Is this what democracy looks like? The NSW Greens & the campaign against the BDS

by · February 10, 2012

The latest issue of The Monthly and my response in The Drum on Monday (here, reposted at Left Flank here) have stirred public interest in the sharpened political debates about the future of the Greens. On Thursday, The Australian ran a curiously subdued feature on the party by Christian Kerr that also pulled a lengthy quote the Drum essay.

One area that deserves more analysis is the blow-up over the NSW Greens’ now-rescinded support for a Boycotts, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. With the kind permission of the author and Graham Young’s Online Opinion site, we are reprinting Hamish Ford’s 28 April 2011 exploration of the BDS controversy just after the Marrickville Greens councillors split, thereby overturning Council policy. Hamish was then a Greens member and is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle.


Last Tuesday evening’s Marrickville Council vote, after a three hour debate, to rescind its support for the international BDS campaign (originally enacted with a Greens-initiated 10-2 majority vote in December) marks a significant moment for both politics and democracy within NSW and Australia.

In addition to revealing the powerful efficacy of unprecedented, escalating pressure by the major political parties and much of the media, the BDS saga and its outcome could also be a real fork-in-the-road moment for the Greens, in particular its currently privileged role as primary political representative of Australia’s left-wing voters.

Unprecedented pressure and feverish denigration

Perhaps the most surprising critical commentary aimed at the Greens has been from state Upper House Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann. In a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece she essentially adds ‘internal’ credibility to copious hostile media and political voices outside the party who insist it performed poorly at the election, highlighting the controversial BDS policy as a key problem. The assumptions and explicit aims driving Faehrmann’s arguments are, I believe, deeply misguided.

The BDS issue was always going to be controversial in a country where most media and politicians maintain a more draconian default pro-Israel line than operates even within Israel itself. (See for example the quality Tel Aviv daily Haaretz‘s discussion of Israel becoming an Apartheid state due to racist, colonial policies and openly discriminatory citizenship laws.) Seldom mentioned in all the hysterical scare-mongering over the issue is that the BDS campaign has not only majority Palestinian support but also that of prominent international figures, particularly African National Congress veterans (including globally adored Nobel Laureates Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela) who have long argued that not only is life for Palestinians comparable to the situation of black South Africans at the peak of Apartheid but often actually worse. These are uncomfortable truths for those who criticize the original Marrickville decision on the precious and myopic grounds that it has ‘soured relationships’ in the neighbourhood, and who protest with full-tilt colonial arrogance that BDS is not in the best interests of peace but also even of the Palestinians themselves. (As usual, the clearly apparent views on the matter held by the actual subjects of such hand-on-heart concern are of no import whatsoever.)

What right do the Liberal PartyThe Daily Telegraph, The Australian, both liberal and conservative Jewish opinion and lobby groups, federal ALP backbenchers and former Labor councillors have to so denigrate Marrickville Council and the Greens as personified in the figure of Fiona Byrne, Marrickville mayor and Greens candidate for the state seat? The only people she is directly accountable to on properly democratic grounds are party members (who rightfully expect her to carry out official, rigorously-developed policy), Greens voters (who are owed the same, via special representative contract) and, since becoming Mayor, the ratepayers of Marrickville municipality. On all counts, Byrne did not err. It was increasingly asserted by political and media critics prior to the vote to rescind the BDS provisions that local constituents clearly ‘rejected’ Byrne’s candidacy and the Greens per se by not electing her to the state seat. This ridiculous claim, which seriously fudges the final vote’s incredibly close margin (a mere 676 votes), is at the heart of the deceptive narrative that says the Greens performed poorly at the election.

Bruised by the deceitful ‘failure’ narrative

The Greens’ vote in Marrickville — for many years already representing the highest in the country at state and federal levels — went up even more at the 2011 NSW election: by 3.3 percent on primary votes and double that after distribution of preferences. This is an impressive result by any reasonable measure, not just for a minor party but one that has been up against grindingly relentless political, media, and lobby-group smears. That Byrne came so close to taking the seat off a popular and purportedly left wing sitting member and deputy NSW Premier (Carmel Tebbutt) is remarkable.

Rather then defend the principled positions articulated by Byrne and other party colleagues who faced such vicious treatment over many months, Faehrmann prefers to throw yet more damaging kerosene on an already enormous fire, giving it an added ‘horse’s mouth’ legitimacy. But more than this, she comes across as extremely naïve in not seeming to acknowledge that prominent criticism and intense — in this case, clearly overwhelming — pressure from obviously self-interested and ideologically opposed voices is not a good reason for a party to abandon its stated principles.

The ‘failure’ narrative is at best naïve, in the case of Faehrmann, or otherwise willfully deceitful. I can’t recall any high profile state Greens party figures — Byrne, Jamie Parker (the new member for Balmain), Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon, or prominent MLCs John Kaye and David Shoebridge — ever saying the election would result in a ‘Greenslide’. Commonly painted as virtual Trotskyites in the media, these figures have all been in the Greens for long enough to know that any such confidence is not only suicidal but also unrealistic. Any even small improvement in the primary vote for a party whose progressive policies will automatically be marginalised by mainstream politics and most media as ‘extreme’ — entirely irrespective of whether they actually are — will always be tough going. Faehrmann seems to show no understanding of this.

At the NSW election a clear majority of vaguely centre-left-leaning voters decided to ‘man the barricades’ and support the oldest Labor party in the world at its darkest hour. In this light, the overall Greens result was anything but poor with swings of 1.3 percent in the Legislative Assembly and 2 percent in the Legislative Council. This amounts to roughly a 20 percent increase on the party’s 2007 state election result, and more than double the swing. Far from a failure, then.

Prescient principles — shaky execution

The NSW Greens’ error was not in adopting the now demonised BDS policy, which in fact properly expresses the party’s long-held support for Palestinian self-determination, international law, and human rights, no matter how ‘well received’ such a stance might be at the time. Rather, by not sufficiently getting out and properly owning such an inevitably controversial position, the NSW party scored an ‘own goal’ by making itself easy prey for ravenous media to declare them as Bob Brown’s ‘radical’ baggage (while he is okay by comparison). On this score Faehrmann’s critique is likely correct when she writes that Byrne did not get enough broader party support, especially from prominent figures supportive of the BDS policy.

Rather than a mere ‘media release’ upon the state party adopting the BDS policy, a good start would have been a big press conference announcing and explaining it, with BDS spokespeople in attendance to answer specific questions about the global campaign. (Jewish voices within and beyond the Greens also could have actively highlighted that such aims and strategy are not ‘anti-Semitic’.) In addition, the participation of any internationally respected figures who support BDS and who were in the neighborhood, such as ANC veterans, could have provided genuine moral support and historical gravitas.

A ton of bricks was always going to come down on any prominent political party supporting a global campaign that seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s ongoing abuses of human rights and active blocking of basic services in the Occupied Territories resulting from the illegal taking of land acquired by war following the Jewish state’s creation after the 1947 UN partitioning of Palestine. Not even entering into the contested historical minefield (including the question of to what extent UN General Assembly Resolution 181 actually validates Israel per se, seriously questioned here), by sticking to the reality of ongoing abuse the BDS campaign is less ‘extreme’ than directly responding to the very abuses and violations of international law resulting in a record number of UN resolutions.

Hanging tough, and not ‘extreme’

To buckle under the media and political pressure long at boiling point as a result of the BDS saga would not be at all surprising. While Byrne has been impressive in weathering the storm and Rhiannon has probably been wise to keep quiet for now, the new Marrickville Council vote (where only Byrne and one other Green stuck to their original position), Faehrmann’s intervention, following statements by former Greens MLC Ian Cohen, indicate there is a serious case of the wobbles in some sections of the party. Understandable though it might be, however, there are worrying ramifications if the Greens are to allow their enemies’ coordinated attacks to be so efficacious.

In fact, history and common sense suggest that the precedent for success does not lie with such capitulation. Leading up to past elections, media-framed scandals around the Greens were on issues like the ‘harm minimization‘ drugs policy and the party’s traditional anti-war position, where the party hung tough in the face of daily attacks its vote not only held ground but actually increased. The Faehrmann line of argument seems entirely unaware of the fact that, while it may be unpleasant, there is actually no threat to the Greens vote when conservative media comes down on the party hard. Quite the opposite.

This time with BDS the even hotter issue that supposedly proves the Greens are beyond-the-pale radicals, was that in addition to the usual right-wing voices, ‘Left’ faction Labor MPs such as Anthony Albanese — despite likely often sharing the general sentiments motivating the Greens’ gutsy position behind closed doors — went feral (writing opinion pieces in The Australian no less, which on this issue is suddenly Labor’s best friend). Notwithstanding their professed ‘moral’ outrage, such figures have for some time now been clearly desperate to discredit the electoral threat to inner-city seats that Labor proprietarily claims to ‘own’.

The BDS beat-up scandal has served a broader narrative in which the party is deemed ‘extreme’ from all corners. The result is often petulant but carefully focused attacks on individuals — first Byrne and Parker, then increasingly Rhiannon as the shadowy alleged leader of the party’s ‘radical’ faction. Trying to dismiss the Greens by using the oldest trick in the book (actually the same one the Liberals used for decades to bag the ALP), last Friday AWU leader Paul Howes quipped with a pretentious smirk: “I think that most of the Greens’ policies are based on Lee Rhiannon’s interpretations of [Marx’s] Das Kapital.” A cursory perusal of the NSW party’s policies by anyone not suffering the feverish effects of childish exaggeration and desire for base political hyperbole, however, will find there is nothing ‘Marxist’ about them.

The right-wing union leader has obviously been reading The Australian, where the Greens’ NSW Senator-to-be is daily portrayed as a dangerous Communist threatening the very fabric of the national polity, before she has even started her term in the Senate. Rhiannon is commonly presented as a threat to democracy rather than her election being evidence of its proper representative health. On her way to Canberra due to a strong Greens Senate vote in NSW in 2010, she also enjoys overwhelming party support after decisively winning (ahead of Faerhmann, who had both Bob Brown’s and much of the media’s ongoing support as the more ‘moderate’ option) a scrupulous preselection voting process to become lead Upper House candidate. That this longstanding Greens politician may on occasion articulate positions at odds with that of the elite media and political hegemony — but entirely in keeping with NSW party policy — demonstrates a healthy democracy in this country through the presence of a party unafraid to stand up for its principles irrespective of potential controversy and widespread abuse.

Anti-democratic demagoguery vs. local representation

Beyond demonising Rhiannon and ignoring her party and electoral credentials, the extraordinary assault on the Greens as a result of the BDS saga has revealed a broader and very disturbingly selective attitude on behalf of powerful media and political voices when it comes to democratic principles much bally-hood by those very same voices in justifying military interventions elsewhere in the world. If you think a party in Australia has the right to advocate its rigorously developed policy agenda (in the case of the Greens, by way of democratic and transparent internal party processes without equal), then upon attracting sufficient votes to have its say and where possible enact said policies at the local, state, or federal levels of this country’s representative democracy, it seems that many prominent figures don’t agree.

The most astonishing attack on fundamental democratic principles in this sordid story was when the NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, threatened to ‘sack’ Marrickville Council if it did not rescind the BDS motion. (Former Liberal Party staffer David Miles even suggested on the Drum’s ABCNews24 incarnation that the Council be sacked irrespective of the imminent vote.) Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd issued his own condemnation of local democracy. Let’s be clear. These major party big wigs openly seek to squash the democratic rights of residents who voted for a Greens-majority Council because the great mainstream political and media power elite have deemed one of this elected body’s actions (born of overwhelming 10-2 support) as ‘unacceptable’.

Meanwhile, misleading news reports (and some Drum opinion pieces) relayed inaccurate claims that the BDS policy would have cost local ratepayers millions of dollars. Far less frequently reported was the Council’s general manager saying any such estimates are ‘speculative’, and — more importantly — that the Greens repeatedly made clear the BDS process was never intended to be retrospective (therefore already purchased cars, computers etc. would not have to be gotten rid of).

Even more revealing and selective, perhaps, is the endlessly repeated mantra from Rudd on down that local councils have no business entering into ‘foreign policy debates’. Yet the now approved-of sanctions campaign against Apartheid South Africa first started at a grassroots and local politics level, the proponents of which were routinely vilified until finally the issue became mainstream. There was also the case in the 1980s and 90s of many Sydney council areas being declared ‘nuclear free zones’. In both instances, action at the local level concerning ‘international’ issues was not only entirely legitimate as the most obvious first port of call for grass-roots democratic expression, but it also clearly ‘works’.

Perhaps the most telling and rightfully-obvious point, however, when it comes to the put-down criticism that genuine democracy at the local council level is overridden by the core business of garbage collection, is the fact that Marrickville Council has had sanctions against Burma in place for 13 years yet has received little or no public censure for this. It wasn’t until attention was finally turned to Israel that everything changed.

Boldness and survival: the opposite of easy

The NSW Greens and Marrickville Council are due some respect for first having the guts to adopt a targeted policy that at least in Australia (more than in many other countries) was always going to not only lose some votes but inflame even further the daily bashing by sections of the media and the Liberal and Labor parties. It is certainly not easy to be a minor progressive political party entering the main game of Australian politics once the full gamut of opposition forces has been made violently clear.

The kind of argument offered by Faehrmann — that the Greens need to change course towards less controversial and ‘divisive’ policy waters — is deeply flawed. In fact, I believe it points to the opposite of what she presumably intends: her own party’s destruction. If the Greens head Right, they might pick up a few more middle-ground votes but will definitely lose far more of a finite progressive base. On electoral grounds the result would be reduced overall support. But more substantively, when it comes to the richness of Australian democracy, for Greens members and voters — the people it is supposed to represent — the party’s very existence would become essentially pointless. One of its biggest advantages would be lost. Both friend and foe alike tend to agree that the Greens unambiguously stand for a clear set of convictions or ‘values’ —whatever you might think of them — in an era where the major parties, particularly Labor, are regarded as mainly offering competing brands of managerialism, with founding ideological raison d’être now at best a dim (and usually disavowed) ghostly presence.

Far from retreating into a more allegedly ‘acceptable’ policy framework as demanded by an ideologically narrow political and media discourse, the gutsy Greens at the 2011 NSW state election needed to be a bit more bold overall in arguing for one of the party’s apparently more contentious positions. Rather than dangerous radicals who need to ‘get real’ and give in to forces that will never give them the tick no matter how much they offer to compromise, the Greens on this occasion looked more like an idealistic yet serious and pragmatic party who didn’t quite follow through enough with the full courage of its notable convictions.