With the NSW election coming up on March 26, there will no doubt be plenty of attention paid to the so-called ethnic vote. And with even safe ALP seats up for grabs as O’Farrell’s barrel of promises rolls across western Sydney, ethnic organisations will use the opportunity to promise votes. For a price, of course.

In Lakemba, things aren’t exactly promising for the Libs. Although the Liberal candidate for Lakemba secured a two-party preferred swing of some 13% in the 2008 byelection, it remains rock-solid Labor. The only problem is that an outsider wouldn’t be sure who the ALP candidate actually was. Sitting MP Robert Furolo for some reason has omitted words such as  ALP and Labor from his posters.

Lakemba isn’t a popular place in some circles. Dr Jeremy Sammut, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, sees Lakemba as an example of the “M&M” problem of “disintegration”. Sammut claims that “Lakemba and its surrounds … remain ghettofied … [with] jarring realities on the disintegration of some parts of Sydney from the mainstream, and the failure to repeat the successful patterns of integration of other ethnic groups”.

And presumably ghetto-dwellers presumably vote the same way, obeying the dictates of their leaders. Enter the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA), which manages the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb mosque on Haldon Street, the largest of around 10 mosques in the seat and where Sheik Hilaly often leads the service.

In the 1995 state election, which then Premier John Fahey lost of Labor’s Bob Carr, Hilaly openly backed Michael Hawatt, then (and indeed now) the Liberal candidate. Hilaly’s voice could be heard on a loudspeaker stuck to the roof of a station wagon telling voters in chaste Arabic how to vote for Hawatt. A few days before the ballot, a host of Fahey ministers were at the Lakemba library showing their support for Hilaly’s campaign. And all to no avail. Tony Stewart easily defeated Hawatt, and Carr managed to knock off Fahey.

The LMA is also no stranger to politics. It was often involved in branch stacks on behalf of competing ALP factions. Back in the 1990s when Tony Stewart competed with former premier Morris Iemma for the Lakemba preselection, a former LMA president and local solicitor allowed his office to be used as a base for a dummy branch set up to support one of the factions.

In the 2001 Auburn byelection, whose ballot was held on the Saturday before the 9/11 attacks, Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski sought endorsement for her candidate in Auburn from Hilaly and the LMA. She got it. The Liberal candidate obtained a primary swing of less than 1% in a ballot with no compulsory preferencing. Scott Morrison was campaign manager and state director.

Just how representative is the LMA anyway? Last time I checked, the LMA excluded over 50% of voters by not allowing women to be full members. Then again, “mainstream” Australian organisations such as the Melbourne Club are also happy to only have chicks working in the kitchen.

And like the Melbourne Club, the LMA is becoming a bastion of Liberal Party activism, throwing its support behind a swag of Liberal candidates, among them Michael Hawatt in Lakemba. Personally I think this is a politically inept move for any community organisation, but then again I’m probably one of those ghettofied M&M types.

The Libs shouldn’t fall into the trap of accepting ridiculous claims by community organisations of delivering votes. People don’t vote because of some alleged ethnic or organisational affiliation. People vote because their parents voted a certain way or because they like the candidate or for some other reason usually divorced from race or religion. And they hardly ever vote a certain way because their imam tells them to.

And that makes the LMA’s reported move of endorsing candidates completely futile. Still, at least this time around they’re backing a party and not some Muslim-only ticket as their senior imam did recently.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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