Profile

From Jewish Day School to the Corridors of Power in Canberra

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s parliamentary secretary and one of the few Jewish MPs, is on his way up.

SYDNEY – Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fond of reminding Jewish audiences that Australia is the only country, aside from Israel, where Jews have been appointed head of state, chief justice and commander-in-chief of the army.

“There’s just one office in this country yet to be held by a Jewish person,” Abbott said late last year in his first appearance at a Jewish function since his Liberal Party’s landslide victory in September. “That’s the prime ministership. But the time will come, as Josh Frydenberg constantly reminds me, when that will change.”

Abbott, a one-time trainee priest and a staunchly pro-Israel prime minister, was referring to his parliamentary secretary, who is one of the sole Jewish parliament members in his government.

“Frydenberg’s interests are wide, his intellect is keen, his ambitions unambiguous,” wrote Australian author and analyst Ross Fitzgerald late last year. “Indeed, it seems to me the member for Kooyong is a potential prime minister.”

But Frydenberg, the 42-year-old representative of the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong, dismissed speculation that he may one day inherit Abbott's mantle as prime minister. “There’s no point in taking it too seriously,” he told Haaretz. “I’m not thinking about that, that’s for sure.”

Frydenberg has been tasked with helping Abbott cut 1 billion Australian dollars a year ($89.5 million) as part of an economic deregulation effort.

“I’m working very closely with him on two things in particular: the deregulation agenda and the G20 summit,” he said. “The PM’s got me working with him on the biggest meeting Australia has ever held.”

Australia commenced its presidency of the Group of 20 last month and will host the annual summit for the world’s 20 largest economies in Brisbane in November, with many of the world’s most powerful leaders expected to converge on Queensland’s capital.

“It’s a big, big deal,” Frydenberg said. “It’s much bigger than APEC,” he added, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which Australia hosted in 2007.

Frydenberg’s political path from Oxford and Harvard universities to Canberra’s corridors of power, where he served as senior adviser to former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and former Prime Minister John Howard a decade ago, has not gone unnoticed.

“Howard has the highest opinion possible of Frydenberg,” wrote Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the national daily The Australian, after last year’s election and Frydenberg’s appointment as parliamentary secretary. “Don’t be fooled by the seemingly modest nature of his promotion: the emergence from the chrysalis of parliamentary secretary to the butterfly of cabinet minister can be very fast.”

But the Melbourne-born graduate of two Jewish day schools in the area, Bialik and Mount Scopus, had a different dream when he graduated high school: tennis.

When he realized he “wasn’t going to be the next Boris Becker,” the former top-ranked professional tennis player from Germany, Frydenberg traded his racket for a law and economics degree from Monash University in Melbourne, named after John Monash, the Jewish commander of the Australian Corps in World War I who is still considered one of the country’s greatest military leaders.

Still, Frydenberg twice represented Australia at the Maccabiah Games, the last in 1997, when he witnessed the collapse of the bridge carrying the Australian team across Israel’s heavily polluted Yarkon River, killing four and injuring scores more.

A proud Jew, Frydenberg recalled his grandparents’ escape from Nazi-controlled Europe in his maiden speech to parliament in 2010. “My great-grandparents, and many relatives on both sides, perished in the Holocaust,” he told the chamber. “Like so many other immigrants to our great shores, all of my grandparents came here with nothing … but in Australia anything is possible.”

At the government’s swearing-in ceremony last year, he used a leather-bound Bible given to him by his mentor, the late Sir Zelman Cowen. Cowen used the Bible in 1977, when he became the second Jew to be sworn in as Australia’s governor-general.

This year, Frydenberg will likely face mounting pressure from Jewish community leaders over the government’s plans to amend parts of the Racial Discrimination Act, the nation’s race hate laws that make it illegal to deny the Holocaust or promote anti-Semitism.

“We want to see the right balance struck, and I don’t think the current wording does that,” Frydenberg said.

While the current law protects Australians from racial vilification, critics argue it also limits freedom of expression.

The Jewish community has won court cases against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, far-right groups and religious extremists found to have violated the law.

Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, was one of several representatives of ethnic minorities, including Arabs and Aborigines, who met with Attorney General George Brandis last month amid ongoing controversy over the proposal.

“Obviously, the issue as a whole is of deep concern to many communities, including ours,” Wertheim said.

Frydenberg said he is “very confident” a solution will be found that satisfies both sides.

In the meantime, he’s busy working alongside the prime minister. “It’s a great position,” he said. “We have a bird’s eye view on what the government is doing.”

Courtesy