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‘If you do the wrong thing, you should face the consequences’

Joseph Friedman
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Published: 2 November 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

David Southwick was recently elected as Deputy Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party. JOSEPH FRIEDMAN quizzes him on political philosophy, being Jewish and his mixed record on social issues

TO MANY IN Melbourne’s Jewish community, David Southwick is known as a politician who used to be a DJ. To most outside the Jewish community, Southwick is little known. And yet if the Victorian Labor Party is defeated at next year’s election, the enterprising Member for Caulfield will become one of the most influential decision-makers in the state.

Last month Southwick, 53, was elected Deputy Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party. If he retains his current portfolios, Southwick would take charge of finance, jobs, employment and business recovery in a Coalition government – vital responsibilities as the economy transitions out of lockdown.

While the Liberals are clear underdogs against Premier Daniel Andrews – who, though polarising, is an extremely popular Labor leader – Southwick is bullish: “We have a government [led by] an individual instilling fear, and I think the community is desperate for freedom, desperate for leadership, desperate for somebody standing up on their side.”

So who really is David Southwick? And what do we need to know about him?

“Everything I do is about helping people and helping others,” Southwick told The Jewish Independent in an interview. The role of community was central to his and his family’s lives, he said, and his goal is “to provide whatever support [is needed] to those who unfortunately fall through the cracks… to provide everyone with a level playing field”.

Hearing these values, you would be forgiven for assuming Southwick was a Labor politician.  The Liberal Party is not commonly thought of as the party focussed on those who get left behind, but Southwick says he has “always been a ‘small-l liberal’”, with a strong interest in important social issues.

So why did he decide to become a Liberal politician?

“Opportunity, reward, a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out’,” he explained.  For Southwick — a successful business owner himself — “reward for effort” is key. Southwick’s entrepreneurial streak has been present since the age of 14, when he first ran a stall at the South Melbourne market.

A long career as a DJ followed, with the future politician a staple at bar- and batmitzvahs and weddings for nearly two decades. But unbeknown to many, “DJ Dave” also founded a successful cosmetics company called the Body Collection.

“At the end of the day, if someone chooses to sit at home and do nothing with their life, then no government should be telling them to do otherwise,” Southwick says. “And if someone wants to go out and work 150 hours a week and be very successful, then good luck to them.”

Southwick’s policy influence has been limited in public office; his party mostly stuck in opposition. As Parliamentary Secretary for Police and Emergency Services from April 2013 to November 2014, he was involved in the successful rollout of Protective Services Offices (PSOs). Since then, Southwick’s work has been confined to the shadow Cabinet.

Entering his 11th year as a Member of Parliament, Southwick’s responses to The Jewish Independent’s questions reflect his experience as a seasoned Liberal politician. He emphasises “freedoms and liberties” and decries the role of “big government” in people’s lives.

Asked to elaborate, he explains: “if you look at both Liberal and Labor governments in terms of pandemic management, there’s been a lot less interference [by Liberal governments].”

Southwick thinks Labor governments are more heavy-handed in enforcing Covid regulations: “In Victoria, [if you] do the wrong thing, you get a fine. Whereas if you look at NSW, if you’re not wearing a mask, you get handed a mask.”

Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott would beg to differ. Less than two months ago, Abbott was fined $500 when spotted without a mask in Manly, and another man eating food by the Sydney foreshore was handcuffed by police after failing to provide identification when asked why his face was uncovered.

While Southwick may not be familiar with details of life across the border, he is clear-eyed and focussed about his heartland.

David Southwick addresses a rally in Melbourne after a Hamas attack on Israel in 2012
David Southwick addresses a rally in Melbourne after a Hamas attack on Israel in 2012

“I’m a proud Jew. I’m very passionate about my community,” he says. Southwick, his wife and two children are immersed in the Jewish community. As a prominent and increasingly influential Jewish politician, Southwick sees part of his role as “encourag[ing] non-Jewish members of Parliament to speak up for the community”.

In Southwick’s view, this includes speaking up for Israel. The Member for Caulfield has taken several politicians on trade missions to Israel. “Once they see it for themselves, they become lifelong advocates for Israel,” he says.

Why does Southwick consider it important that state politicians have any opinion at all about Israel?  “I actually think it’s more important for state ‘pollies’ than federal ‘pollies’, because we are very much at the grassroots of the community,” he explains.

Southwick notes that the impact of antisemitism on the community and at university campuses are in the state’s remit, and he says that violent escalations in Israel often translate into increased antisemitic attacks at home.

According to Daniel Aghion, the President of the JCCV (Jewish Community Council of Victoria), Southwick should be credited for pushing a bill from opposition that will see Victoria become the first state or territory to ban the Nazi swastika.

Many of us in the Jewish community see Israel as our second home, and it’s important for politicians at state level to see that.

Aghion’s predecessor Jennifer Huppert, a former Labor Member of the Victorian Legislative Council, supports the bill, but told The Jewish Independent that “banning a swastika is not going to solve our antisemitism problem”.

Huppert says she clashed with Southwick and his party, who portrayed the ban as a solution to the problem, which dimmed the focus on the need for broader reform. Overall, however, Huppert says that Southwick is a strong advocate for the Jewish community, and she credits his co-operation across the aisle.

Southwick also emphasises the “great opportunity for us to learn some of the things Israel is doing”, pointing to the country’s successes in healthcare, trade and agriculture. “Many of us in the Jewish community see Israel as our second home, and it’s important for politicians at state level to see that,” he adds.

Southwick’s support for Israel is strong, and at times he has been criticised for “playing politics” on the issue. When former Victorian Labor MP and Trade Minister Philip Dalidakis established Australia’s Trade Office in Tel Aviv in 2017, Southwick argued that it should be moved to Jerusalem.

“Nobody, with any sense of understanding what a trade office is meant to do, would ever advocate that unless they were playing politics,” says Dalidakis, adding that Southwick was “attempting to make the Liberal Party [appear] more pro-Jewish than [what was] in the community’s best interests”.

But Dalidakis acknowledges that “when you’re in opposition, I appreciate that sometimes you say and do things to create a headline, even if the policy doesn’t match the rhetoric”.

Daniel Aghion, meanwhile, is effusive in his praise for Southwick, highlighting his leadership within the community and his work with the Federal ALP member for Macnamara, Josh Burns, in addressing the fallout from this year’s much publicised engagement party and illegal prayer gatherings during lockdown.

Since I’ve left Parliament, I’ve watched David demonstrate increasing leadership within the community - Philip Dalidakis

Dalidakis agrees: “Since I’ve left Parliament, I’ve watched David demonstrate increasing leadership within the community, as was demonstrated by the work he did with Josh Burns in supporting the Orthodox community in being vaccinated and also vocalising opposition to individuals breaching Public Health Orders.”

When asked for comment, Josh Burns said: “While David and I come from different sides of the political spectrum, we’ve managed to work very constructively with each other on local issues concerning the Jewish community, and I have no doubt we will continue to do so.”

In the big picture, Southwick says that “Covid has given us an opportunity to look at how we work, how we live, how we spend our time [and] prioritise our life,” and refers to this reflection as a “big reset”. In Southwick’s view, what this reset looks like will determine our future, and the Caulfield MP has some ideas.

We need to “look for better”, strive to “do things differently”, “look at how people want to live” and lay the “basic foundations for the next 50 years, not for the next four years”, he says.

What specifics does he have in mind? Is he interested in a four-day work week or some other fundamental change in the work-life balance? Has he developed plans to reduce the centrality of work in people’s lives? To improve mental health?

His response: “I really like the idea of a global citizen. I like the idea of portability. I like the idea of what a future city might look like.”

This vague vision of the future sounds a world away from his political past.

Southwick’s career has not been short of controversies, both personal and among party leadership. In 2012, he was accused of “padding his resume” when his website falsely claimed that he was an adjunct professor at RMIT and had obtained a graduate diploma from Monash University. Apologising at the time, Southwick said he had undertaken a number of teaching positions at RMIT, and had started a graduate diploma at Monash University, which he mistakenly believed he had completed.

In 2018, the Victorian Liberal party was roundly criticised for its “Get Back in Control” campaign that blamed the local African community for violent crime.

Was the campaign a mistake? Southwick acknowledges that the topic of crime received too much airtime: “We got all consumed in Cost of Living, Crime, Congestion – the three Cs, that’s what we were talking about [and] we were pretty vacant in an environment portfolio.”

He says, “the African youth justice system is over-represented”, referring to it as “the kind of current version of the Indigenous community”, and that in 2018, “[w]e spent our time talking about a problem, not providing a solution”.

Southwick says his solution is to “work with the [African] community and ensure we provide them pathways around employment, opportunity [and] education.”

Can the African community trust Victoria’s Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, given that he was the party’s leader during this contentious campaign? Southwick says that Guy wasn’t really to blame.

“I’m not making excuses”, he says, “but I think [the criticism] was overcooked, I think the feds played that card pretty hard as well, and the language that was coming out through the feds got caught up where we were.”

He points out that Guy is a past Minister for Multicultural Affairs, and says he is “very, very, very strong on CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities”.

However, “strength” is open to interpretation. In July 2018, Guy was quoted as saying “[t]here’s an issue with Sudanese gangs at the moment,” and in a radio interview, he lambasted the government for “standing by and allowing Melbourne to become the Johannesburg of the South Pacific”. Recent reporting suggests that the consequences of the fear campaign have not been forgotten by African communities.

Philip Dalidakis, a minister at the time, says “the Victorian community saw a distinct lack of leadership on this issue, where a minority group was unfairly [targeted] and victimised, and the election result was a vindication of the strong stance that Daniel Andrews took in relation to a more integrated multicultural community”.

Do I support a woman’s right to choose? Of course, I do. But I also respect people’s right to be able to protest legally.

On the subject of social issues, Southwick is firm in his assurance that the Liberal Party will not amend new laws banning gay conversion therapy. “I can proudly say I’ve marched in just about every pride parade since I’ve been a member,” he says.

“I’ve been a very, very passionate supporter of the LGBTI community and will continue to do so... people should be living their life in the way they choose them. I’m the last person to tell people how they should be living their life. It’d be very hypocritical if I did that.”

I ask him about a 2019 bill to permit transgender people to change the sex listed on their birth certificate without receiving surgery. Southwick voted no, along with the rest of his party.

“I think that was more about a bill that would allow anyone to change their name and to do it every six months or something. It was not specifically, from my memory, the transgender or LGBTI community,” he says. Southwick says he has no issue with a bill focused on permitting transgender people to nominate their sex on their birth certificate.

Yet that was the central purpose of the bill. According to the shadow attorney general, the opposition’s reasoning for opposing the bill was because birth certificates “are intended to record biological sex rather than gender identity”.

While Southwick is usually tied to his party’s voting choices, he and fellow members were granted a conscience vote for a 2015 bill that would create a 150-metre radius around clinics that provided abortions, where protesting against abortions and interfering with people entering the clinic would be banned.

Southwick was one of just 13 out of 82 MPs to vote no. “You’ve got to look at the specifics of the issue,” he explains. “Do I support a woman’s right to choose? Of course, I do. But I also respect people’s right to be able to protest legally.”

“The right to protest doesn’t mean you have the right to harass,” Dalidakis responds, adding that he has “no qualms believing in the rights of people to self-determination without fear of in-your-face aggression”, and that “David and the Liberal Party have turned their back on allowing self-determination in these circumstances.”

“The current Liberal Party at state and federal level has walked to a more conservative base,” he says.

Ultimately, Southwick intends to keep past controversies in the past. His present focus is communicating to the voting public that the Liberal Party will be on their side. He lists several problems that he considers justify a change of leadership: Victoria’s “very conservative approach” to reopening, a lack of investment in a “failing health system” and a government shirking responsibility for “801 lives lost… as a result of hotel quarantine”.

“If you do the wrong thing, you should face the consequences,” Southwick says. The new Deputy Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party is hoping those consequences will manifest themselves at the ballot box.

Main photo: Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and Shadow Minister for CBD Recovery, David Southwick, addresses the media in Melbourne, September 12 (AAP/Daniel Pockett)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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