Home » Wong and Dutton leave Arabic and Islamic Australians feeling abandoned

Wong and Dutton leave Arabic and Islamic Australians feeling abandoned

Frantic messages have been going out to the party faithful outside the electorate in recent days, pleading for numbers to man unattended booths.

Even the voters aren’t showing up. Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers was compelled to put out a statement on Thursday expressing his alarm that early voting numbers “are down by approximately 11.2 per cent based on the same period in the 2022 federal election”.

It seems we can confidently assert high degrees of apathy all round.

There are some places you can’t go in politics and this was one of them.

Compare this with recent byelections contested by the major parties – and how most developments were seen through the prism of politicians trying to appeal to voters in those particular electorates.

Instead, this week, we see this extraordinary voter apathy on the one hand but rhetoric by both major parties on the other that seems wildly out of step with the views of people they must woo if they want to win the next federal election.

Leading nowhere

Dutton shocked many people in his speech at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday. He spoke of events in Gaza since October 7 through the prism of a rising tide of antisemitism in Australia, which he linked to Palestinian protests at the same building on October 9.

“A mob undeterred creates a movement,” Dutton said, and – after listing a range of events he said demonstrated this alarming trend – went on to blame “a lack of political leadership from those in power” for “the rise in antisemitism” in Australia.

His comparison with the leadership of Liberal prime minister John Howard in response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre attracted all the attention.

“While no one was killed during the October 9 protests, the events at the Sydney Opera House were akin to a Port Arthur moment in terms of their social significance,” Dutton said.

There are some places you can’t go in politics and this was one of them.

His comments were widely condemned, including by the Liberal premier of Tasmania.

Dutton’s frontbench colleagues dutifully came out to defend him.

But Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer described Dutton’s comments as “incredibly disrespectful” and “wholly inappropriate”.

Peter Dutton’s leadership, it seems, only applies to some sections of the community. Alex Ellinghausen

If we are talking leadership, Dutton’s unrelenting policy of addressing the catastrophe in the Middle East since October 7 purely in terms of what it means for Jewish Australians – and ignoring the fact tens of thousands of Palestinians have lost their lives – doesn’t really seem to fit the bill.

Let’s not even focus on the rights and wrongs of this for a moment. Let’s talk sheer political pragmatism.

Community alarm

The Coalition’s strategy, ostensibly, is to win a slew of seats from Labor in places like western Sydney.

Western Sydney is home to hundreds of thousands of people with links to the Middle East. Not all of them are Muslim.

There is deep alarm and fear in these communities over what is happening in Gaza, often to their families and friends.

Dutton pays little heed to these concerns in his public remarks, and attacks the prime minister for failing to “see the danger which antisemitism poses to our social cohesion, to our way of life, and to the preservation of the Australian achievement”.

Dutton’s leadership, it seems, only applies to some sections of the community.

But what is deeply troubling to Arabic and Islamic communities in Australia – including Christian Arabs and Lebanese Maronites – is they feel equally unheard by the government.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong raised the spectre that Australia may at some point formally recognise the state of Palestine.

Senior government figures insist Penny Wong’s remarks on a two-state solution have to be seen as part of a calibrated international effort to ramp up pressure on Israel. Alex Ellinghausen

This was because she said the recognition of a Palestinian state is “the only hope to break the endless cycle of violence” in the Middle East and a two-state solution would help ensure long-term security for Israel and further undermine Hamas.

This was widely interpreted as ramping up pressure on Israel by implying that Australia might – one of these days – join the many other countries that already recognise the state of Palestine.

It shouldn’t actually have been that controversial a statement. A two-state solution and recognition of Palestine are, after all, official Labor Party policy.

But the government has dodged and weaved on moving there since it won government in 2022.

Wong’s comments attracted the ire of Dutton, The Australian newspaper and the Israel lobby in this country, among others.

She was congratulated by others for moving Australia’s position forward, however incrementally.

The congratulations included many of those of her colleagues sitting around the cabinet table on Tuesday.

But it was apparently too much for some in the room and bitter differences erupted between Wong and Industry Minister Ed Husic, who has long led the internal charge for a more balanced position on the conflict from the government.

Wong’s cautious tone may have been the antithesis of Dutton’s colourful rhetoric, but the question of just how Labor’s handling of this issue since October 7 matches up with the aspirations of Australia’s Arabic and Islamic communities is equally hard to fathom.

Key voters abandoning Labor

Multiple sources say Labor is experiencing a mass desertion of voters from these communities who have started to organise themselves politically in WhatsApp groups to run independent candidates at the next election – discussing fundraising and strategies that reflect their sense of abandonment.

The party machine has told the government that between five and seven electorates in Sydney and Melbourne are under serious threat, including the seats of ministers Jason Clare, Tony Burke, and Husic, along with MPs Anne Stanley and Peter Khalil.

Senior figures in the government insist Wong’s remarks this week have to be seen as part of a calibrated international effort to ramp up pressure on Israel.

But Australia is starting late, and behind many countries that have already moved, including the UK.

Some sheepishly acknowledge Australia’s response is calibrated to seek the protection of being in step with the United States on this issue.

Caution has dominated the government’s approach.

The move to appoint former Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin to investigate the killing of seven humanitarian workers in Gaza, including Australian Zomi Frankcom, seems to suggest any pressure Canberra is trying to apply is having little effect.

Israel is doing little, it seems, to aid or assist Binskin’s task.

If Palestinians feel unloved by Israel and Hamas in Gaza, their family and friends in Australia feel equally unappreciated by our major political parties.

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