Australian cabinet revolt over Israel policy

I imagine a prime minister being “rolled” over foreign policy issues is not common, especially when the issue is nothing more than how to vote on a symbolic United Nations General Assembly resolution. But such is the precariousness of both Julia Gillard’s grip on her party and the Israeli government’s diplomatic strategy that this is exactly what happened earlier this week.

The Australian government had planned to vote against the resolution to upgrade the status of the “nonmember state” of “Palestine” at the UN. However, Gillard’s Labor Party cabinet members forced her to change Australia’s position to abstain.

From the Sydney Morning Herald, November 28:

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, who met Ms Gillard before cabinet, drove the push to oppose the Prime Minister…

Ms Gillard had wanted to vote no while the Left faction, which is pro-Palestinian, wanted to vote for the resolution.
The Right faction, which would usually support Ms Gillard, backed an abstention, in part due to the views of its members that the government was too pro-Israel, and also because many MPs in western Sydney, who are already fearful of losing their seats, are coming under pressure from constituents with a Middle East background.

I might note that we Jews, too, have a Middle East background, ((The “resistance”, so to speak, of the Palestinian organizations and their sympathizers abroad to recognize this basic fact is at the very core of the conflict.)) but presumably the SMH means Australian citizens from Arab or other Muslim countries. There just aren’t enough Jews in swing districts, apparently. ((And I do not know the views of the Australian Jewish population, but I assume its organizations would favor a no vote on the UN resolution.))

One source said Ms Gillard was told the cabinet would support whatever final decision she took because it was bound to support the leader but the same could not be said of the caucus.
“If you want to do it, the cabinet will back you but the caucus won’t,” a source quoted one minister as telling the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the German government has also announced it will abstain. When you lose Australia and Germany, even only to abstention on something symbolic, it may be a signal that your diplomatic strategy is lacking.

Former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has said he would support the Palestinian Authority’s UN gambit.

18 thoughts on “Australian cabinet revolt over Israel policy

  1. MSS, my understanding is that Malcolm Turnbull’s electoral division of Wentworth has the highest Jewish population in Australia (from memory I think it still doesn’t crack 10%).

    Note that unlike the US, where the census asks your race but not your religion, the Australian census does not ask your race or ethnic background (other than “Are you of Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islander background?”, plus a couple of indirect questions from which one’s ethnic background might be inferred, eg, “In which country were you born?” and “What language do you normally speak at home?” – note, however, that Russian Jews would show up as Russian rather than Jewish under both questions) but it does ask your religion (mainly to assist the government in channeling funding to church/ synagogue/ mosque/ temple/ Xenu spaceship-run schools).

    So Australia has fairly accurate data about where the Jewish voters are distributed, albeit that it would count, say, Geraldine Brooks but not Isaac Asimov.

  2. Interesting. Thank you.

    Alan, your link is empty. If you send me the link I will insert it. Or repost your comment and I will combine the link and the original.

    Does Australia have exit-poll data or other ways to estimate the voting patterns of various demographic groups?

  3. correct link

    Gillard would be the first Prime Minister of Australia to attempt to vote this way. I would guess it’s another example of her not concerning herself with the narrow, limited and uninteresting universe that exists outside the confines of the ALP struggle to get and hold power within the party.

    • Regarding the article Alan linked to, it seems this is more about “a public spat over which of the major political parties is a bigger friend of Israel” than it is any disagreement among Jewish MPs, aside from their partisan differences.

      In any case, I was more interested in possible constituent pressures one way or the other, as opposed to the identity of various politicians. The latter, too, is potentially interesting, of course.

      • And, of course, one of the things that makes it hard for me to support Green politicians who are otherwise close to my preferences is their stance on Israel. While I quite frequently disagree with the Likud line that too often is taken to be synonymous with “pro-Israel”, I can’t support any politician linked to the BDS movement.

        (At the moment, I am enjoying my anti-BDS lunch: home-made hummus that includes imported Israeli olive oil and tahina, along with a bag of Sheffa snacks made in Israel, and my sparkling water prepared using my Israeli-made Sodastream!)

  4. One reason the initial position taken by Gillard surprised people was that it raised a lot of eyebrows in Indonesia.

    I can only be anecdotal, but it is standard operating procedure for politicians here to note that a majority of Arab Australians are Christians and that a majority of Muslim Australians are not Arabs. The vast majority of Australian Muslims come from Southeast Asia.

  5. I’ve read (The New Republic, from memory) that a similar pattern holds in the US. Most Arab-Americans (Shaheen, Sununu, George Mitchell, Mitch Daniels) are Christian whereas the majority of American Muslims are African-American converts. Often missed because the single biggest geographical concentration of US Muslims, around Dearborn, are Middle Eastern (albeit Iranian rather than Arab).

    Most prominent Lebanese-Australians – especially MPs (Eddie Obeid, Tom George, Steve Bracks) are of Christian background.

    The right wing of the ALP used to be extremely and uniformly pro-Israel. Bob Hawke has a tree planted for him in Jerusalem and at one point in 1967 or 1973 wanted Israel to use nukes (!) on “the Arabs”. He does, however, have a Palestinian business partner these days. Michael Danby and Barry Cohen are other examples. The Left (eg, Tanya Plibersek) by contrast tend to regard Israel as a “terrorist state” – although this may be changing as the most left-wing ALP supporters shift to the Greens. Among the Greens, Senator Lee Rhiannon is seen as strongly pro-BDS whereas Ian Cohen (retiring NSW MLC) has criticised it.

    • Thanks for the further detail, Tom and Alan.

      As for the Dearborn area in Michigan, there actually is a substantial Iraqi population, though I do not know if Christian or Muslim. Near San Diego, there is a prominent Chaldean community (Iraqi, Christian).

      The US, of course, has nothing remotely comparable to the Muslim immigration of the UK, or even Canada. It certainly makes sense that the Muslim community of Australia would be, to a large extent, Indonesian.

  6. I think this shows the flexibility of a party system, where the views of the leader can be overtaken by concerns of a majority of party members. I am obviously concerned by my own government’s (Stephen Harper) refusal to acknowledge a two-state solution by voting against this resolution. Unfortunately, Canada’s party system is evidently much less evolved.

  7. @10 Normally a prime minister would simply impose their policy and while the caucus might grumble they would wear it. As noted by MSS, Julia Gillard simply does not have the authority to do that.

  8. The Left/Right divide on this issue within the ALP is interesting because while the PM usually comes from the Right faction, I was under the impression that Ms. Gillard was the first PM ever from the Labor Left/Socialist Left faction of the ALP. While her position probably came from upholding Australia’s longstanding commitment to the Israeli side as well as to the party’s general election prospects next year, it’s also a possibility that she let the abstention vote win due to personal sympathy with the Palestinian side or with the Left wing of the ALP.

  9. The expressions ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have lost all meaning in the modern ALP. Gillard indeed comes from the Left but has governed exclusively from the Right. If you review her major decisions on foreign policy, the Malaysia Solution, US basing in the Northern Territory, the Pacific Solution II, the Afghan commitment, the ludicrously low Kyoto II commitments, you’d need a really, really broad brush to associate those positions with the Left. Opposing a carbon tax and marriage equality are not traditional leftwing positions. Reducing education to test results and proposing nonsensical non-laws like the Gonski non-implementation act. Gillard initially opposed changing the succession to the throne. It follows that Gillard either does not care about policy or belongs firmly to the Right.

    Taking power illegitimately with the support of the AWU and the NSW Right will do that to you.

    • What was illegitimate about Gillard’s taking power? Party caucus removed her predecessor and voted her in. Seems the very definition of parliamentary-party legitimacy to me.

      As for the carbon tax, she opposed it before she favored it, no?

  10. When Keating supplanted Hawke he resigned from cabinet and advanced an alternative program from the backbench. When he did take the leadership, on his second attempt, he was able to unify the party because he had proposed different policies.

    Gillard did not leave office, did not propose an alternative program, and declared she would never supplant Rudd as late as 48 hours before she did. The caucus was stampeded into the removal by a panicked national secretariat and rather heavy-handed pressure from the NSW Right (a national faction despite its name) and a number of Right unions.

    Paul Howes, the AWU national secretary and ALP vice-president actually gave an interview to the ABC describing the motives for the challenge and claiming success at a time when caucus members were still denying there was any challenge because no-one had bothered telling them.

    Gillard had vigorously, almost desperately, opposed the carbon tax under Rudd. When, in a very bad decision, Rudd accepted Gillard’s advice and abandoned the carbon tax his electoral standing collapsed and he became vulnerable to challenge.

    Gillard is certainly a legitimate prime minister. Whether she is a legitimate Labor leader is another question entirely.

  11. It is perhaps unkind to add the NSW Right are the electoral geniuses who gave NSW 3 premiers in 4 years, destroying Premier Iemma because he advocated electricity privatisation, and then privatising electricity 2 premiers later. This stroke of political master strategy achieved the happy result of a 2PP of 64.22/35.78 in favour of the Coalition.

  12. The Interpreter may have the answer to MSS’ question about constituent pressure.

    Bob Carr was arguing about being on the right side of a lot of potential voters as well as the right side of history.

    The foreign minister is also a former premier of NSW and a potential compromise candidate for the leadership if the Gillard leadership implodes. He would have to move from the Senate to the House, but that is precisely what John Gorton did when elected prime minister while sitting as a senator.

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