Faith in politics
Australia's first Muslim MP
Ed Husic is known to some as 'the minister for basketball', to others as the first federal MP sworn in on the Quran. He became the first ever Muslim frontbencher under Kevin Rudd. What next for an outspoken Gen Xer with a friend on the wrong side of parliament?
Words by Jana Wendt
Photos by Tim Bauer
1 February 2017
“Would you like to say a few words?” someone asks the politician. Ed Husic, federal Labor MP, is visiting St Francis of Assisi Catholic school in Glendenning, a suburb that forms part of his vast Western Sydney electorate of Chifley. The modest chapel, which doubles as a general-purpose hall, is full of attentive and excited children. The school’s 25th birthday celebration promises a video, speeches, and a jumbo-sized cake.
Yes, Ed Husic would like to say a few words – more than a few, if you’ll let him.
The MP has joined former principals and other honoured guests in the front row. A tall, robust man, Husic now sits confined in his plastic chair, hefty shoulders straining the pinstriped jacket thrown on minutes before entering the room. The hyperkinetic MP slows down to accommodate the morning’s ceremony. Later, a priest will say Mass for the congregation, and Husic will bow his head respectfully in recognition of the solemn Catholic rite.
“There was nothing really special about my parents being from overseas. I saw it more as a point of pride, growing up.”
In the meantime he accepts the invitation, leaping to his feet and taking to the lectern to make a joke about politicians making speeches. Husic has come to the school, he tells the kids and their parents, not only to celebrate its educational achievements but to recognise “a faith that has done so much good in the world”.
Earlier, on the way to St Francis, Husic had told me that Catholics in general, and some at St Francis in particular, supported him when faith was turned into a battering ram against him. The 2004 experience as a first-time political candidate was an awakening of sorts for Husic, who was raised in a Bosnian Muslim family in Sydney’s west. His attempt that year to win the neighbouring seat of Greenway, historically Labor, was not the kind of electoral blooding he had expected.
“Ed Husic is a devout Muslim. Ed is working hard to get a better deal for Islam in Greenway”, read leaflets distributed during the campaign, falsely purporting to be from the ALP. In the end, the seat was won by Liberal Louise Markus, an evangelical Christian.
Husic did not claim his loss was a consequence of the rogue tactic, saying he did not believe he lost the election “solely because of my religion”. Nor did Husic suggest his Liberal opponent had anything to do with the leaflets. But the experience shook him to the core.
Being the son of Bosnian parents had not registered during his childhood as anything other than a twist of fate. “There was nothing really special about my parents being from overseas. Nothing really stood out about it,” Husic says. “I saw it more as a point of pride, growing up.”
While his father Hasib, a welder, and Husic’s mother Hasiba had insisted their children Ed, Alan, and Sabina learn English first, the kids picked up Bosnian at home in their primary school years. A trip to the Husics’ homeland as a nine-year-old taught the future politician something essential about himself as a first-generation Australian. In a stoush with local children in Belgrade, Husic was taunted about his accent: “‘What are you? You’re not [one of] us’,” Husic says, recalling the barbs.
Upon returning to Australia, he began to realise that being the son of migrants meant he was “in a sort of half-way house”.
“You really can’t go back to the place your parents come from, and people do notice the difference in the new home that your parents have made.” His Bosnian is still hybrid, and native-born Bosnians can pick it “straight away”.
As for Islam, Husic confesses he has not always had an easy connection to his faith. He absorbed certain Muslim practices as a boy, when his devout grandmother visited from Bosnia, ultimately accepting why nana washed her hands a lot, and disappeared into a darkened room to pray on a carpet.
Eventually, despite the family accommodating local Christian practice with Easter costumes and Christmas presents for the three children, the Muslim side of their upbringing became second nature.
“For us, it wasn’t like it was a separate world view,” he explains. “That’s the way we did business, that’s the way we conducted ourselves.”
In his teenage years, however, Husic and his brother mounted a campaign of resistance against their parents’ determination that the boys attend a mosque to study with the local hodža, or Muslim teacher.
When I ask why he is often referred to as “non-practising”, Husic answers: “That was the dumbest thing I’ve said in public life”.
Husic remembers the issue being a “massive” source of tension in the household. He threatened: “Don’t make me do this – I’ll become an atheist!”
The prospect filled his mother, in particular, with horror. As the MP tells it, it was not until he was required to do a school project about the differences between Christianity, Islam and Judaism that he began to take a deeper interest in his own faith. Today he says Islam “has helped me in my own way”.
“I know that I could do, and I should probably do more. But [Islam] certainly does help and give perspective as well,” Husic says.
When I ask why he is so often referred to as “non-practising”, Husic answers with what I take to be a well-worn lament: “That was the dumbest thing I’ve said in public life”. While there may be people who are “much more observant than I am”, Husic says, “there’s no way I’m walking away from the fact that I’m Muslim.”
The denial is another waystation along the potholed campaign trail of 2004. “This was in the aftermath of September 11… memories were fresh. I described myself as non-practising. As if it was going to make people feel more comfortable!”
Ex-politician Kristina Kenneally, whose adherence to her Catholic faith was scrutinised when she was propelled into the Premier’s chair in New South Wales seven years ago, says she and Husic have discussed the riddle of religious identity and political life.
“Say loudly and clearly that violence and terrorism are not valid means of political expression – terrorism is murder.”
“You suddenly become the spokesperson for a whole faith, a whole group of people, and that can be inconvenient,” says Kenneally. “It can be an opportunity. It can be weird. It does take a long time for you to be comfortable.”
Keneally claims being fitted up with the role can be perplexing: “You might have an ambiguous or contentious relationship to your faith at times.”
How to deal with the issue of Muslim extremism, and also Muslim grievance is a test for any contemporary politician. It is a tripwire for an MP professing Islam. In a speech after the 2004 loss, Husic told the Sydney Institute that Muslims “should say loudly and clearly that violence and terrorism are not valid means of political expression – terrorism is murder. Say it without caveat.”
Today sitting in his bare electoral office, Husic cautions those of his co-religionists who denounce what they see as slights against their faith but who, at the same time, are intolerant of others.
“You can’t have Muslims asking for more tolerance yet being anti-Semitic,” he says. “You need to accept that in a liberal democracy everything is open for criticism. The way in which we conduct ourselves is important … you can’t have the type of [situation] where people have a violent reaction to what they believe is an offence to the faith.
“I’m not supportive of things that are said of the faith deliberately, provocatively, for the sake of triggering that type of reaction. But at the same time, too, it’s a democracy. This is the deal. If you move to Australia, this is what you value; this is what you need to accept, as uncomfortable and displeasing as it may be [to you].”
“He will stick to a point of view.... If he changes his mind, it’s a serious thing for him.”
Husic, in the outer shadow ministry, is responsible for Employment Services and Workforce Participation. Digital Economy, and the Future of Work were added to his portfolio in October.
The eager MP has the style of a bounding Labrador. His sunny keenness commands attention not least because, like the canine, Husic seems untroubled by consequences. Longtime friend, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, whose association with Husic goes back to their days together in Young Labor, describes him as outspoken – and stubborn.
“He will stick to a point of view… I’m not saying he’s irrational or unreasonable but he doesn’t sort of flit around. If he changes his mind, it’s a serious thing for him.”
Husic’s resolve, according to Bowen, can lead him to political life-threatening acts. “He’ll get up in caucus, and he doesn’t care who he annoys. And what he will say, a lot of people are thinking. A lot of people might be prepared to say it anonymously to a journalist, but the difference is he’ll say it in the caucus room, or to a shadow minister or a leader’s face. And that sometimes gets him in a bit of hot water – but it’s just who he is,” Bowen says.
“If you have a conversation with Ed saying, ‘I don’t think you should say that’.... It’s not going to go down real well.”
Husic shares Canberra digs with Bowen and fellow NSW Right MP Jason Clare. Shadow Treasurer Bowen, the most senior of the trio, says advice to colleague Husic has to be carefully couched.
“If you have a conversation with Ed saying, ‘I don’t think you should say that’, it’s going to be a pretty short conversation. It’s not going to go down real well.”
In Young Labor days, according to Bowen, Husic was also “earnest, in that he was a serious thinker” and “ambitious”. For all Husic’s intensity, Bowen says he is the same spry person he met over 25 years ago. Back then, Husic was “very much the life of the party”, and still “always lightens a room”.
Husic may be the 46-year-old separated father of a 4-year-old son, but he often presents more like a millennial. The member for Chifley is instinctively attuned to the age – its social media fixation, its entertainment fads, its tropes. Speaking to mobile phone cameras anytime, anywhere, in the service of the party, is second nature. More broadly, the digital economy forms part of Husic’s current portfolio duties. He is also a fanatical basketballer, reputedly known by many in the sport as the ‘minister for basketball’.
I am apparently not the first person to notice the curious resemblance of Husic’s manner of speaking to that of unloved former Labor leader Mark Latham, another unflagging warrior for western Sydney.
“People say it to me to upset me,” jokes Husic. The pair’s relationship, he quips, runs “the full spectrum of emotional colour”. Nevertheless Husic credits the former leader with showing him the value of looking beyond conventional wisdom for solutions to difficult problems.
Husic has a mischievous exhibitionist streak, which disposes him to stunts. The most memorable in recent times was in September 2016, when he arrived at the parliamentary entrance carrying a plastic anatomical model of a spinal cord.
Husic was pleased to tell waiting reporters that the prop was the “the gift Malcolm Turnbull needs most”. In defence of the display (which, it might be said, was on the laboured side) Husic invokes the example of Paul Keating, grandmaster of the political razzle dazzle. A more conventional assault on the enemy would have been unlikely to garner much attention, Husic argues. “How many people would’ve reported on that? It’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah’.”
The stunt turned out to be a spinal tap into the body politic’s ennui. “The minute [the prop] was brought out, it became a talking point, and it just went crazy in the social media sense,” he says.
Bowen calls this knack “using comedy for a serious purpose”. It was a bent Husic indulged early on.
Husic understands that too many stunts can be injurious to a politician’s prospects of advancement. On the other hand, though, he parries: “Do you want your words ending up on the bottom of a birdcage?”
Husic is taken aback at some politicians’ squeamishness about engaging full-throatedly with the public on contentious issues (“like a doctor being afraid of blood.”) Politics, he insists, necessarily must involve conflict otherwise politicians run the risk of being mere “tumbleweed”.
Keneally credits Husic with a “capacity to understand complex concepts and translate them into everyday language”.
“It’s not a patronising or smarmy intelligence, it’s one that’s relatable.”
However, she notes, Husic’s ability to communicate likely provokes a degree of jealousy in some colleagues.
Whatever injury Husic inflicts on himself by embracing vaudeville, it is not for lack of contemplation. The shadow minister has had a long time to consider the perils of politics. His first opportunity came in 1995 when, as a 25-year-old communications graduate, he failed in a bid for preselection in Greenway. This was the same seat that would elude him nine years later as an endorsed candidate.
Following Labor orthodoxy, Husic spent many of his pre-parliamentary years as a political adviser, and union organiser with the Communications, Electrical, Plumbing Union (CEPU) in the Postal and Telecommunications Branch. He became National President of the union, negotiating hard deals with tough managements such as those of Australia Post and Telstra.
The only significant departure from the well-trodden Labor path was in 1999 when Husic joined energy company Integral as a media relations manager. His job, newspaper reports from the time reveal, was to be chief explainer of power blackouts to irate customers.
“He went through a bit of a change when he was targeted for being a Muslim, and he then became more alive to his own religion."
Chris Bowen recalls that after the election loss in 2004, the failed candidate “went through quite a dark, black period in his life. He thought he was never going to make it. That’s what you do when you lose a seat. You think, well, that’s it, then, I’m done. He drifted a bit.”
Bowen also observed a significant shift in his friend when it came to matters of faith. “He went through a bit of a change when he was targeted for being a Muslim, and he then became more alive to his own religion, a bit more aware of it, and taking it a bit more seriously.”
Husic admits to being stricken at the loss. “I felt really embarrassed and ashamed that I was not able to hold a seat we’d held since it was created,” he admits. “The aftermath of that campaign…” He pauses and groans. “God, I wish I could turn back time because I just dealt with it really badly.” The most wounding effect of the loss, Husic insists, was personal rather than political.
“I did feel very bad when my dad said to me – and it still cuts me to the core today – ‘I hope that there was nothing about us that held you back’, which I knew was code. And I said to him, we’ll never drop our face in shame.”
“My parents had saved us. They’d lifted us through their own sacrifice, and gone through a period of isolation themselves, way worse than what I’d ever experienced, to make sure that their kids had done well. And for them to internalise what they had seen in their son, and to say [they] had been responsible – that was the worst thing,” says Husic, eyes shining with tears.
The retirement of the previous, long-serving, MP for Chifley, Roger Price, eventually provided Husic with his winning opportunity six years later in 2010. As it happened, Husic had worked in Price’s office at a critical juncture – the 90s, marked by war in the Balkans. It was a nerve-wracking time for Husic’s family as they waited for news of relatives in Bosnia. The conflict, in part a campaign of ethnic cleansing, tore apart Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
“I grew up with Croats, I grew up with Serbs,” says Husic of his Australian childhood. “My parents did the same thing… I have Muslim cousins married to Serb women, right? But I’d read the stuff that happened and it was just terrible.”
At the time, Husic was in his twenties, and Labor was in power. “It did give me a sense of what could be achieved by being involved in the political arena. I often would think, ‘I’m lucky … I’m here now. I can speak up. Who knows what I can do?’”
More than 130,000 people are estimated to have died in the decade of Balkan conflicts fuelled by historic hatreds in the Husics’ homeland. The horrors, insists the politician, provided the bedrock of his attitudes today.
“This is not about us reliving the fights of some other country. I am your representative.”
“One of the biggest, most instructive things that came out of that for me is the corrosive impact of hate that would drive people apart. Everything I do in public life is informed by that event.” The MP demonstrated the point when, following his election, he visited Serb communities in his electorate to put his position beyond doubt.
“I said in my broken Bosnian, in a way they’d understand: ‘Regardless of what people would say [about] how we should behave, or how we would be with each other, I am here as your servant’. I was saying to them, ‘This is not about us reliving the fights of some other country. I am your representative’.”
When I ask how hard it was to say those words, he replies, simply, “They are not the people who committed those acts. These are fellow Australians from that background who may have had certain sympathies – but we’re here now.”
“I get chipped for being friends with people in other political parties – like, I can’t see them as the enemy.”
Does he never feel any of the old animosities?
“No, because I refuse to. I drive myself to it. I think it’s a responsibility. I definitely think, in this day and age, that’s become even more important to me than ever.”
He applies the same metric to his parliamentary adversaries. “I get chipped for [being] friends with people in other political parties – like, I can’t see them as the enemy.”
Husic’s friendship with Liberal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is, in Frydenberg’s terms, “of quite a bit of interest to outsiders” because of its “particular characteristics”. The particulars are that Husic is a Muslim and Frydenberg a Jew.
“He’s not a hater. He’s somebody who, in all my dealings with him, sees the better side of people,” says Frydenberg of Husic.
The salubrious surroundings of the ministerial wing of Parliament House conveniently illustrate the difference between being in government and subsisting in opposition. Frydenberg, like Husic, is a member of the “class of 2010”, and casts a Liberal eye over the Labor politician’s curriculum vitae.
“If I looked at his background on paper, I would say, ‘Interesting… he ran a union. Could that make him more [of a] bovver boy in this place?’” says Frydenberg, leaning back in his chair. “But he’s not. He’s actually quite a gentle soul with a very funny streak. And he can be self-deprecating. He’s well-liked in this building, well-respected.”
Ed Husic made it into the building in question 15 years after his first attempt and just in time to see “the disintegration of our government”. Husic says dolefully, “I thought, I finally get here, and it looks like it’s just all going to go ‘pop!’” His false starts weighed on him. “I think you feel the crush of time, particularly once you get over 40… I was watching colleagues – friends like Chris, and [shadow minister] Tony Burke – starting to progress, and then the election of the Rudd government. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think [about] what could have been. And I did – a lot.”
In the Rudd-Gillard years, Husic publicly backed Rudd, for whom he served as parliamentary secretary during Rudd’s second coming. The position lasted just three months, or as Husic puts it, “the political equivalent of a nanosecond” before the government was defeated in September 2013. “I have an upcoming book,” he says, wryly, “on those tumultuous three months, and all the achievements I was able to secure.” Opposition, Husic declares, is a “terrible place”, the experience akin to “screaming into space”.
In the SUV in which he uses to transport himself to Canberra, Husic takes me on a guided tour of his vast and culturally diverse electorate. He knows it well, having been raised and educated there (Blacktown South School, Mitchell High School, University of Western Sydney).
“Sydney is a tale of two cities – the West and the rest,” could be Husic’s refrain.
Today Chifley has a large population of residents of Filipino descent, as well as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Samoans, New Zealanders, Arabic speakers including Iraqi Christian refugees, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders. It is also a young electorate in which over 15 per cent of households are single-parent families. It has an above-average proportion of public housing and presents a keen MP with plenty of reasons to go to work.
At one end of the electorate, Husic points to rows of new houses, some still under construction and stretching to the horizon. He is chuffed with the massive Sydney Business Park development in the suburb of Marsden Park, which fans out to the northwest, and accommodates commercial giants such as IKEA and Bunnings in gargantuan outlets, providing jobs for his constituents.
The other side of the story is less pleasing – depressed suburbs barely catering to residents’ needs. Public transport, on which the electorate’s population is particularly reliant, serves it poorly. It’s hard to turn up for a job interview, says Husic, piqued, when you have no car and no other reliable means of getting there. Much-needed social services in the area are a maze of overlapping attempts to remedy intractable long-standing problems.
“Sydney is a tale of two cities – the West and the rest,” could be said to be Husic’s refrain. People in his area, he complains, are “always last on the list”. His stand on Sydney’s second airport, at Badgery’s Creek in western Sydney, is a sore point between him and all but a handful of his Labor colleagues – most prominently, the project’s champion, party elder, Anthony Albanese.
“Don’t listen to the people who say you can’t – because in the end you’re dudding yourself.”
On a parliamentary sitting day in Canberra, he meets with outrider MPs from the rival Left faction, including veteran Doug Cameron, who share Husic’s view that the airport is another example of the west being pushed around.
The promised local jobs bonanza is illusory, he says, and the environmental impact a nightmare in the making. The MPs agree to push harder to convince those of their western Sydney colleagues not yet persuaded of the renegades’ case.
Chris Bowen, on the other side of the argument, is resigned to his friend paddling against the party tide. “He doesn’t care. Everybody knows where he stands on that.”
In December the Federal government signs off on the airport. Husic calls the project a “scam”.
“Would you like to say a few words?”, someone asks the local member. Ed Husic is sitting in a bare sports hall on one of a few benches arranged in its centre. Holding a microphone at the front, a teacher is doing what she can to cheer the desultory teenagers scattered around on the seats. It is awards day at Blacktown Youth College.
The “alternative community school” caters to young people unable to meet the demands of mainstream education. Written on the faces of many here are disadvantage and lethargy. One of the key problems, Husic tells me, is that those who try to achieve at the college are often ridiculed outside for their efforts.
Among the tattooed and hoodie-wearing attendees, there are occasional awkward signs of pleasure at being called up to receive an award. A “most improved participation” certificate is more significant than it might appear – a sign of progress in the desperate mission to bolster fragile retention rates.
Husic charges to the front of the hall, and smiles the winning Labrador smile. “History,” he tells the assembly, “is made by the people who turn up”.
He continues: “I obviously want to stay in this job as long as I can but I’d like one of you to take over from me.”
Around the hall, eyes turn to size up the politician. Is he for real, or just another case of ‘blah, blah’?
“Don’t listen to the people who say you can’t – because in the end you’re dudding yourself,” Husic says, as if reading their thoughts. The applause that follows suggests there may be more hope in the room than at first sight.
Read more about faith and religion at SBS Life's Stairway to Spirituality.