Did Fiona Byrne Get Fair Coverage?


Carmel Tebbutt, managed to do what many of her Labor colleagues failed to do on the weekend: hold on to her seat. The big media were gunning for the removal of most of her colleagues but the ALP Member for Marrickville was running against a candidate, Fiona Byrne, who attracted the ire of the commentariat for her stance on Israel. Anthony Loewenstein discusses the impact of the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motion in Marrickville council on the state election result in New Matilda today. The BDS motion was raised in Marrickville Council at the end of last year by Councillor Cathy Peters, and was supported by all Greens and ALP councillors, including Byrne, and one independent. 

Two weeks out from the election Byrne was predicted to make history by defeating Tebbutt. She needed a 7.5 per cent swing to do so and a much-cited Galaxy poll predicted she’d have no trouble in that regard. That poll had the Greens sitting on 44 per cent of the primary vote in Marrickville, with Labor trailing on 33 per cent.

On the day, Tebbutt won 39.5 per cent of the primary votes compared to Byrne’s 35.1 per cent.

What happened? Was Fiona Byrne given a fair go by the media — or accorded the blunt tabloid and talkback treatment that is standard for political candidates?

Byrne’s support for the Israel boycott caught Gerard Henderson’s attention. He wrote this editorial on 21 February.

"As mayor of Marrickville, Byrne has led the charge to sign up ratepayers to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. This global movement, driven by the left, aims to boycott all goods made in Israel and prohibit all sporting, academic, government or cultural exchanges. The campaign does not distinguish between Israel’s pre- and post-1967 borders and is aimed at Jewish and Arab Israelis alike."

"Byrne and her Greens comrades seem unaware that Israel and increasingly Iraq are the only two democracies in the Middle East and that Arabs who are citizens of Israel have more democratic rights than Arabs domiciled in Arab nations. They also seem unaware that, historically, the left in Australia has supported Israel."

When rumours emerged that Byrne supported a boycott of China in Marrickville, the Daily Telegraph ran this story on 26 February:

"The Greens have threatened a trade boycott against the world’s second-largest economy in an attack on China by one of its high-profile NSW candidates.

Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne, who is running for the state seat, has revealed her council would consider boycotting China out of sympathy for Tibetans.

"Labor labelled the policy as "stupid and dangerous" and warned such a ban could threaten Chinese trade with NSW — worth more than $3.2 billion to the state’s economy — and damage cultural and student ties with China … Ms Byrne said her council had expressed solidarity with the local Tibetan community. While the Tibetan community had not asked specifically for a boycott, Ms Byrne said council would adopt one if asked."

""If the local Tibetan community came to us and asked us to look at boycotting China, I’m sure council would do that," Ms Byrne said."

Although the Tele story eventually implies that Council would consider a boycott, the lead and the headline "Greens threaten China boycott through Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne" tell a different story. That day, Byrne issued a press release which clarified this alleged plan to boycott China, stating:

"There is absolutely no plan or intention to boycott China … Marrickville Council work with the community and discuss matters that they ask us to. The Tibetan community have told us they do not want us to boycott China."

The Punch got stuck into Byrne on 8 March — with the headline: "The weird, unscrutinised world of the NSW Greens". David Penberthy’s attack on Fiona Byrne was cast in highly personal terms — and ignored the clear statements on the China boycott already issued by her office.

"Fiona Byrne is one of the more unpleasant personages kicking around in NSW politics. She’s been busy advocating a polite modern rendering of Kristallnacht in the inner west, campaigning for a ban on all Israeli products in the Marrickville Council area. As Labor MP Michael Danby told the Jewish online news service J-Wire last week: "What is next for the Marrickville Council? Are they now going to paint the Star of David on shops selling Israeli products?"

"Byrne has also made a fool of herself by suggesting a similar ban on all Chinese products — because, you know, what good could ever come from this resource-rich nation trading with the Chinese? — and then laughably denying that she had made such a suggestion. She did. It was during a candidates’ forum last month, her quote was "If the local Tibetan community came to us and asked us to look at boycotting China, I’m sure council would do that." Despite being lumbered with a verbatim transcript of her remark, Byrne has claimed to be a victim of a Labor Party and media conspiracy. Maybe those pesky Jews were involved in that too."

On 15 March The Australian ran a story that  suggested that Byrne would seek to extend the Israel boycott across the state if elected. There was no mention of the support by the author, Imre Salusinsky, of the parliamentary support that Byrne would need for such a move to be successful — even if she had announced any such intention.

"Labor has branded prominent NSW Greens candidate Fiona Byrne an "extremist". The sobriquet came after the Greens candidate vowed to push for a statewide ban on contact with Israel if she wins the inner-western Sydney seat of Marrickville. Ms Byrne, the mayor of Marrickville, successfully pushed last year from the council to ban commercial, cultural and sporting exchanges with Israel."

The next day, the Greens published another press statement on their website to refute the allegations.

"The statement that I vowed to push the BDS to State Parliament is simply untrue," Ms Byrne said.

"I have never said that I will, nor do I have an intention to bring the BDS to state parliament. I certainly have not "vowed" to bring BDS to state parliament. Any reporting to the contrary is a misrepresentation."

In a fiery debate with 2GB’s Ben Fordham just days out from the election, Byrne again attempted to set the record straight. But with Fordham introducing her as the Mayor who "thinks she’s s the Minister for Foreign Affairs", it was a tough fight. Byrne revealed herself as less than prepared for the tough arena of talkback radio. Her denials that she would push for a statewide boycott of Israel were clear enough but her performance left questions about her readiness for this kind of media. Fordham played audio from an earlier press conference Fiona had attended where she explicitly said, "I would suggest that the NSW Greens would be looking to bring that forward to State Parliament if elected."

It was a tough ambush and Byrne repeated her denial that she had no plan to introduce the BDS into State Parliament several times. Press releases are one thing but in this situation, a clearly flustered Byrne failed to adequately refute the claims against her. It wasn’t a soft interview but it’s the kind of test that Greens candidates may have to get used to in the future.


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