Pulp fight hots up as love cools

 The Australian – by Caroline Overington – October 8th, 2007

SHE is a tall, blonde divorcee, a mother of one who drives a Prius and is passionate about the environment.

He is a local councilor in Sydney’s eastern suburbs: short, dark, Jewish and passionate about her.

The story of their love – or more accurately, the crashing of their feelings on the rocks of a federal election campaign – has become the talk of the white-hot electorate of Wentworth, held by Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull by the skinny margin of 2.5 per cent.
Did Danielle Ecuyer – an environmental activist, known locally as Danni – tell a joke at a citizenship ceremony that offended the Jewish community, mocking people who pray for rain, not knowing this is something Orthodox Jews do three times a day?
Did her now ex-boyfriend, George Newhouse, Labor’s candidate in Wentworth, where Jews make up about 14 per cent of the population, in turn decide to dump her? Or is this the first relationship in history to fracture over a pulp mill?
To explain: Ms Ecuyer, 43, is a graduate of the nation’s most exclusive school for girls, Ascham. She was raised in Sydney’s affluent east, but until recently lived in London, where she worked as an investment banker and gave birth to her son, Nicolas.
When her marriage broke up, Ms Ecuyer returned to Australia and settled in the seat of Wentworth. In August last year, she attended a presentation by climate warrior Tim Flannery. She came away “appalled by what we were doing to the planet” and soon established the Women for Change Alliance to lobby for action on climate change.

She invited Mr Turnbull and Mr Newhouse, then the mayor of Waverley Council, to the launch at a fancy eastern suburbs hotel. Mr Turnbull didn’t show up. Mr Newhouse did – and was smitten.

“George was not on the scene when I set up the group,” Ms Ecuyer said yesterday. “He came along to the launch and we bumped into each other a few times after that.”

They started dating in April. Ms Ecuyer said it was “a very difficult decision for me” because she wanted her group to be non-partisan. But they were not shy about the romance.
In May, Mr Newhouse raised Ms Ecuyer’s name at a Waverley Council meeting, congratulating her on bringing the issue of climate change to national prominence.

Soon after, she was asked to speak at a citizenship ceremony, an honour normally reserved for naval commanders and the like. By council by-law, speeches at such events are required to be non-political.

Ms Ecuyer spoke just a few days after John Howard had called on Australians to pray for rain.

Accounts of what Ms Ecuyer actually said differ. Liberal councillor Sally Betts, who did not attend the ceremony, said: “I was told that she joked about Mr Howard telling people to pray for rain. There were Jews in the audience who were offended.”
The Torah contains special prayers for rain that are recited with urgency as the winter in Israel approaches. The prayers remind Jews that God “makes the wind blow and causes rain to fall”.

Ms Ecuyer denies joking about prayers, saying: “I did not tell a joke. I made a remark that it was insufficient to pray when real action on climate change is needed.”
The matter was subsequently raised at a local synagogue, in The Australian Jewish News and at Waverley Council.
Ms Betts said she could not understand why Ms Ecuyer was speaking at the citizenship ceremony at all. “I’ve been on the council 10 years and I’ve never been invited,” she said. “She has been on the scene five minutes and she’s giving speeches. And she’s obviously a political person, because she is urging people to vote on climate change.”

Ms Ecuyer’s group has lately begun lobbying the federal Government over the pulp mill planned for Tasmania’s Tamar Valley. She has spoken at elite private schools in Sydney’s east, on ABC’s Lateline, and at yesterday’s rally near Launceston, urging people to vote against parties that don’t oppose the mill.

This is a boon for Mr Newhouse, since Green preferences in the seat of Wentworth will flow to Labor. In other words, a Green vote is a vote for Mr Newhouse.

Ms Ecuyer says there is “no, no, no, no, no way” she is using her group to funnel votes through the Greens to her now-ex boyfriend. She blames the Liberal Party for spreading rumours to that effect.

The Green candidate in Wentworth, Susan Jarnason, said the couple never hid their relationship. “She’s been very transparent,” she said. “You know she’s wearing two hats. She’s George’s partner, and she’s keen to stop the pulp mill.”
Ms Ecuyer said the issue was moot because she broke up with Mr Newhouse two weeks ago. “I won’t go into why we broke up. But I can tell you it wasn’t over the pulp mill or over the Jewish vote.”

Ms Ecuyer said yesterday she would continue to lobby on climate change, saying the rich had a “moral imperative” to tackle the problem.

“Food prices are going up, and it’s the underprivileged who will bear it,” she said, adding that change could be difficult for the rich. “I’m not saying it’s easy. But you can take small steps. You can drink different water. You can drink different wine.”

Her group will co-host a “Celebration of Sustainable and Stylish Living” at the Royal Motor Yacht Club in Point Piper later this month. Tickets are $60, which includes “organic wines”.

Mr Newhouse did not return calls.

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