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The Australian Jewish vote 2013: Will Melbourne Ports continue to be the exception to the rule?

August 29, 2013 – 10:14 am23 Comments

 By Philip Mendes

danby2It is generally accepted, albeit without firm empirical evidence, that a clear majority of Australian Jews vote conservative. This preference allegedly dates back to 1974 when the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam abandoned his Party’s traditional pro-Israel record, and did so in a manner that was highly insensitive to Jewish concerns. Equally, most Australian Jews fall into the higher income brackets, and Coalition low taxation policies typically favour their class interests. Additionally, the Coalition has since September 2001 become an increasingly uncritical supporter of Israeli government policies.

The presumed Jewish-Coalition alignment seems to be confirmed in the little we know about Jewish voting patterns. Jews comprise a tiny percentage (about 0.5) of the overall population estimated at 105,000-112,000 persons, and constitute more than three per cent of voters in only five federal seats: Wentworth (12.5), Melbourne Ports (11.8), Goldstein (7.8), Higgins (4.7), and Kingsford Smith (3.3). Bradfield (2.9) and Hotham (2.7) sit just below that figure.

In the 2010 federal election, the Liberals gained swings in all the non-Victorian seats. The swings in both Kingsford Smith (8.10 per cent) and Wentworth (11.01 per cent) were well above the overall state swing of 4.84 per cent to the Coalition in NSW. Conversely, the ALP achieved a swing in its favour of 0.71 per cent in Melbourne Ports which was, nevertheless, just below the overall state swing of 1.04 per cent to the ALP in Victoria. Overall, the two-party preferred vote for the ALP in Melbourne Ports was 57.15 compared to 42.85 per cent for the Liberal candidate.

On the surface, it appears surprising that the ALP retains Melbourne Ports. The electorate includes a number of affluent suburbs, and the Liberals comfortably hold the adjoining State seat, and also score considerably higher than the ALP in the federal Senate vote. One important factor here is that the long-time pro-Israel ALP member, Michael Danby, appears to be popular with many Jewish voters. Conversely, the Liberals, with the arguable exception of the current State MP for Caulfield David Southwick in 2004, have chosen a succession of very poor candidates. It seems surprising that none of the high-profile elected Jewish members of the local Glen Eira City Council have sought Liberal pre-selection. A further factor is that the Greens, who secured 20.66 per cent of the primary vote in 2010, have consistently sent most of their preferences to the ALP. Barring a change in preference allocation, the ALP will most likely continue to hold the seat.

From a shtetl perspective it seems that the ALP has retained the seat because a significant number of Jewish voters are guided by their values, rather than by economic self-interest. This does not mean that most Jews even in Melbourne Ports vote Labor or Greens. To the contrary, the Liberals won five of the seven booths with large Jewish populations in the 2010 election. But it appears that a larger number of affluent Jews compared to others of the same socio-economic status vote for non-conservative parties.

To be sure, we know little about the particular values that Jewish voters hold dear. It is likely, however, that those who vote Labor or Greens are influenced by the following:

  1. The Coalition’s hardline approach to asylum seekers, although the current ALP Government also favours off-shore processing;

  2. Tony Abbott’s record of opposition to abortion, although some figures in the Labor Right also oppose women’s right to choose;

  3. The alignment of Tony Abbott and some other Coalition leaders with religious fundamentalism, and a more general concern about protecting the separation of religion and state;

  4. Concerns about the Coalition’s neo-liberal views on poverty and inequality, although Labor’s refusal to increase the New Start Allowance and its extension of the controversial Compulsory Income Management program suggest it is moving rapidly in the same direction;

  5. The Coalition’s opposition to same-sex marriage, although Labor is heavily divided on this issue.

  6. The Coalition’s semi-denialist approach to tackling climate change, albeit Labor also seems ambivalent about taking action;

  7. The Coalition’s negative attitude to Indigenous rights, although Labor’s record is also less than impressive.

  8. The likelihood that the Coalition will reintroduce the repressive Work Choices legislation under a new guise, whereas Labor can at least be relied on to protect workers rights.

The associated question is which values take precedence? For example, some Jewish voters will favour a pro-Israel candidate regardless of their views on the range of social and economic issues canvassed above. This may then lower what might potentially otherwise be a significant Jewish vote for the Greens because they are regarded as unfairly critical of Israel although to be sure the current leader Christine Milne has tried to modify that perception. Others may regard Israel as only one of several issues influencing their vote, and may lean towards the Greens whose views on many issues appear to be more progressive than those of the ALP. And some particularly left-leaning Jewish voters may even prefer to support a candidate who is not an unqualified supporter of Israel.

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit (SISPRU) in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and also holds an Honorary Position with the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. His analysis of the Jewish vote in the 2010 federal election was published as ‘The Jewish Community and the 2010 Federal Election” in People and Place, 18/4 (2010), 3-12 – Philip.Mendes@monash.edu

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