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 Rifat Hilaly (who, as it happened, was the younger brother of Sheik Hilaly). I found out later that Rifat 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.
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. Hilaly’s endorsement is a poisoned chalice for any candidate.

Peter Fray

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