Australian candidates battle for Jewish vote

By Dan Goldberg, August 19, 2010
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Opponents Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott after their election debate

Opponents Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott after their election debate

A London-born, Oxford-educated Catholic who once trained to be a priest, or a Welsh-born, unmarried woman who is a self-confessed atheist?

That's the choice facing Australians - among them 110,000 Jews - this weekend in a federal election that polls predict will be a photo finish.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose bloodless coup toppled Labor leader Kevin Rudd two months ago, is pitted against Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party leader once nicknamed the "mad monk" after a slew of brutish remarks.

Either way, most Jewish leaders believe Australia's longstanding bilateral support for Israel - its second strongest ally after America - will not be jeopardised.

But the Liberal Party has been trying to drive a wedge between Labor and the Jewish community, according to Dr Philip Mendes, a Melbourne-based academic.

During the campaign, Mr Abbott described his party's bond with Israel as "unshakeable", scolded Labor for occasionally abandoning the Jewish state at the United Nations and pledged to take action against the radical Islamist group Hizb-ut Tahrir and their "viciously antisemitic message".

Dr Mendes described this last pitch as "another unapologetic appeal to Jewish voters".

But he said Labor's record on Israel had been "superior to virtually every other western social democratic government, including the recently deposed New Labour in the UK".

During Labor's first term, it proposed a bipartisan resolution on Israel's 60th anniversary in 2008, supported Israel during its showdown with Hamas in 2009, boycotted the Durban II anti-racism conference, opposed the UN Goldstone Report and ramped up sanctions against Iran.

Michael Danby, the most ardent pro-Israel MP in Canberra, said Ms Gillard had "stood like a rock" during the Gaza incursion, and vowed that Labor "will not shirk its historic responsibility" to defend Israel against Iran.

But Labor also triggered a meltdown in relations when Mr Rudd dismissed an official from the Israeli embassy in May, after an inquiry found there was "no doubt" that Israel had forged four Australian passports used in the assassination of a Hamas leader.

Despite a summit at the PM's residence with Jewish leaders, many Jews were "taken aback at how vehement Rudd was in his handling of the affair", according to one senior Jewish leader.

The Liberals have also been highlighting Labor's record at the UN - the government has supported three controversial resolutions on Israel since coming to office in 2007, prompting Jewish leaders to write to the PM last year expressing their disappointment.

Deputy leader Julie Bishop said this week that a Liberal government would return to the UN voting pattern of former Liberal PM John Howard, whose government was staunchly pro-Israel. "I make no apology for my strong support of Israel," she said.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told the Australian Jewish News last week it was "business as usual" between Canberra and Jerusalem.

Julia Gillard has twice led the Australian delegation to the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, prompting two former Australian ambassadors to Israel to accuse Australia's first female PM of having an unbalanced position on the Middle East.

Mr Danby and Mark Dreyfus MP are likely to be re-elected for Labor, while Joshua Frydenberg, a former adviser to Mr Howard, is set to become the first Jewish Liberal MP since Peter Baume in 1991.

Shabbat polling, Aussie-style

Australian elections always take place on Saturday, and are compulsory — people are fined if they do not vote.

But although the polls close at 6pm, around the time that Shabbat goes out in most parts of Australia this month, Jewish voters are not adversely affected by the election law.

Polling stations open a week before the final polling day, so that those who do not want to vote on Shabbat can lodge their ballots at early polling stations, all this week.

Last updated: 10:09am, October 14 2010