should have rung alarm bells for both major political parties.

Even victorious political rookie and paediatrician Monique Ryan, backed by funding vehicle Climate 200, said she was shocked to receive the phone call from Mr Frydenberg formally acknowledging her victory in a seat that belonged to the Liberals for 122 years and was once held by Robert Menzies.

Australia’s first Jewish treasurer was the biggest scalp claimed by the teal wave that replaced Coalition men with professional women in affluent seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

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It was a brutal rejection of the Coalition that wrenched power from the Morrison government and handed The Lodge to Labor.

Last week reports emerged that two funding vehicles, The Muslim Vote and Muslim Votes Matter, would target incumbent Labor MPs in seats with a high proportion of Muslim voters following the high-profile defection of Senator Fatima Payman.

The first-term WA Labor Senator and the first woman to wear a hijab in Parliament had quit the party over what she said was the ALP’s indifference to the war between Israel and Palestine.

Both groups seek to replicate the success of the teal independents but they are targeting Labor over the issue of Gaza instead of the Liberals with climate change — and are focused on working-class suburbs instead of socially progressive enclaves.

In the firing line are key Labor frontbenchers including Employment Minister Tony Burke in Watson, Education Minister Jason Clare in Blaxland and Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen in McMahon. All of their seats are in western Sydney.

The new political push around religion risks further splintering social cohesion and raises questions over the future of the two major political parties.

Both major parties have bled votes over the past five elections, according to an analysis of Australian Electoral Commission data that indicates more of a creeping electoral death from a thousand cuts instead of rapid blood loss.

The Coalition and Labor received 81.3 per cent of the primary vote in 2010, 78.89 per cent in 2013, 76.96 in 2016, 74.95 in 2019 and 67.97 per cent in 2022.

Political scientists say the drifting away from major parties is not new, nor is it unique to Australia, and goes to a greater trend of voters “unhooking” themselves from political loyalties they no longer feel served by.

In the United Kingdom, where a “first past the post” system is in play, Labour lost four seats to independent candidates with high Muslim populations despite the party still winning government in a landslide victory.

Director of the Australian Studies Institute Mark Kenny said there was a “declining trust in orthodox politics” and a growing belief that major parties were exacerbating economic and social issues.

“The major parties are seen as the defenders of that kind of status quo,” he said.

ACU political scientist Ben Moffitt said declining support was also attributable to major parties no longer fulfilling the kind of “social role” they once did and voters recognising there were better options available.

“Voters want a range of different things, and to expect only two parties to offer a vision that you find appealing is just not the case,” he said.

Redbridge founder and former Labor strategist Kos Samaras said Australia had evolved but the major parties were still acting like it was 1995.

“If they (major parties) want to stabilise the landscape to win majority governments they need to change,” he said.

“Otherwise they will go into a new paradigm where minority governments are more common. If they want to stop that they have to evolve.”

Mr Samaras said Redbridge research indicated that at least half of millennial and Gen Z voters did not have a values connection to political parties, unlike 70 per cent of Baby Boomers, previously the largest generational voting bloc.

“The ingredients are there for some pretty wild results,” he said.

Labor Senator Fatima Payman sits on the crossbench during Question Time in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, July 4, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Senator Fatima Payman sits on the crossbench during Question Time in the Senate. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

The Muslim Vote and Muslim Votes Matter have adopted some of Climate 200’s ideas from the last election, including scoring politicians on their response to Gaza, similar to Climate 200’s scorecard on environmental issues.

Neither of the Muslim funding bodies has yet to back candidates and the potential movement is still in its infancy.

Muslim Votes Matter national spokesperson Ghaith Krayem said the organisation was independently funded, had a grassroots membership and was not aligned to a political party.

“The Muslim community is the largest, and among the fastest growing, minority groups in Australia, yet remains grossly underrepresented at all levels of government,” he said.

“Our overarching objective is to provide political advocacy on matters significant to our community and to increase voting literacy.

“Gaza is one critical issue driving our campaign, but ours is an inclusive initiative that hopes to uplift representation for minority groups across the country.”

Associate professor Moffitt said while the Muslim vote was not homogenous, it could effectively put pressure on Labor MPs but he said it was unlikely to strip any seats away from the party because of the preferential voting system.

“People like Jason Clare, Tony Burke, and Peter Khalil will be worrying with interest about this, but my suspicion is given we have a preferential voting system, I can’t see someone going number one: whatever the Muslim voice candidate is, and then number two: the Liberal National Party,” he said.

“Probably the Greens and then probably Labor, but Labor are still going to get those preferences.”

Professor Kenny said it was unlikely a Muslim candidate would have the same impact the “teals” did, but suggested a candidate could win a senate seat.

“If you can get every Muslim and a few progressives voting for a Muslim Vote candidate across NSW or Victoria, and they do some creative preference swap arrangements, I think it’s possible to imagine that,” he said.

Blaxland has a Muslim population of 25.1 per cent, Watson 25.1 per cent, McMahon 13.8 per cent, Parramatta 10.5 per cent, Wills 10.3 per cent and Werriwa 16 per cent. In comparison, about 4.3 per cent of the state of NSW identify as Muslim, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In May, a picture book that exposed the divide between Sydney’s working class and multicultural west and its affluent and progressive east, Same-Sex Parents by Holly Duhig triggered a ban on same-sex parenting books across libraries in the Cumberland local government area and a culture war in Sydney.

Councillor and former mayor Steve Christou told The Nightly it remained his firm belief that the majority of his constituents did not want children exposed to “sexual books” but said in retrospect it should have just been moved to the library’s adult section.

The Cumberland LGA in greater western Sydney covers the federal electorates of Blaxland, McMahon and Parramatta, all of which have been identified by Muslim Votes as target seats at the next election.

The three electorates also recorded some of the highest No votes in Australia during the same-sex marriage postal survey in 2017, including 73.9 per cent in Blaxland, 64.9 per cent in McMahon and 62 per cent in Parramatta.

If I was to advise whoever wants to start a party out there (I’d say) think about the bigger picture.

Other seats targeted by Muslim Votes include Watson, which recorded a No vote of 69.6 per cent, Werriwa, 63.7 per cent, and Wills in Melbourne, 30 per cent.

Mr Christou said sentiment towards same-sex marriage hadn’t shifted much in Sydney’s west over the past seven years.

“You have to understand Muslim people are very family-orientated and conservative in thinking,” he said.

“They generally tend to vote Labor by default. If Muslim Votes get a good strategy behind them this (LGBT issues) will be one of the issues they will likely campaign on.”

Mr Christou, a former Labor Party member, ran as an independent in the seat of Parramatta against parachute candidate Andrew Charlton, an economist who moved from a $16 million house in Bellevue Hill to run in the multicultural electorate.

Mr Christou said he left Labor because the party of the working class was now more interested in environmental issues, LGBT issues and late term abortions than securing a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

He said the Muslim voting groups and the independent support groups rebelling against Labor was a mess the party had made by refusing to listen to constituents.

“It was only a matter of time before the Muslim vote rebelled against Labor,” he said.

On the other side of Sydney, the Coalition is facing a similar challenge in the north and east of the city after the teal wave of the 2022 election.

The candidates were all professional women running on pro-climate platforms who likely would have run as Liberal candidates had the party managed to match Labor on gender representation and environmental issues such as climate change.

Allegra Spender unseated Dave Sharma in Wentworth in Sydney’s east while north of the harbour Kylea Tink won North Sydney from Trent Zimmerman while Dr Sophie Scamps claimed Mackellar from Jason Falinski.

Former Olympian Zali Steggall, who unseated former PM Tony Abbott in Warringah in 2019, comfortably retained her Northern Beaches seat.

Former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel unseated prominent backbencher Tim Wilson in Goldstein in Melbourne’s bayside where the proportion of Jewish voters is 8.8 per cent.

Meanwhile in Perth, Kate Chaney claimed victory in the prized seat of Curtin.

The Coalition’s perceived “women’s issue” was brought into sharp focus ahead of the election when former staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she had been raped by then-colleague Bruce Lehrmann after a night out drinking in the early hours of March 23 in 2019.

A series of gaffes by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the issue of women compounded the public’s perception that the Coalition had a problem.

But the national debate has shifted. The pressure is now on Labor over its response to the ongoing war in Gaza and Palestinian recognition.

Whether Senator Payman’s moral defection from Labor will prove as fatal as Higgins’ bombshell allegations did for the Coalition is unclear and will only really be known by voters when they cast their ballots.

Senator Payman herself has said she believes a Muslim specific political party would be unwise because it wouldn’t be “conducive to the way things function in our democratic system”.

“If I was to advise whoever wants to start a party out there (I’d say) think about the bigger picture,” she told The Conversation.

“Think about Australia as a whole.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese agreed.

“I don’t think that it’s in the interests of groups to isolate themselves through just (one) issue,” he said on Wednesday.

“I think it’s important that local members represent the entire community and certainly in my local electorate, I represent people of different faiths, different gender, different sexualities.

“We are a diverse community. I look around this group here, and I see that and that’s a good thing and that’s Australia’s strength. And it’s important we don’t take it for granted.”

The teals’ seats all recorded high Yes votes on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum last year that was opposed by opposition leader Peter Dutton, including 62 per cent in Wentworth, 60 per cent in North Sydney and 60 per cent in Warringah.

Associate professor Moffitt said he believed the teal vote could become “entrenched” within the next two election cycles, in part because Mr Dutton’s policies — particularly on climate — were doing nothing to attract former Liberal voters back to the major party.

But he said the next election would be a “different experiment” on what happened in the teal seats.

“There was a real sense of kick (Scott Morrison) out, and put the adults in charge, and the polls in the early days of the Albanese government showed there was a real sense of relief … but I think that’s only lasted so long,” he said.

“I don’t think that anger about those issues is as salient as it was.”

Ms Steggall said Australians were tired of the major parties and the “one size fits all message” being sold in electorates across the country.

“If I look at Warringah, we had the same promises trotted out for 25 years with very little to show in between,” she said.

She said Australia’s electoral system gave voters a real chance to “go with who they feel is going to better represent them”.

But Ms Steggall was cautious of any potential success of the Muslim voting groups given they would be serving varied communities.

“I don’t go to my community on the basis of faith,” she said.

“It’s a basis of values and issues, and I think values and issues go beyond religion … so I just think having a religion as your basis for your position is probably limiting.

“I think that kind of limitation can be an obstacle to representing the community’s values. From my point of view, I think community independents are very much elected by more homogenous communities of faith, across values and issues, not just one area.”

In Sydney’s west, independent MP Dai Le successfully ran in the seat of Fowler against high profile parachute Labor candidate Kristina Kenneally at the 2022 election.

Associate professor Moffitt said Ms Le — who did not fit the “teal” brand — had shown how effective a hyper-local, well known community candidate could be.

“That’s a model that can be replicated,” he said.

“People do respect when candidates, especially in tight races, have strong links to the community, who’ve been there for a long time, and know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Ms Le said constituents in her electorate, one of the most diverse in Australia, were largely concerned by cost of living pressures.

“An MP is there to represent all people, that’s what I do,” she said.

“Whoever stands, they should be tested against the issues facing Australians where they live.

“In Fowler that means jobs, tackling inflation, increasing fuel bills and access to medical care and affordable housing.”

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