Published on-line on the ABC website on Religion and Ethics, published on 29 June 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-jewish-vote-and-the-2022-federal-election-michael-easson/13951240
There is a widespread conceit that, because Australian Jewry is largely economically successful, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) can write them off as unlikely supporters of progressive candidates in elections. This is egregious nonsense — for at least four reasons.
First, there is a long and historic association between the ALP — and British Labour, for that matter — and local Jewish communities. For cultural and religious reasons, Jews are called to be exemplary in social conscience, in seeking justice in the wider world. This tradition tugs leftwards and tends to be sympathetic to progressive politics. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and when elements of the left become hostile to Israel and/or where antisemitism flares, there can be a commensurate reaction. But this is not the currently the case with Australian Labor. The re-election in 2022 of Jewish Labor MPs Mark Dreyfus, Mike Freelander, and Josh Burns expresses the affinity.
Second, the characterisation of Jewry as being inherently anti-Labor is the kind of thing that those on the “Corbyn left” within UK Labour used to say. It is a stereotype and thereby defames an entire section of the electorate. Where extremely put by antisemites, it threatens to be self-fulfilling.
Third, in the Australian context, the attitude that success means “enemy of Labor” stands in opposition to the Hawke/Keating Labor tradition of celebrating achievement and sympathy for aspiration and fortune won fairly. Dog-in-the-manger attitudes to economic prosperity and entrepreneurship have no place in modern Australian Labor. It is also worth noting that Australian Jewry is diverse and dynamic, with a wide range of prosperity in that community, some of whom abhor mere material success. Education and prowess in learning, both secular and religious, is more highly regarded than the stellar economic attainment of a relative few.
Fourth, the description and delineation of Jewish voting patterns as unsympathetic to the ALP and progressive candidates is patently false. As I hope to show, this becomes evident through a cursory review of the results of the 2022 Australian federal election.
But before delving into the data, it’s worth getting some sense of perspective. The number of Jewish Australians is small: less than 100,000 or so Jews live in our nation of 25.7 million people. In only 4 of 151 federal electorates do they amount to a sizeable minority of constituents. As for political donations, a comparison with the list of donors filing returns with the Australian Electoral Commission Transparency Register indicates that the amounts coming from known members of the Jewish community or their companies pale by comparison to, say, the syndicate of donors who were behind the “Tealbath” at the recent election. Yet opponents of Israel continue to insist on how much power and influence “the Jews” wield over the policies of state and federal governments. It seems the old antisemitic folk devil — the sinister Jews, always controlling and manipulating events — continues to haunt Australian politics.
An argument is run in some ALP circles that Jewish voters don’t vote for Labor to begin with, so there’s no point doing them any favours on “their” issues. Some formerly prominent Labor figures cynically claim that Labor can effectively dismiss the Jews as electorally of little significance. But the evidence from this year’s federal election does not bear this out.
The swing in four critical electorates
The Jewish community in Australia is concentrated in four electorates. In Wentworth, Jewish voters make up 16.2 per cent of the electorate; in Macnamara, it is 12.8 per cent; in Goldstein, 8.8 per cent; and in Kingsford Smith, less than 6.0 per cent. Twenty years ago, none of those seats was considered marginal. Apart from the possible exception of Kingsford Smith, all now fall into that category.
In 2022 the evidence suggests that Jewish voters, like other voters, based their votes on their own personal circumstances, rather than some illusory collective interest. Older voters were more conservative than younger. Highly educated voters were more attuned to climate change and resonant cultural issues. Women, more than men in this election, had grave concerns about the Morrison government’s attitude to women, as well as the culture of disrespect in the parliamentary triangle in Canberra and beyond. Young people overwhelmingly rejected the complacent and/or climate-denying policies of the Coalition. Issues of environment, integrity, and equity swung votes.
In the four electorates where there is a concentration of Jewish voters, two seats elected progressive Teal candidates (Wentworth and Goldstein), and the other two (Macnamara and Kingsford Smith) returned Labor MPs. A higher-than-average percentage of Jewish voters used postal voting facilities to avoid voting on Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath. Josh Burns was in no doubt that it was those late-counted votes which, more than a week after polls closed, saw him re-elected in Macnamara — the 76th seat Labor needed to form an absolute majority in the parliament. He was running very close in the early counting.
Justifiably, much is adduced about the boost Labor got from the change in the Australian-Chinese vote in the 2022 election compared to 2019 (Bennelong, Reid, and Chisholm were won in 2022 with big swings from this cohort). This time, as well, large swathes of votes from the Jewish community clearly favoured Labor and the Teals. They saved Josh Burns in Macnamara and helped turn Goldstein and Wentworth Teal (as well as Kooyong). Kingsford Smith, the seat with the fourth highest percentage of Jewish voters, swung 5.7 per cent to Labor.
Macnamara has by far the highest proportion of Jewish electors in Melbourne. The Jewish community is concentrated in the Caulfield suburbs. At the 2019 federal election, the then four polling booths in the Caulfield suburbs gave the ALP a majority in two booths, with the Liberals winning the other two. Overall, in 2019 Josh Burns eked out a win in these booths by 2,444 votes to 2,407 (50.4 per cent, two party preferred). In 2022 there were five polling booths covering the Caulfield suburbs. Burns won all those booths decisively and gained a swing of 8 per cent (two party preferred) — 2,707 votes to 1,932 (58.4 per cent). Results from the Caulfield booths are therefore a strong rebuttal of any inherent anti-Labor bias, because Labor has won convincingly in suburbs with significant numbers of Jewish votes. With strong flows of preferences against Burns (coming from minor party candidates specifically), the lift in primary vote was critical. It was not enough for Burns simply to replicate his 2019 performance. The final winning margin in Macnamara was 594 votes at the penultimate elimination.
It is also telling that, in these suburbs which represent the core of Melbourne’s Jewish community, the primary vote for Josh Burns increased at this election, as opposed to the more “inner city” or progressive parts of the electorate that switched to the Greens. Likewise, there were a great many voters in Macnamara who switched from the Liberals to Labor, as opposed to a broader trend seen elsewhere of voters switching from the Liberals to the Greens. One explanation is because, unlike voters who are demographically similar yet not Jewish, many Jewish voters could not bring themselves to vote for the Greens because of the party’s conspicuous sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It is all but certain that Labor’s eventual 300-vote winning margin from this key portion of the Macnamara electorate would have evaporated if the ALP had adopted a policy of boycotting the State of Israel — which the vast majority of Australian Jews see as antisemitic.
Anthony Albanese astutely convinced the Jewish community that he could be trusted. In July 2021, the then Opposition Leader spoke to a Zoom audience of Jewish community leaders organised by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. There he stated opposition to BDS, disagreed with any characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state, and declared his support for the definition of antisemitism as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. These positions are markedly different from the loathsome policies and stances of Jeremy Corbyn when he was the Labour Leader in Great Britain.
We know that these four seats swung away from the Liberal Party. Did their Jewish voters swing at the same rates? It is hard to tell. But it seems reasonable to conclude that the concerns of voters who happen to be Jewish are essentially the same as those of the wider community in those electorates. Of course, there are issues and concerns for the Jewish community (but which are not on the radar of the wider voting population) that would shift Jewish votes. A reasonable hypothesis is that so long as the major parties and candidates stay “between the flags” — which is to say, within the bounds of acceptability on foreign policy in general, and on Israel in particular — then Jewish Australian voters will likely swing in line with the wider population, especially on domestic issues. But where a major party (or independent candidate) becomes resolutely hostile to Israel, then Jewish voters will see this as antisemitic, and thus a threat to them in a domestic context, and they will abandon them in droves.
Interestingly, in Kingsford Smith, Matt Thistlethwaite continued to hold a gentrifying electorate with an increased margin. The old public housing estates around Long Bay Goal are giving way to mansions, newcomers, and eastern suburbs prices. In his relationship with the electorate and in his campaign, strong local links were forged and renewed, including with the growing Maroubra Synagogue and Mount Sinai College. His relationship with the Jewish community goes back to his days as a child enrolled at Mount Sinai pre-school in Kingsford; he attended the school’s anniversary event in 2021.
What lessons can we draw?
There is no doubt that those Australian electorates with high concentrations of Jewish voters rejected their conservative candidates and MPs in the 2022 federal election. Labor held two seats where the Jewish vote is influential — decisively so in Macnamara. When Labor pre-selects the right candidates, engages with the community, and develops good policies, Jewish voters have shown that they will vote Labor — but they cannot be taken for granted.
By and large, Jewish Australians determine their voting choices based on the same issues and concerns as the wider Australian population. But if the Labor Party was to walk away from its longstanding principled support for Israel in favour of delegitimising the world’s sole Jewish state and adopt the language of boycotts and apartheid, this would be seen as a symptom of recrudescent antisemitism and the ALP’s support within the Australian Jewish community would plummet. Israel is a strong unifying theme and litmus test for Australian Jews. According to the Gen 17 study published by Monash University, 88 per cent of Australian Jews feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that the State of Israel continues to exist in peace and security. It is their ultimate safe-haven against recurring cycles of antisemitism.
If maintaining the support of the Jewish community is important to the ALP — and the evidence from the 2022 election suggests that it is — then Labor has a good story to tell about its longstanding support for Israel’s establishment as a Jewish State in 1948, its solidarity with Israel in seeing off the military attempt to wipe it off the map in 1967, and about its contemporary abhorrence of racism, including antisemitism.
I am grateful to Scott Stephens, Editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, for both attractively editing and publishing this article.
Mercifully for readers, the article as published was shorter than what I submitted. But it might be of interest to the more psephologically focused to mention some extra points:
If proof is needed that Labor relies on strong Jewish community support, here are two maps from Melbourne that illustrate the point.
The first shows the 2014 to 2018 Victorian state election swings – Josh Burns was the ALP candidate in 2014 in Caulfield, with Sorina Grasso, also Jewish, but not a local (now a Councillor for Knox City) the Labor candidate in 2018. Her strong local campaign could not match Burns’ long-term engagement with the Jewish community and strong links locally. The blue denotes a swing away from Labor, one of the only swings in that direction in inner-Melbourne in the 2018 election, concentrated at the centre of the Jewish community in Caulfield. The positive Jewish vote for Labor was really a Josh Burns vote. He gained a 4.9% swing against Liberal incumbent David Southwick in 2014. The born and raised-in-Caulfield Burns had lifted the ALP vote. Therefore, ALP hardheads thought he had to be the Labor candidate when replacing the retiring local MP Michael Danby. Burns won pre-selection in 2018 (defeating Nick Dyrenfurth, another strong candidate) and Burns is known to urge Labor to be “climate ambitious” both publicly and in internal party fora.
Fast forward to 2022, and swings are again apparent, but this time with a swing to Josh Burns in Macnamara compared to the 2019 federal election result. Incumbency helped. The counting was very tight early in the count and expanded with the inclusion of the late postals to put the seat beyond doubt.
The evidence in the second map points to the importance of the Jewish vote in ways little appreciated or ignored in analysis of the 2022 election. Macnamara has by far the highest proportion of Jewish electors in Melbourne. The Jewish community is concentrated in the Caulfield suburbs. At the 2019 election, the then four polling booths in the Caulfield suburbs gave the ALP a majority in two booths, with the Liberals winning the other two. Overall, in 2019 Josh Burns eked out a win by a hair’s breadth in these booths by 2,444 (50.4% 2PP) votes to 2,407.
In 2022 there were five polling booths covering the Caulfield suburbs. Josh Burns won all those booths decisively and gained a swing of 8% 2PP – 2,707 (58.4%) votes to 1932. The results from the Caulfield booths are a strong rebuttal of any inherent anti-Labor stance as Labor has won and won well in suburbs with significant numbers of Jewish votes. With strong flows of preferences against Burns, the lift in primary vote (what the 2022 map represents) was critical. It was not enough for Josh simply to replicate his 2019 performance.
It is certain that Labor’s eventual margin from this key part of the Macnamara electorate would have disappeared with a policy of boycotting the Jewish State (BDS), which the vast majority of Australian Jews see as antisemitic.
Labor held two seats where the Jewish vote is influential – decisively so with Macnamara. Even there, with the perfect candidate who became an attentive MP, Labor came uncomfortably close to losing. In 2022, the comparatively stronger primary vote swing to Burns in the key areas of the Jewish community was crucial. Had the ALP committed to a BDS or Corbyn-lite policies, it is certain that the ALP would have lost Macnamara. That is something to think about in 2025. Not that this is a crude argument about adopting a policy favouring one interest group over another. This article is all about countering the cruder argument sometimes heard in some “progressive” circles that Jews do not matter to “us”. Or as British comedian and author David Baddiel put it in his recent searing indictment of contemporary antisemitism, “Jews don’t count”.
Labor eventually won 77 seats in 2022 in a wide variety of electorates, all of which have their unique features, local populations, and rich complexities. If Election 2022 taught us anything, it is that no seat can be taken for granted.
Remembering and celebrating Labor traditions and historic relationships can help nuance the Labor message to voters. On the discussion herein, one thing we know: Jewish voters once more will be vital to Labor winning next time.
That how the original article ended.
Scott Stephens, in his excellent editing, mentioned that he had “played around with the images/maps you included to see if there was any way I could import them into the ABC’s rather temperamental publishing system. I was having no luck…” He also thought “…some of the comparisons … while interesting, ultimately derailed your overall argument … simply because it got too deeply in the weeds.” I am sure that is right. He resolved by editing such that maps and some of the comparative detail became unnecessary.
I am most grateful. Only specialists would want more.