Payman becomes symbol for discontent with Labor

Jul 9, 2024
Waving flag of Israel and Australia.Image:iStock

The strategic and tactical geniuses inside the prime minister’s office and the man they serve may take time to appreciate how comprehensively they have mismanaged popular discontent about Labor’s passive support for Israel during the war against the Palestinians of the past eight months. Instead, they are deluding themselves about being politically outplayed by a novice Labor Senator, who, allegedly, always had it in mind to betray the Labor Party.

I’d take that with a grain of salt. Senator Payman was long signalling her deep distress about Labor’s less than even handed approach to the one-sided attack on the people of Gaza. This was not, strictly, Labor policy – which on paper is more even handed than the policy actually being interpreted and administered by Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong. The distress this has caused extends well beyond the million or so Australians of Muslim background, and particularly embraces many of the traditional Labor supporters who these days express deep disappointment about the lack of principle, excessive timidity and want of courage and guts of the current Labor government.

Arab Australians mobilising in recent times were not planning a confessional party. They were, instead, attempting to form themselves into a pressure group in politics, intending to make politicians more aware of the interests, backgrounds and ideas that they represent. In this, they have been no different from Jewish and Zionist groups (over the state of Israel), Catholic and mainstream Christian groups (over state aid and the right to practise bigotry in school employment policies, and fundamental American sects, who sometimes seem to claim that they represent all people of Christian background even when they actually represent fewer than the Australian Muslim population.

Despite the panic of commentators at The Australian, and the blatantly partisan response of people in the national security establishment, the would-be Arab lobby has not been about imposing Shariah law in Australia, providing bases and intellectual respectability for terrorist movements in Australia, or even to prepare Australians for any more significant interventions in Middle Eastern affairs. Many may be deeply (and rightly) critical of the government of Israel, and may wish that Australia, as a nation, would put more pressure on it to behave as a decent international citizen. They also think that Australia, and other western countries should do more to help Palestinians who have had their homes destroyed and many in the population killed in pitiless and murderous bombing campaigns. But they are not sponsoring or promoting terrorism.

Albo out of touch with the spirit of Labor policy and the popular mood

A number of politicians, including Albanese himself, once labelled themselves as “friends of Palestine,” and Australia has often proclaimed itself in favour of a two-state solution if there is to be a resolution of the rights of Palestinians in the lands that Israel now administers as if it had full legal and moral sovereignty over it. In fact, Australia has never been a neutral player. It has close relationships with the Israeli military establishment, and has bought and sold arms, and shared military technology with it. It trades military and political intelligence with it. American military bases in the centre of Australia are fundamental to the targeting and inception of missile strikes. The west’s intelligence exchange with Israel is almost as warm as the Five Eyes exchanges and embraces the activities of neighbouring Muslim governments. Australia has turned a blind eye, or made only token protests, when Israeli intelligence agents have used Australian cover, and sometimes, Australian passport on active “wet” intelligence operations against its neighbours.

Most Australians were shocked by Hamas atrocities on October 7 last year. But the scale of the Israeli reaction against the people of Gaza, in the name of attacking operatives of Hamas has seriously diminished support for Israel here. It has also led Australians to understand that the atrocities, however ultimately unjustifiable, belonged in a long history of discrimination, dispossession and territorial encroachment, in which the Israeli state, the IDF and the Jewish settler movement have been villains rather than heroes.

Some have seen the controlled Australian response to events as being managed so as not to offend the United States. Like Australia, Joe Biden in the US has reproached Israel for its overreaction, and continually proclaimed his support for a two-state solution. Yet Biden has also provided Israel with the arms, ammunition and equipment to level Gaza, even as it has become clear that he has very little influence on Israel’s political leadership. The American side-taking has caused a bitter reaction in the US, particularly on university campuses. In the US, people of Jewish background outnumber people of Muslim background about two to one (though demographers expect that they will be about equal in 2050, even without immigration). But although the US has a strong pro-Israel lobby, an increasing proportion of Jewish Americans do not identify with Israel or Zionism. Muslim Australians already outnumber Jewish Australians by about six to one.

Many of these Muslim Australians usually lean towards Labor, and most of the seats in which Muslims are numerous or in a position (if their vote is disciplined, which is by no means to be expected) are Labor ones. Neither they, nor Senator Payman are necessarily looking to take voters away from Labor, or to direct preferences to the coalition. But they do mean to show Labor that their support for Labor is not to be taken for granted, when Labor so often works against their interests. Attempts to pile on this pressure by traditional political means is not a threat to national security even if an undue proportion of the intelligence community assume that Israel, under its current political leadership, is a vital part of the western alliance.

Some may think that a Muslim Australian movement seeking to exert influence in Australian politics may be rather like the Greens, seen as left of Labor but with nowhere to go in terms of ransoming its vote. That notion would be dangerous (as it is even in regard to the Greens). A better analogy might be with the teals in terms of the coalition vote. Moderate liberals, especially those out of sympathy with Peter Dutton on the environment and coal energy, may be in a position to keep the coalition out of power, or to prop up, with conditions, a minority Labor government. But their numbers, and to a degree the people their constituents support, are highly dependent on the size of the movement they create, their capacity to keep their issues to the forefront, and the enthusiasm or their followership.

Muslim Australians, quite reasonably, want to be an effective pressure group

That’s the danger to Labor, which is alienating many of its constituencies, whether with its lack of courage and sense of purpose with core Labor values, or with its evolution into a party subservient to the right on defence, more interested in toeing the American line than in securing our own interests. For many “traditional” Labor voters, the Greens speak more to their political reflexes and instincts than a passive pragmatism which refuses to speak for social justice, or a plan for national development.

If Joe Biden is to retain the Democrat nomination, after his lacklustre performance in the first presidential debate, he will have to cope with a distinct want of enthusiasm for his Israel policies, particularly from younger voters. He does not have support to squander. Senator Payman must wonder why the Labor party is so careless of some of its key constituencies, so willing to poke them in the eye. It is true that nothing Australia does, and nothing Australian grandstanders do, will much affect outcomes in Israel, if only because its government is not listening even to its friends at the moment. That said, discussion of what is occurring, and how it affects people with a background in the area, is a legitimate topic of ordinary political debate. It no more affects national cohesion than debate about uranium mining. The irony may be that more Labor voters are in sympathy with the views of Fatima Payman than with Anthony Albanese.

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