Dastyari: high number of no votes in Labor seats shows ‘huge disconnect’
The high proportion of no voters in Labor-held seats in western Sydney shows a “huge disconnect” between the party’s traditional heartland and its more socially progressive agenda, the prominent senator Sam Dastyari says.
On Wednesday the results from Australia’s voluntary non-binding same-sex marriage postal survey revealed a 61.6% win for the yes vote, with 133 of the 150 federal electorates returning majority support for marriage equality.
But of the 17 no-voting electorates, 12 were in western Sydney and nine of those are held by Labor MPs.
Dastyari said he was “personally surprised by the size of the discrepancy” but not that it existed.
“It’s not a new problem but it’s a problem that needed to be highlighted,” he said. “As a trend, the seats with the highest yes and no vote were all held by Labor, and that shows the difficulty of straddling a bridge between our economic and our social policies.
“What you have in places like western Sydney is quite conservative social values, and that is going to be a challenge for the ALP going forward as we push our progressive social agenda.”
Dastyari said western Sydney’s ethnically diverse population was a big part of the no vote. Most of the Sydney electorates that voted no had a relatively high proportion of people born overseas, and electorates with a strong majority of no voters also had large populations with a religious belief.
In the seat of Blaxland, for example, only 14% of the population declared “no religion” in the 2016 census. Held by the Labor shadow minister Jason Clare, Blaxland recorded the highest no vote in the country at 73.9%.
Similarly, the no-voting western Sydney seats of Watson, McMahon and Greenway recorded no religion votes of 15.6%, 12% and 15% respectively, and all have a higher than average proportion of residents who were born overseas.
Clare said he was not surprised by the result, saying Blaxland was “a very socially conservative electorate” and he has publicly stated he supports same-sex marriage.
“I’ve always known the views of my electorate on this issue and I’ve always been upfront with them about mine,” he said. “Good people with good hearts can have different views on this important issue.”
The majority of Blaxland voters identified with Christianity – 36% compared with 29% for Islam - and Dastyari said it would be wrong to see it as a “Muslim voter” issue.
“The only demographic indicator that matters is ethnicity, but it’s across the board –Muslim, the Coptics, Christians, communities from migrant backgrounds contributed to voting no,” he said.
“There’s obviously a disconnect between traditional Labor voting areas and progressive issues like marriage equality. None of this is a surprise to those of us involved in western Sydney politics for a long period of time but it’s reminder that we have a diverse range of views of people in our party.”
An Equality Campaign spokesman, Alex Greenwich, accused the no campaign of “strategic misinformation” targeting areas with high migrant populations. The Sydneybased Australian Chinese for Families Association, for example, published pamphlets in Chinese warning that “redefining marriage will leave our society bearing severe consequences”.
“Small businesses will be hit with lawsuits and struggle if they choose not to cater to same-sex weddings because of their personal religion,” one of the pamphlets reportedly stated.
Greenwich said while some ethnically diverse populations may have voted no, he did not think it was an overall indication of migrant views. “I think it’s important to note that a great number of people in western Sydney voted yes,” he said.
“Our experience is that they value the fair go, and for us it’s quite clear that the members in those seats who do support same-sex marriage need to take their constituents on a further journey and talk about why it’s important. If they vote yes, they have to explain why it’s in line with their values and Australian values.”
For Labor’s MPs in western Sydney electorates who publicly support same-sex marriage, that divide is all too real.
Michelle Rowland’s seat of Greenway in north-west Sydney covers areas including Blacktown and Seven Hills. It recorded a 53.6% no vote from a 76.5% turnout.
She said the result was “consistent with the responses I have received in seeking my own feedback from local residents over the past seven years. As I have said previously, I have thought deeply about this issue and widely canvassed the views of local residents,” she said.
“I acknowledge that many residents have strong views one way or the other for or against marriage equality based on factors such as personal experience, religious beliefs or cultural norms. Each and every one of those people should be respected for their views.
“Personally, a conversation I had with a mother in Seven Hills provided me with an important perspective. Her son is on active service in the Australian navy and he wants to marry his partner. This man is putting his life on the line in service to Australia.
“Who am I, and who is any person, to say that this man should not be entitled to marry the person he loves?”
Sam Dastyari with his marriage equality cake. The NSW senator acknowledges a disconnect between the party’s heartland and its socially progressive agenda. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian