It was another victory for campaigning journalism last night when Marrickville Council voted against supporting the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motion it had passed in December last year. Then, only two councillors out of 12 voted against it. This time around, Independent Councillors Victor Macri and Morris Hanna were joined by four ALP councillors and two Greens. Eighteen members of the public addressed the council for three minutes each on the motion before packed council chambers.
Greens councillor Max Phillips was one of those who changed his vote. He told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, "With the benefit of hindsight there should have been a much more thorough debate on this issue before it was adopted by the NSW Greens and moved on Marrickville Council."
Whether or not the debate that has taken place over BDS in the Australian media has been thorough or not is up for grabs — but the coverage has been extensive. Local councils don’t generally make the national news. When they do, it’s usually got something to do with corruption or development. The motion was criticised widely for being a foreign policy issue — not a municipal one. That didn’t stop state and federal leaders weighing in on the topic. Marrickville Council made national news bulletins and if nothing else, as Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne said last night, put the issue of BDS on the national agenda.
It’s worth quickly reviewing the situation. The motion passed in December was put forward by Greens councillors Marika Kontellis and Cathy Peters. The minutes record that special mention was made of Marrickville’s "sister city relationship with Bethlehem and the strong support for that relationship from local progressive faith communities and other community members".
At the same meeting a motion was passed to replace a bin for a Marrickville house and to remove a tree. A mayoral minute was passed in favour of same-sex marriage, to the effect that "this council support marriage equality, that is the amendment of the Marriage Act 1961, so as to remove discrimination against same-sex couples." So much, so local council.
The motion got a brief mention in the SMH on 21 December but it was left by the media until 13 January when News Limited got hold of it. It ran a story in the Daily Tele which opened with the question, "What does the desert theocracy of Saudi Arabia have in common with Marrickville Council in Sydney’s Inner West?"
This was followed by an op-ed by federal member for Grayndler (which includes Marrickville) Anthony Albanese on 14 January — and it didn’t stop after that. Fiona Byrne was widely tipped to win the state seat of Marrickville from the then deputy premier Carmel Tebbutt in the NSW election. She didn’t, and the coverage and campaigning around BDS has been generally acknowledged to be the main reason for the drop in her popularity. New Matilda last month examined the vigorous campaign mounted against Byrne in the media and by Labor.
Today, the SMH reported that Tebbutt may have breached electoral laws in accepting a donation of social media services in her campaign. This story was broken by Wendy Bacon and Nicole Gooch in New Matilda two weeks ago as the rest of the media remained fixated on the BDS campaign.
Not only was the media focus on a local council unusual, so too was the deluge of advice directed to Marrickville councillors. As Byrne wrote yesterday, "It seems that everyone has an opinion at the moment about whether the Marrickville Local Government Area should play a role in trying to create change for the people of Palestine." It wasn’t just from locals, either.
A letter was addressed to Marrickville councillors by a group of pro-boycott Israeli citizens. They wrote:
"We reject the notion promoted by demagogues, that the 2005 BDS call from Palestine, and the BDS campaigns the world over which it has inspired, are rooted in anti-Jewish sentiment. On the contrary, BDS is an anti-racist movement against the daily, brutal occupation of Palestine and the virulently racist policies towards Israel’s Palestinian citizens."
The Israelis weren’t the only ones. John Berger, China Mieville and Naomi Klein were among those journalists, politicians and academics who put their name to a letter to Marrickville Council encouraging them to vote in favour of the motion again. They wrote, "Please uphold your boycott policy and stand firm in your commitment to human rights."
And John Pilger had his say too:
"And those who have wavered and walked away should think again — remembering other waverers who, long ago, walked away from speaking out against what was being done to Jews. The scale is very different; the principle is the same. Do not be intimidated by Murdoch vendettas or by anyone else. All power to you."
Councillors and mayors from around the world who had supported BDS motions in their areas sent letters of support. Two councillors from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets gave an example of how the policy had been implemented:
"Tower Hamlets council will not allow Veolia to tender for any future contracts in the area. Veolia is a French multinational that is providing infrastructure for Israel’s illegal settlements, including by building a rail line linking illegal Israeli settlements to Israel. This rail line has been condemned by the UN Human Rights council.
"The fact that Veolia supports and profits from Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinian territory makes it unfit to operate in our community. This decision to exclude Veolia from all future contracts was a simple and cost-free one to make, but is an important display of our support for the universal principles of human rights. Tower Hamlets council is now investigating what other similar steps it can take in the future while upholding its duties to local residents."
The letters went unheeded.
The Essential Report polled Australians on Israel-Palestine last week and found mixed results. Forty six per cent of those polled disagreed with the proposition that being critical of Israel made a person anti-Semitic. Ten per cent agreed — and 22 per cent gave "don’t know" as their answer.
On all questions, there was a much higher than usual "don’t know" response. Peter Lewis of Essential Media puts the figure in context: "most political questions draw a ‘don’t know’ of around 10 per cent — these are the purely disengaged. A ‘don’t know’ this high suggests a more honest and engaged and considered appraisal of a complex situation — people are genuinely undecided."
Yesterday Max Phillips tweeted, "Educating the community about BDS is meant to be the first step in building support for BDS. This has not happened in #Marrickville". The high "don’t know" responses on Israel-Palestine to the Essential poll suggest that it’s not just the Marrickville community that has unanswered questions about the conflict. And in view of the heavy-handed media coverage of the issue, it’s not hard to see why.
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