Outspoken Labor MP Michael Danby will preference the Liberals ahead of the Greens at the upcoming election, as his seat of Melbourne Ports becomes one of several inner-city seats under threat from the Greens.

Melbourne Ports has been held by the Labor Party since 1906, and Danby has been the sitting MP since 1998. It covers suburbs south of the Yarra in Melbourne, including South Melbourne, Balaclava, Elwood, Elsternwick and Caulfield. But Crikey psephologist William Bowe says despite Labor’s retention of the electorate, it is increasingly under threat from the Greens, particularly around St Kilda.

At the last election, Danby only retained the seat on preferences, receiving almost 10% less of the primary vote than his Liberal opponent. Despite his historical reliance on the preferences of progressive Greens voters, Danby has, in the past, preferenced the Liberals ahead of the Greens, and he told Sky News yesterday this would be the case in the 2016 election:

“I, as in the last election, have determined that in my seat that I will be preferencing the Liberals ahead of the Green party [sic].”

Danby’s Greens opponent is lawyer Stephanie Hodgins-May. It is Hodgins-May’s second run in a federal election, after contesting the safe Labor seat of Ballarat at the last election. Hodgins-May received 9.5% of the vote, but the seat was retained by Labor MP Catherine King, despite a 9.8% swing against her at the last election. Hodgins-May told Crikey that Danby’s decision to preference the Liberals ahead of the Greens was “a bit of a slap in the face to progressive voters” who had helped get Danby elected in the past.

“I’m pretty astounded by the rationale of the decision, but given that he has done it before it doesn’t come as a surprise. He is, I think, obviously worried about our campaign, and pretty keen to hold onto his seat. I think this will hurt his vote and will backfire on him. Progressive voters want progressive representation.”

No party-branch decision has been made on how the Greens will preference in Melbourne Ports, Hodgins-May says.

Danby is well known as a staunch and unwavering defender of Israel, a stance that has won him considerable support in Melbourne Ports, which has the nation’s highest proportion of Jewish residents, at 12.8%. Danby has been willing to take on members of his own party over the issue, such as when he slammed former foreign minister Bob Carr over Carr’s comments on the influence of the Israel lobby.

The issue of Israel could be a thorny one for Hodgins-May, given the Greens’ positions on the Israel-Palestine question. But Hodgins-May says that while Danby is “very keen” to talk about Middle East politics, people in Melbourne Ports are more concerned with local issues, including development at Fisherman’s Bend, housing affordability and the clean energy economy. Hodgins-May says Greens volunteers are often asked about the party’s policy on the Middle East when door-knocking.

“They’re honest about the fact that while Mr Danby wants to talk about the Middle East, we want to talk about local issues. There’s not a huge amount we can do from Melbourne Ports to influence Middle Eastern politics, so we’re focused on what we can achieve.”

She says her decision to contest Melbourne Ports was out of “desperation” after seeing how Labor and the Coalition “were willing to be on the same page” on issues such as refugees and national security.

“It’s all very well for these old politicians to make decisions that they won’t have to live to see through, but I will, and my kids will have to, and that was one of the motivators.”

Danby has also been a strong supporter of the government’s national security agenda. In a recent opinion piece, he said Labor had been attempting to find a middle ground — before ultimately voting through all tranches of national security legislation brought to Parliament:

“As for any national security legislation which Labor has responsibly amended in relation to increased oversight, privacy and sunset provisions, the Greens only say no. They’re not interested in finding a middle path between the blunt force characterised by the Libs and the kumbaya approach of the far left.”

Hodgins-May faces an uphill battle. At the last election the Greens polled at 20%, but the result will need to be significantly higher in order for the Greens to overtake Labor to make it a Greens-Liberal contest for the seat. The Greens are hoping for a 5.85% swing in the seat.

“We’ll be fighting for every single preference, I can tell you that much,” Hodgins-May said.

The Liberal candidate for Melbourne Ports, Owen Guest, has also been campaigning in the electorate, including with a billboard that prominently displays Guest with the Prime Minister, suggesting that the Liberals are pinning their hopes on the popularity of Malcolm Turnbull in a bid to woo over voters in the electorate.

Melbourne Ports is one of five seats the Greens are targeting in Victoria; the others are Higgins, Batman and Wills, along with retaining Greens MP Adam Bandt’s seat of Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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