Monday, January 22, 2007

Hilaly’s endorsement is a poisoned chalice for any candidate

I joined the Young Libs in mid-1993. In 1995, my branch president Luke and I volunteered to help Lakemba Liberal candidate (and Lebanese Muslim) Michael (his real name, though Lebanese people called him “Mahmoud”) Hawatt.

Michael was very close to an accountant named Rafat Hilaly (who, as it happened, was the younger brother of Sheik Hilaly). I found out later that Rafat was also a member of the Lakemba Liberal branch over which Michael presided. The state Labor MP for Lakemba had retired.

Tony Stewart was the ALP’s preselected candidate, and his campaign manager was barrister John Hatzistergos. John Fahey was facing an uphill battle in the coming State Election.

The Libs didn’t take Lakemba too seriously until Sheik Hilaly’s surprise announcement that he would be endorsing their man Hawatt. The Sheik offered to provide manpower for the booths, and encouraged his congregation to place Hawatt posters in their front yards. Many defied Hilaly, having Stewart posters in their front yard.

Hilaly even pre-recorded a message (to be played on loudspeakers on election day) explaining to Arabic-speaking voters how to lodge a valid vote for Hawatt. He also mentioned the elections and his support for Hawatt at Friday prayers.

I remember attending campaign meetings at Lakemba Library. Also in attendance were senior Fahey ministers like Michael Photios and John Hannaford. Both were rubbing shoulders with Hilaly, and endorsing his support for the Hawatt campaign. Photios later informed me that Liberal Party head office now regarded Lakemba as a “winnable” (if not marginal) seat.

Hawatt’s polling day performance was abysmal. Hilaly’s voice was broadcast on a loudspeaker at the back of a campaign worker’s ute. It had the opposite effect, especially among the large community of Lebanese Christian voters in Punchbowl and Greenacre booths. The Liberals actually recorded a swing against them.

Sheik Hilaly openly opposed my candidature in the 2001 election for the Federal seat of Reid. Apparently his opposition arose not from any concern for refugees but from his perception that I had acted as lawyer in a number of matters on behalf of opponents of his from within the Lebanese Muslim sector. Again, his influence proved ephemeral. I achieved a 5.1% swing on a two-party preferred basis.

ANU sociologist Shakira Hussein is spot-on, describing Hilaly as being less inspired by broader Muslim interests and more by his own personal aspirations to remain Mufti and stave off any internal challenge. Here's part of what she says ...

The sheik's electoral influence is limited. His support base is
confined to Sydney and to Muslims of Lebanese background. Despite his highly
contested title of Mufti of Australia, he is of little relevance to Muslims of
Turkish, Indian or Bosnian extraction. And there is scant evidence to suggest
that even in his Lakemba heartland many people will look to him for guidance as
to how to vote.

Yet his intervention is still damaging, adding to perceptions that
Muslim participation in Australian politics is about pursuing a Muslim agenda
rather than about contributing to Australian society as a whole ...

Hilali may claim that he would seek "a sincere, honest, candidate whose
loyalty is totally to Australia". But voters would be entitled to query whether
candidates handpicked by a sheik because of their Muslim identity really intend
to place the needs of all constituents on an equal footing. This suspicion could
then spill over into a fear of all political participation by Muslims, so that
any Muslim candidate, however low-key their religious affiliation, would be seen
as representing Muslims first and foremost. Muslims with serious political
ambitions will not thank the sheik for this.

By talking of running Muslim candidates, as though being Muslim defines
a particular political agenda that is somehow different to that of non-Muslims,
Hilali and his spokesman Kayser Trad are not furthering the interests of
Australian Muslims. Rather, they are consigning them to the wilderness

It is right and proper that Muslims should be among those Australians
who stand for political office. But they cannot afford to be seen as
exclusivist, as placing their religious identity above all else.

That does not mean that they must lay aside that identity
altogether. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are guided by their Christian identity,
but it has led them in radically different political directions. There is at
least as great a diversity of political opinion among Muslims, despite a shared
interest in certain issues.

Those issues need to be debated among Australians of all political
and religious affiliations, not corralled into a campaign for candidates of one
religious identity.

Hilaly’s endorsement is a poisoned chalice for any candidate.

A version of this was first published in the Crikey! daily alert for 22 January 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007