Burns and Southwick

Meeting in the Middle

Both MPs have had a good working relationship since the pandemic, but October 7 meant their relationship had to go to another level.

MPs Josh Burns and David Southwick have known each other for years and have developed a mutual respect.
MPs Josh Burns and David Southwick have known each other for years and have developed a mutual respect.

Australian politics can sometimes be a full body contact sport, but since October 7 there’s been a remarkable bipartisanship growing between two rival politicians in Victoria.

David Southwick, the Liberal Party state MP for Caulfield and Josh Burns, the Labor MP for the federal seat of Macnamara, have been working together privately and publicly on Jewish and Israeli issues.

Both MPs have had a good working relationship since the pandemic, but October 7 meant their relationship had to go to another level.

Southwick said, “Because of the sheer rapid response that was required, it meant that Josh and I were working pretty much around the clock to get those answers that the community needed.

“I think we recognised early on that the last thing that the Jewish community want from their elected representatives is to have them pointscoring at the expense of the Jewish community.”

Burns believes their work together during the pandemic, where the Jewish community needed support rather than political interference, laid the foundation for what they are doing together now.

Burns and Southwick spoke to The AJN’s Bruce Hill about their bipartisan approach to Jewish issues.

“Both of us were actually in opposition at the time, but it was a really good example of ‘if we work together, the community will benefit’, and I also think it is only possible if you have a sense of trust with one another,” Burns said.

Southwick says this sort of bipartisanship probably doesn’t happen as much as it should, as it’s the nature of politics that people get very focused on their party and obsessed with winning.

“Josh and I are very passionate about our Jewish background and I think that outweighs the political pointscoring that one could get. Yes, you can get a quick win, but you never want to have the quick win at the expense of the community,” Southwick said.

From left: Josh Burns, Senator James Paterson and David Southwick at the opening of Melbourne radio station J-Air’s new studios in 2023.

Both men think the relationship they’ve built up since October 7 is a good role model for others.

Burns said, “I think that there is plenty of room in politics for disagreement and partisan contests, and that obviously is healthy in Australia. But not when you’re talking about what’s in the Jewish community’s interest and what’s in the community’s interest.”

The Macnamara MP warned that it would be very problematic if the Jewish community became identified with only one side of politics.

“That’s why I think it’s actually really important for me as a Labor person to stand with David on matters to do with the Jewish community, him as a Liberal person, obviously, as a friend as well, but I think that sends a really important message to the community,” Burns said.

He said while he, as a Labor MP, can work with Southwick from the Liberal Party to look after the interests of the Jewish community, he doesn’t get that sense from the Greens.

“I don’t feel that the Greens would give the Jewish community that certainty. But I do feel that there are people like David who care deeply about the welfare of the Jewish community and the Liberal Party, and that we might have many disagreements, but that’s not something I have to worry about with a Liberal government,” Burns said.

Josh Burns with Attorney General Mark Dreyfus at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum in June 2023.

Before anyone starts thinking Burns and Southwick have left party politics behind entirely and are now joined at the hip, they both expect at election time to be out campaigning against each other.

“We still represent our parties, and I will still fight for a Liberal government, federally and state, and Josh would do the same in his party. So we are tribal in terms of where we come from, but it doesn’t take away from the respect that I have for Josh in what he does for the community in a party that it would be harder to be a friend,” Southwick said.

The Caulfield MP said in some ways he’s the luckier of the two because he’s in a party that is seen as more pro-Israel.

“Okay, we have the odd person that says stupid things and may not be as supportive as someone else, but traditionally the Liberal Party is an easier place to be flying the Israeli flag. I don’t have to fight motions at Liberal party conferences against Israel and all the rest of it, whereas Josh is kind of against the odds in many respects,” Southwick said.

It’s a point Burns doesn’t deny, saying, “I think in foreign policy we have a big range of views and especially on the question of Israel/Palestine. The Labor Party since for longer than I’ve been alive, has been in many ways obsessing over this particular question of foreign policy, many times to the detriment of the party.”

But he defends Labor’s record, pointing to some of the great friends of Israel and the Jewish community such as Bob Hawke, Julia Gillard and Daniel Andrews. It’s a tradition he wants to maintain.

David Southwick in 2022 at the Caulfield “Great Debate” prior to the state election. Photo: Peter Haskin

One aspect of the post-October 7 situation both parliamentarians have been disappointed with is the vitriolic nature of some of the reactions.

“I’ve never seen in my political career before the targeted attacks from the pro-Palestinian movement on other MPs, in seats that have strong Muslim populations,” Southwick said.

He said he knows MPs who have traditionally been supporters being bombarded with emails and are no longer being invited to events anymore because of their support for Israel and the Jewish community.

“When Ramadan was coming up, a number of my colleagues said invitations to functions had completely dried up because of their support for Israel. That’s testing for them. And very challenging,” Southwick said.

Burns has had his electorate office defaced with graffiti about Gaza, but he insists he’s not too bothered.

“We had a guy come and write this awful stuff on my on my window. And he actually did the same to James Paterson, who’s a Liberal senator, so in that instance I knew it wasn’t personal, it was just a character who was writing ridiculous things,” he said.

David Southwick (left) with Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto.
Photo: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

He said the thing he finds most difficult is people who otherwise are extremely calm, rational, smart and professional who use the issue as an excuse to scream at others and to not have a dialogue.

“I really think that the progressive side of politics, especially the Greens, have a lot to answer for in the way in which they’ve tried to whip up division on this and the way that they’re tried to use this issue to target Jewish professionals, target Jewish businesses, target Jewish creatives and target people online,” he said.

There is a real edge in Burns’ voice as he criticises the Greens for calling themselves progressive and saying they care about others while also being willing to go after the Jewish community in Australia because they’re angry about something going on in Israel.

“I think it’s an even more important reason why sometimes it is important to stand with people from other sides of politics and elevate the conversation, and do it in a way where you can actually have conversations with people, especially people who have disagreements about other issues,” Burns said.

Josh Burns unsuccessfully campaigned against David Southwick in Caulfield in 2014 before entering federal politics in 2019. Photo: Peter Haskin

Southwick believes the Australian Jewish community has done a great job of being very respectful in the way that it has handled itself since October 7.

“If anyone should be really angry, it should be the Jewish community, but we’ve gone about things in a very measured and responsible manner. And I don’t think that’s played out well for the angry, violent mob,” Southwick said.

Burns said he and Southwick both want to give the Jewish community the best possible representation, and that has to mean reaching across the political divide.

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