By Alex McKinnon
Labor’s abstention from a UN resolution calling for ceasefire, as well as its refusal to condemn Israel’s atrocities, is causing anger in its Muslim heartlands.
On Sunday, representatives from Muslim youth and student associations across Sydney gathered at Auburn Town Hall to brainstorm ways to help Palestinian civilians from afar. One of the running themes of the day was a sense of disappointment and betrayal in the Australian government’s refusal to call for a ceasefire, or describe Israel’s indiscriminate killing of more than 9,000 Palestinian civilians as genocide.
Amira Rahman is a social media ambassador with the Muslim Youth Association, which co-hosted the day and has been running pro-Palestine events for the last few weeks. Between the “horrifying images on my phone” and the government’s near-silence, it’s been an upsetting time.
“A few weeks ago, I visited the Sydney Opera House for the first time,” Rahman said. “I was so excited. I’ve lived in Australia my whole life and I’d never seen the Opera House, and it made me feel sort of proud to be Australian in a way. I thought ‘I’m gonna perform here someday’. And then the next night, they lit the Opera House up in blue and white.”
“At first I was shocked and angry, but as I thought about it, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, why am I surprised?’ The very land this country is built upon is stolen land. Australia is a colonial state supporting Israel, another colonial state. So why did I think that was suddenly going to change?”
Western Sydney has been a Labor heartland for as long as the party has existed. But the Albanese government’s support for Israel’s atrocities in Gaza has outraged many Palestinian, Muslim and Arab Australians who constitute a large part of the party’s electoral base across Sydney’s west and southwest.
Labor’s official position remains that it supports a “humanitarian pause” to deliver food, water and medical supplies to civilians in Gaza while rejecting a permanent ceasefire on the grounds that it would give Hamas an opportunity to regroup and plan further attacks on Israel. As criticism has mounted, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has begun using stronger language urging Israel to “observe international law and the rules of war”.
In a joint statement released last week, more than 80 Muslim community groups, including the Australian National Imams Council, the Lebanese Muslim Association, the Alliance of Australian Muslims and the Australasian Muslim Times newspaper, criticised “the decision to light up the Sydney Opera House and Parliament House Canberra with the colours of a colonising, invading, Zionist occupying regime”.
The Islamic Council of Victoria said it was “furious and dismayed” by the government’s abstention from a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, calling it a “shameful position” that “flies in the face of Australia’s stated commitment to the upholding of international law and our endorsement of human rights conventions”.
Australian Palestine Advocacy Network president Nasser Mashni says that communities would hold politicians accountable for their actions, inaction and silence “at a time when innocent lives are at stake.”
“History will remember those who stood up for the lives and rights of the Palestinian people during these dark days and it will also remember those who exceptionalised and elevated the suffering of only one people over another, driving a deep wedge within our community,” Mashni said.
Unlike in the United Kingdom, where dozens of Labour politicians have resigned in protest at leader Keir Starmer’s backing of Israel, no Labor figures in Australia have broken with the party.
Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, whose electorate of Watson takes in the suburbs of Lakemba, Punchbowl and much of Bankstown, has been the most senior government figure to speak publicly in support of Palestine. Burke backed Canterbury-Bankstown Council’s decision to fly the Palestinian flag and visited Paul Keating Park in Bankstown on Thursday to lay flowers at a memorial for Palestinian civilians killed by Israel.
Cabinet members Anne Aly and Ed Husic, both of whom are Muslim, have said that Israel is collectively punishing Palestinians for the Hamas attack and called for a ceasefire. Backbench Senator Fatima Payman has said Australia “must condemn” Israel’s “indiscriminate killing [of] men, women and children”.
Other senior Labor figures who represent areas with large Muslim and Arab communities have been mostly silent. Education Minister Jason Clare, whose seat of Blaxland covers Auburn, Merrylands and Villawood, has said little besides that he fears “darker days ahead”. Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, whose McMahon electorate has nearly 25,000 Muslim residents, has made no mention of the conflict on social media.
Other Labor figures have been trying to head off any potential change in the government’s approach. Last week around 40 Labor figures, including former NT chief minister Michael Gunner, former NSW leader Luke Foley and former federal parliamentarian Michael Danby published an open letter “in solidarity with Israel”, attacking “a minority of elected representatives of the Australian people [who] failed to condemn apologetics for Hamas or qualified their condemnations”. Anonymous Labor MPs have backgrounded against Burke in the media, calling his language “reckless” and accusing him of undermining Albanese and Wong.
Rahman believes that if change is to come, it will be from Muslim and Arab communities “putting pressure on their local MPs to do the right thing”.
“I don’t have faith in these local MPs to actually take a stand. It’s a concern that we have white men representing these really multicultural areas,” she says. “We need to see more faces of people who are Muslims representing areas with big Muslim communities. Otherwise it makes it really hard for us to have any voice or any power.”