The threat of a Muslim political party

Senator Fatima Payman’s resignation/expulsion/removal from the Australian Labor Party and results in last week’s British election have caused a fair amount of hand-wringing and “watch-out” warnings.

Labour in Britain lost seats to several pro-Palestinian independents and pro-Palestinian Greens, including to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Are we about to see the rise of one or more Muslim political parties in Australia, snatching seats from Labor or resulting in either or both major parties changing their Middle East policies?

Most likely not. And certainly not to the extent that the Muslim vote poses a problem for British Labour or the Democrats in the US.

Sure, there was some inkling of it in Australia at the 2016 same-sex-marriage plebiscite. The largest No vote was not in rural electorates with a higher percentage of active Christians, but in electorates with high Muslim populations in western Sydney. Blaxland’s 74 percent No vote topping the list.

But that was a plebiscite where the voting choice was obvious for Muslims. An election is different.

Britain’s voluntary voting and candidate-with-the-most-votes-wins system makes a difference. People of passionate faith are more likely to come out to vote. In Britain, a vote for a Muslim candidate denies that vote to the major parties, particularly Labour. In Australia, on the other hand, that vote would usually come back to a major party via the preferential system.

The vote-denying effect in Britain is huge. On the other side of politics, the anti-immigrant Reform Party denied votes to the Conservatives in many seats, enabling Labour to win them. Because of this, Labour’s meagre two percent increase in the vote enabled its share of the seats to almost double to 63 per cent of the seats.

Reform’s 14 percent of the vote only got them five seats (less than one per cent of the seats), but it sent a wrecking ball through Conservative seats, handing them to Labour.

Could an organised Muslim party in Britain send a wrecking ball through Labour seats next time? Probably yes, especially given that the 6.5 percent Muslim population is rising and concentrated in the north old mill towns and cities.

But in Australia, generally no. Australia has less than half the proportion of Muslims in the population than Britain. But their concentration in Sydney’s west might make those seats more vulnerable to the pro-Palestinian Greens, though the Greens social policies might militate against that.

Certainly, events in Gaza have inflamed political passions. In the US, it might result in a loss of support for the Democrats. Again, voluntary and most-votes-wins voting would have the same effect as in Britain.

One might think that the Muslim vote would swing policy more towards the Palestinians in Britain and Australia, given that it far out-numbers the Jewish vote which is just half of one percent in both countries. But not so.

This is because Jewish influence in both countries is not a numbers or ballot-box affair. Rather it comes through direct political involvement in both major parties, via donations and standing for office. There are people of Jewish faith and background on both sides. The considerable policy influence also comes through very articulate lobbying and media activity, especially in the mainstream press.

For the first half of Israel’s existence, Jewish influence in the west had a distinctly liberal-democratic flavour along the lines of Israel must be supported as an underdog liberal-democracy surrounded by hostile, existence-threatening Arab-Muslim autocracies.

With Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister, however, the liberal-democratic part is gone and the threat to the existence of the state by other states has been replaced by security- and life-threatening violence from Palestinian terrorists in the occupied territories.

That change has made western support through money, weapons, and UN votes more conditional, and it will remain so at least while Netanyahu – with his asymmetrical annihilationist Gaza policy – remains in power.

In Australia, meanwhile, Payman’s move to the crossbench for the remaining four years of her term is unlikely to have much effect, especially in the medium term. She is unlikely to vote against the Government on most issues, but she may absent herself, forcing the Government to find another crossbench vote if the Coalition opposes any legislation.

After the next election it will not matter. Labor is likely to pick up a Senate seat or two, whatever happens in the House. That is because those senators who were elected in the “miracle” election of 2019 come up for re-election – three of them in each of five states and two in Tasmania. The Coalition won’t get all three senators re-elected in five states as it did then.

The Coalition could lose as many as five senators. The wedding feast at Cana is over and all the wine drunk. And Lazarus is dead.

That aside, perhaps one of the lessons from the British election, and other recent elections, is not to see them as merely conservative vs progressive or left vs right. That now out-dated model described a basic difference between voters who were sceptical about the value of change and concerned about its risk so wanted things to remain the same, on one hand, and those who were optimistic about the value of change and the constructive role of government in it, on the other.

The rise of populism brings a different contest. The populists want radical change but change that is more a reversion to an earlier nirvana that would require the end of a lot of recent social reform and the reversal of economic liberalism – free trade and labour and other deregulation – and an end to international co-operation.

The populists also want an end to the influence of experts, preferring common sense (read ignorance) as the main guide to public policy.

Their supporters have been taken from both sides of the earlier model. So have Green/Teal supporters of more action on climate, integrity in government, and social progression. A new politics is emerging, religious parties are not going to be part of it in Australia.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 9 July 2024.

One thought on “The threat of a Muslim political party”

  1. After 1m migrants net in 24m, special immigration deals for “Boss” Modi, it’s a bit rich of Albanese and media chorus to whinny about “identity politics” and “social cohesion”.

    Also to note, Islam gets the same deal as other Abrahamic religions. A discriminatory and divisive school-funding system, working very much in their favour.

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