When a political party changes a long-standing policy platform, it indicates a change in the mood of the voting public; an urgency to come to grips with an issue of social or economic importance. So when the NSW Labor Party recently adopted a significantly anti-Israel motion moved by former Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr, without debate, it was natural to assume that a majority of Australian voters thought the same way.
Yet apart from the usual faces from the Islamic community, Greens and leftist students marching to object to Israel’s actions in Gaza, there hasn’t been a noticeable upsurge of anti-Israeli sentiment among Australian voters. For those who don’t belong to communities with a passionate interest in the warring factions, the Arab-Israel conflict is a long-running, irresolvable mess which provokes the Shakespearean curse on both houses. Only during the regular flare-ups between Israel and its neighbours does the Australian public become interested in the perennial politics of the Middle East.
So deeper reasons have to be adduced for the Labor Party’s about-face in its historic relationship of support for Israel. After all, despite pro-forma condemnations at the time, no major policy shift has occurred in Labor despite the murders of over 100,000 Syrian Muslims, 300,000 Sudanese Muslims, 500,000 Muslims in Iraq, or the incalculable slaughter caused by Islamic terrorist organizations Boko Haram or the Islamic State.
Nor has Federal Labor had much to say about the destruction of Christian communities in some Muslim lands. But everybody is an expert, it seems, on how Israel should behave.
When he was Labor’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr led the charge to roll his Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at a Cabinet Meeting in 2012, humiliating her into withdrawal of Australia’s support for Israel in the United Nations. However this change in Labor support didn’t come overnight; it could be seen even in the early days of PM Kevin Rudd, who began to reverse the previous Howard Government’s United Nations General Assembly voting pattern. Indeed, Jewish community leaders I have spoken with say that both Carr and Labor have betrayed Israel and harmed any progress towards peace.
But it is votes in Australia, rather than a voting pattern in the United Nations which perhaps gives the clue as to why Labor has changed its attitude towards Israel. Compare the number of Jewish voters to the numbers of Muslim voters in this country, and light begins to dawn. Three decades ago, Australian Muslims were few in number compared with the rest of the population. Today, Australia has opened its doors to migrants from Islamic nations, and now half a million citizens are identified as Muslims; the number growing daily. This compares with just over 100,000 Jews, whose numbers are falling due to assimilation and a lower birth-rate.
The traditional voting habit of Australian Jews is divided between Liberal and Labor, but is more generally conservative. However, a vast majority of Muslim votes come out of the Labor heartland in Sydney’s west, especially the electorates of Blaxland, Watson, Fowler and Parramatta, and Muslims tend to be strong supporters both of the Labor Party, and of the Palestinian people.
This, then, might explain the change in heart of parliamentary Labor. After all, the primary objective of a political party is to be elected, rather than having a visionary platform to appeal to the electorate. Political policy often becomes the servant of public sentiment in this era of 24-hour news, blogs, opinion polls and the internet.
There is, however, more than just a reflection of changed voting patterns when it comes to what drives Bob Carr. When he retired peremptorily nine years ago from the Labor Premiership of New South Wales in August 2005, he was in danger, as all politicians at the end of their terms, of political irrelevance. So Carr spent seven years in retirement; thinking, writing, and pondering; constantly active in social and political causes such as stem cell research, the environment and population size.
And when Julia Gillard phoned and asked him to take up a casual Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Mark Arbib, his moment of relevance suddenly arrived. Carr was thrust back into the political landscape, not as a mere backbencher, but as one of the most important and prominent movers and shakers in the government.
But even that wasn’t enough for Carr. He had his eyes firmly set on the international stage. Nothing suited his intellect, love of international affairs or ambitions more than being elevated to Foreign Minister.
He’d always harboured such ambitions. It was so obvious, even when running New South Wales, that he saw himself on the international stage. In a breakfast meeting I organized with a prominent visiting American Jewish leader when Carr was still Premier, he strongly inferred that he could play a confidential role as mediator in Sydney if somehow we could bring together the Prime Minister of Israel, and the leader of the Palestinian peoples, to thrash out a solution to their problems behind closed doors and out of sight of the world’s media. Nothing came of his suggestion.
For a man who relishes the limelight, his elevation as Foreign Minister couldn’t have come at a better time. When he was Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd had spent a fortune in foreign largesse among the poorer nations to ensure their vote to elevate Australia into a temporary seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. Carr relished his place at the table of world leaders, which is evident reading his Diary of a Foreign Minister.
So why, then, did a one-time friend of Israel write so caustically about the Jewish Lobby in Melbourne supporting Israel in Australia, with barely a word about the pressure the Muslim lobby places on politicians?
Could it possibly be that there are 57 member countries in the United Nations’ Organization of the Islamic Conference, the biggest voting bloc within the world body? Because elevation to a senior position within the UN hierarchy will require endorsement from the Islamic world.
And for Bob Carr, a senior post within the UN could be Career No. 4.
Alan Gold is a novelist and commentator on Middle East affairs.