Michael Danby: A life in politics

Michael Danby speaking at Tuesday’s JBOD AGM. Photo: Giselle Haber

IT’S a waste of my time to be a “schlepper backbencher”, former Labor MP Michael Danby told the audience at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD) AGM this week when he was asked why he chose to step down from Parliament after two decades.

“There is no definitive answer to that, but I was not going to be a senior minister in the Shorten government,” Danby said on Tuesday night, in his first significant speech since retiring as MP for Melbourne Ports.

He continued that with his experience and knowledge in non-Jewish areas, “it’s a waste of my time to go up there and be a schlepper backbencher in even a Labor government … I didn’t think the things I could do, could say, were being recognised for what they were.”

From left: NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD) CEO Vic Alhadeff, JBOD president Lesli Berger and Michael Danby. Photo: Giselle Haber

Speaking on the shifts in power he had observed in his 20 years in Parliament, Danby said it was harder to sway the opinions of the media than influence Parliamentarians.

“The change I’ve seen in federal Parliament has been generally for the positive whereas in the media it’s much harder to effect change,” remarked Danby, adding that some journalists, because of their anti-Israel stance, “give people a shiver down their spine”.

He contrasted the ABC’s former Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill’s extensive broadcasting of the Palestinian Shamesneh family who were evicted from their home in East Jerusalem in 2017, with her minimal coverage of the Salomon family, who were murdered during a Shabbat meal in their Jerusalem home by a Palestinian terrorist earlier that year.

“The juxtaposition drove me meshuga,” Danby said, going on to explain how he took out “two pishy little ads” in The AJN highlighting the one-sided reporting. 

In response, Danby remarked that “all hell broke loose, all over Australia. It was like I had committed a war crime. Every ABC executive, every ABC compere, went completely crazy – I had wall-to-wall criticism on the ABC and of course, no right to reply.”

He continued, “It’s not just the things [journalists] say, but it’s the things they leave out that lead to a climate of opinion in Australia which is very antagonistic to the Israel we understand.”

Danby was far more positive about the shift he has witnessed in federal politics.

“The knowledge when I first came in [to Parliament] of matters to do with terrorism, Iran, the rise of fanatical Islam, was pathetic, pitiful, and it has really transformed since,” he said.

“Before I was elected in 1998, there had not been a delegation or an individual as far as I know, from the opposition, from the Labor party, to Israel, in the previous 12 years … Subsequently, and partially because of this community there have been probably around 200 MPs and senators who through that 20 years have been, and that’s led to a real quality of change in the attitude of people who make decisions in Canberra.”

Danby did not refrain from calling out anti-Israel rumblings within the Labor party.

He scathingly described Bob Carr as a “toxic phenomenon on issues to do with the Australian Jewish community”, but who has “largely been discredited in the Australian public because people associate him so much with Beijing’s point of view”.

In regards to federal representation in the NSW Labor party, Danby remarked, “Maybe I won’t go into names, but what I can say is this: Some of them are more interested in recruiting members of Lebanese Muslim communities than they were in federal political issues.”

He nonetheless commended NSW Labor frontbencher Walt Secord for his recent non-partisan comments defending Josh Frydenberg against dual citizenship claims, and extended his praise to Jewish community organisations including the NSW JBOD and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, for their study missions to Israel for journalists.

“You don’t expect people to go from 0 to being 100 per cent Zionist but the fact that they visit Israel, they get informed, takes them from 20 per cent to 50, or 20 per cent to 70,” remarked Danby.

Demonstrating his commitment to non-Jewish causes in Parliament, Danby shared some inspiring remarks: “Be who you are and stand up to Jewish issues as well as to other issues. I don’t do it because it gives you credibility, but because of who we are, who I am … As a Jew, you are obliged to stand up for other faiths, for the Baha’is, the Uyghurs, the Darfuris,” he said.

At the AGM Yaron Finkelstein stood down as vice-president, replaced by David Ossip, and Gael Kennedy stood down as chair of the community relations committee.

SOPHIE DEUTSCH