Danby versus held: the story of the two Jewish candidates in Melbourne Ports--take two.

Author:Mendes, Philip
Position:Michael Danby and Adam Held

The federal electorate of Melbourne Ports has long been a safe Labor seat. It also has a high proportion of Jewish voters. Since 1998 it has been held by Michael Danby, a Jew and a strong supporter of Israel. Recent boundary and demographic changes may have made the seat marginal and in the 2007 election the Liberal Party selected Adam Held, another Jewish supporter of Israel, to run against Danby. Both emphasised their pro-Israel credentials but, while the swing to Labor was not as high as it was nationally, Danby increased his vote. With the aid of Greens preferences, he held the seat comfortably. Nevertheless, in six out of nine key Jewish booths a majority voted Liberal. The author argues that Jewish voters are only unified on the question of Israel; on other issues they are diverse. Some are attracted to the Liberals on economic questions and others to Labor and the Greens on social and environmental questions. But any candidate who did not support Israel would be unlikely to win Melbourne Ports.


The 2004 federal election featured for the first ever time in Australian political history a clash between two Jewish candidates representing the two major parties. The inner Melbourne seat of Melbourne Ports, which has the second largest number of Jews in any Australian electorate, was contested by the sitting Labor MP, Michael Danby, and the Liberal Party candidate, David Southwick. Danby eventually retained the seat narrowly with the aid of Greens preferences.

The 2007 federal election featured a rerun with Danby being opposed by another Jewish candidate in the Liberal Party's Adam Held. However, this time Danby held the seat comfortably, and appears to have gained a much larger share of the Jewish vote.


The seat of Melbourne Ports has primarily been held by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) since Federation. Only six members have represented the electorate. They include protectionist Samuel Mauger who held the seat from 1901 till 1906, and Labor representatives Jim Matthews, E.J. Holloway, Frank Crean, Clyde Holding and Michael Danby.

For most of this time, Melbourne Ports was a safe Labor seat. However, a redistribution prior to the 1990 election brought some more prosperous Liberal-voting areas into the electorate, and changed it to marginal status. It is now one of the most affluent ALP-held seats in the country. The electorate includes the port suburbs of Melbourne south of the Yarra as well as areas to the south-east including Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, Albert Park, South Yarra, St Kilda, Balaclava, Elwood, Elsternwick, and Caulfield.

In both the 1998 and 2001 federal elections, the ALP trailed the Liberal Party narrowly on primary votes, but held the seat comfortably by approximately five per cent after acquiring a high proportion of preferences from Democrats and Greens voters. In 2001, the combined Greens and Democrats vote was over 20 per cent. (1) In the 2004 federal election, the ALP trailed significantly by over 3000 votes on the primary vote, but was still able to hold the seat by 3.74 per cent with the assistance of Greens preferences. The Greens vote jumped to 14.10 per cent, but the Democrat vote fell away to 1.35 per cent. (2)

Melbourne Ports has a number of key voting blocs including the second highest number of Jewish voters in an Australian electorate, estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at 12.7 per cent or 18,026 voters, (3) and a large gay and lesbian community. The Jewish community itself is highly diverse and ranges from the ultra-orthodox Hassidim to the mainly secular recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many may be reluctant for historical and political reasons to identify themselves as Jews by religion in the census so it is possible that the real number of Jewish residents in the electorate is much higher than the official figure. However, some Russian Jews may not yet be Australian citizens, and hence not eligible to vote.

Voters in Melbourne Ports have a reputation for holding socially progressive views in relation to issues such as the environment, and protecting the rights of disadvantaged groups afflicted by mental illness, drug use, and/or involvement in street sex work. One of the major local councils--the City of Port Phillip--is renowned for its strong commitment to maintaining a socially inclusive and tolerant harm reduction approach towards these groups. (4)

A number of commentators have suggested that the ALP only holds Melbourne Ports because of the sitting member Michael Danby's strong personal following in the Jewish community. They point to two facts: that the Liberal Party's federal Senate vote for Melbourne Ports has been considerably higher than the ALP vote, and equally that the Liberal vote in the corresponding state electorates with large Jewish populations has also been much higher than that of the ALP. The implication of this analysis seems to be that if the Liberal Party preselected a Jewish candidate to neutralise Danby's Jewish support in a federal election, they might shift enough votes to win the seat. (5)


Fifty-two-year-old Michael Danby has been a long-time activist in the right-wing Labor Unity faction of the ALP, and within Jewish community politics. He first came to public attention in the mid 1970s when he led the successful Jewish student campaign against the extreme anti-Israel motions proposed by the radical left Australian Union of Students. (6) He...

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