In the days before the 2006 Victorian state election, celebrity human rights lawyer Julian Burnside wrote an impassioned plea to voters in the state seat of Richmond. Burnside urged the seat’s denizens to pick Dick Wynne over the Greens’ Gurm Sekhon, citing Wynne’s strong record on refugees, especially his work integrating the local East Timorese community.

The letter sparked haughty ‘hear hear’s’ around Fitzroy dinner tables and Wynne saw off Sekhon with 54.6% of the two-party preferred vote.

One electorate west in Melbourne, Sekhon’s colleague, serial Greens candidate Dr Richard Di Natale, was running hard to knock off Labor’s Bronwyn Pike, the second time he had thrown down the gauntlet to the then-health minister. Pike scraped home too.

Now, the tide appears to be turning. The Greens stand on the verge of victory in both state seats, and Burnside has shifted his allegiances to endorse Di Natale for the Senate.

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Last night, at a packed celebration of Di Natale’s impending triumph over Steve Fielding in a Melbourne laneway bar (the Greens called it a ‘launch’), Burnside, who is apparently reluctant to take a regular party-political stand, turned the tables on Labor over Julia Gillard’s lurch to the right on refugees.

In festival mode, and with an iPhone on hand for happy snaps, Burnside lashed out at the “maggot end of tabloid media’s” attempts to drum up anti-refugee sentiment, with Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman singled out for a serve.

Burnside slammed the Canberra duumvirate for pandering to the polls, and wanted Di Natale immediately elected to restore the “decency of the country”.

He also revealed his own special strategy to deal with the “rednecks” that drew a slapdown from Julia Gillard in her Lowy Institute speech last week. Flatter them with witty banter. Burnside recounted a humorous exchange with one angry Hotmailer, who told the esteemed QC to “get f-cked” over his views on boats.

“Thanks for the opportunity to meet your sister. Can you send photos?” he replied. The correspondent later admitted he may have been a “bit harsh”, with a further missive revealing he had got into a verbal with his mate at the pub and instead of emailing him decided to blast Burnside instead.

The lesson? The voters that Gillard has been pandering to in Greenway can be won over with repartee.

Of course, another explanation for Burnside’s defection may lie with fellow Liberty Victoria committee member Brian Walters’ decision to run against Pike in the state seat of Melbourne.

Fresh from posing for The Age with Di Natale in Little Bourke Street, Burnside made mention of the fact that he had acted for Liberty Victoria in the Tampa case — the same case that Walters, and Adam Bandt’s formerly-mooted ALP rival for the federal seat of Melbourne Andrew Giles, had also worked on. Court observers recall a gallery packed full of Greens signs, while ALP loyalists did the heavy lifting.

But the past was forgotten as the mirror ball shone brightly at FAD Bar — the site of numerous fundraisers usually connected with ALP-dominated student unions. As the curry puffs circulated, no-one would have batted an eyelid if the DJ had started laying down some house music or doused the dance floor with dry ice.

“I think my biggest asset is I’m not Steve Fielding,” said Di Natale, to rapturous laughter.

This is the good doctor’s eighth bid for public office, if you count the 2004 campaign to unseat John So as Melbourne Lord Mayor, and his third Senate push. The loss to Fielding in 2004 was particularly disappointing, considering the ALP’s botched preference deal to get Jacinta Collins elected.

Di Natale got further guffaws when he declared that he didn’t “want to have to tell my mum I’ve lost another election”.

Tasmanian Greens minister Nick McKim, straight off the plane from Hobart, delivered some crafty observations on AFL to fire-up the  Melbourne audience, and was lauded by party loyalists as a living example of what a Greens minister looks like. But he also made a minor slip, remarking that he was looking forward to “when”, not if, Di Natale takes his seat on the red leather.

The party also launched an extremely slick campaign video, depicting Di Natale as a family man from the Otways, which in certain parts recalled either a Coles commercial or this Holden ad, but could go off on SBS if the party finds the cash to put it to air.

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