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Danby, Guest trade blows at election debate

Article by Peter Kohn. Photo: Peter Haskin.

Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby quipped it was a cold night to venture to Beth Weizmann Community Centre for Wednesday’s candidates’ debate with Liberal challenger Owen Guest. But it soon heated up, with claims and counter-claims about Israel, Iran, Greens preferences and security funding.

Add a windy pro-ALP heckler, and the event, co-hosted by The AJN and Zionism Victoria, and moderated by AJN national editor Zeddy Lawrence, was absorbing, even entertaining, despite audience questioners struggling to reach the question buried deep in their sermon.

Tackling Danby, Labor’s incumbent since 1998 in Melbourne Ports, the bayside seat that’s home to a large chunk of Melbourne’s Jewish community, and which has never been held by a Liberal in all its 115 years, has always been a formidable task.

David Southwick, now Liberal state MP for Caulfield, and Danby’s challenger in 2004, would attest to that. He was in the audience, along with Tim Wilson, the former Human Rights Commissioner standing as a Liberal in neighbouring Goldstein in the July 2 election.

The task is formidable because Danby is a complex target. The Jewish son of Holocaust survivors has a textured brand — he has never been boilerplate Labor, especially on Israel.

As he does, Danby, the campus Israel warrior-turned-pollie, put the best face on his party’s Middle East record, while also presenting as a counterweight to forces (such as Gillard foreign minister Bob Carr, and frontbenchers Tony Burke, Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese), that range from frosty to downright hostile on Israel’s settlements, and the embarrassing cousins from the NSW ALP who have touted the shotgun-wedding recognition of Palestine.

Only this time around, Danby had added ammo, honing in on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s cosiness with an unrepentantly missile-testing, Holocaust denying Iran regime, which Danby condemned to his Beth Weizmann audience as “disgraceful”, noting a Labor government would “get up on our hind legs and speak up for Australian values”.

Guest, in his speech, seemed to misjudge Danby’s brand and attacked frontally, almost in his first words. He and others were “sick of the complacent attitude of Michael Danby, who you never hear a squeak from until election time”.

It was unfair, and an odd sort of attack, given there were smarter ways to land a gut punch on Danby’s soft ALP underbelly, regarding Israel. In fact, Danby later riposted, doubting Guest’s “harsh tone towards me was actually genuine”, rather it was “written for” his rival.

The Greens were the bete noire of the night, an empty chair emphasising candidate Stephanie Hodgins-May’s absence after spinning some sophistry about pulling out of the debate because co-host Zionism Victoria is “politically active”.

Even Lawrence got in on the act, quipping in his introduction that “perhaps the real reason is that she thinks coming to a Zionism Victoria event means she’d be obliged to make aliyah, live in a settlement in the West Bank, join the IDF and become Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign manager.”

Danby said Hodgins-May, a blow-in “from Daylesford … recently moved into Elwood”, was out of her depth on the local issues.

But when Guest took his turn to slam the Greens candidate, he had the upper hand because of allegations that Danby has not preferenced uniformly.

It was the Liberal challenger’s ‘gotcha’ moment. He accused Danby of hypocrisy in claiming to preference the Greens below Guest, holding up two how-to-vote cards from prepolling. One was from leafy Caulfield, where he said Danby preferenced the Greens below Guest, as the MP had claimed, the other from trendy Albert Park, where Danby supposedly placed the Greens, whose preferences might determine his fate, ahead of the Liberals.

Guest praised his government’s emphasis on embracing innovation, but lost an opportunity to link his point to business and technology ties with Israel’s famed ‘start-up’ culture.

He assured an emailing questioner the government would retain section 18C, the “humiliate and intimidate” test in the Racial Discrimination Act, which former PM Tony Abbott and other conservatives wanted removed.

And Danby and Guest sparred over security funding, Danby claiming the Liberals’ promise of $40 million for communal security would include recycling funds from Labor’s Secure Schools program, which Guest denied.

It was a strong airing of views, and, despite the absence of Hodgins-May, as the song says, “two out of three ain’t bad”.

For more election coverage, see this week’s AJN.