Marrickville council abandons support for BDS campaign

By Doug Lorimer

After a rowdy three-hour meeting attended by about 70 banner-wielding observers, the 12-member Marrickville municipal council in Sydney’s inner-west voted on April 19 to rescind a motion originally adopted by 10-2 on December 14 to support the international campaign to boycott, sanctions and disinvestment (BDS) of Israel. The council passed a motion ― with the support of three Greens, four Labor and two independent councillors —that resolved not to pursue the BDS “in any form”.

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid campaign of boycott and disinvestment campaign, the BDS campaign was initiated in 2005 by a broad range of Palestinian “civil society” organisations as a non-violent means of putting pressure on Israel to end its military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The international BDS campaign has gained support from an increasing number of municipal governments in Europe.

On February 2, for example, Tower Hamlets council in London became the sixth UK local government authority to exclude the French-owned Veolia company from procurement contracts for its complicity in Israeli violations of international law. Veolia is involved in the building and operation of a new tramway linking illegal Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem with Israel. Veolia also operates bus services for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, running between the illegal settlements and Israel.

On December 7, the NSW Greens state council unanimously approved a motion calling “upon all Australians and the Australian government to boycott Israeli goods, trading and military arrangements, and sporting, cultural and academic events as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory”.

The Marrickville council’s pro-
BDS motion was moved by Greens Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne, and was supported by the five Greens councilors, all four Labor councilors and 1 independent. The motion committed the Marrickville municipal government to examine “any links” it had “with organisations or companies that support or profit from the Israeli military occupation of Palestine with a view to the council divesting from such links and imposing a boycott on any future such links or goods purchases”.
A subsequent report prepared by council staff claimed that implementation of this policy would cost local ratepayers at least $3.7 million by requiring the council to boycott Hewlett Packard computers, Holden and Volvo cars, and telephones and other equipment from Motorola.

However, Palestine solidarity activists refuted the argument that the adoption of the motion would in any way financially burden Marrickville residents. In an April 18 letter to Marrickville councilors the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) noted BDS was “not a blunt instrument, but rather an adaptable, nuanced and creative framework for action”. The BNC noted that supporting BDS “does not require the implementation of an immediate, sweeping boycott of all companies that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law” pointing out that councils which had already adopted BDS were implementing it in a nuanced way, which was sensitive to the local political context and practical restraints. As a result, “far from being expensive, implementing the boycott need not cost much at all”.

Byrne observed during the April 19 debate that following its decision to support the BDS campaign, the Marrickville council had been smashed “like an egg” by a figurative sledgehammer. The council’s pro-BDS decision was subjected to a barrage of fierce attacks by the corporate media, led by the Murdoch press, and by Labor and Coalition politicians, including foreign minister Kevin Rudd, who described it as “nuts” and “dangerous”. On March 23, Labor and Coalition senators united to pass a motion condemning the Marrickville council’s support for the BDS campaign. Then, on April 15 newly elected Coalition NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell threatened to sack the elected Marrickville council and replace it with an administrator, if it didn’t abandon its support for the BDS campaign.

The NSW Greens’ support for the BDS campaign was also criticised by federal Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, who stated on April 1: “The NSW Greens have taken to having their own shade of foreign policy — that's up to them. It was a mistake.” In an April 2 interview with the ABC TV1’s Lateline program, Brown said it was his advice to the NSW Greens that they leave “national matters to the national arena, and that includes foreign policy”. Asked if he supported the NSW Greens pro-BDS policy, Brown answered, “No, I don’t”, and that it had been “rejected by the Australian Greens council last year”. He said that the Australian Greens recognised the right to sovereignty of both Israel and Palestinian territories.

Brown claimed that the NSW Greens’ support for the BDS campaign was damaging to the Greens NSW March 24 election campaign and “the hate media was able to play this issue up”. While it was widely predicted that the Greens would win the lower house state seats of Marrickville and Balmain, Fiona Byrne failed to win Marrickville. After the distribution of preferences on April 2, the NSW electoral commission declared that Jamie Parker, the Greens candidate and mayor of Leichhardt council had won Balmain, and the Greens picked up the last upper house seat, denying it to Pauline Hansen.

The attacks on Marrickville Council and the BDS campaign by the corporate media and politicians, however, have also led to increased support for BDS at a grassroots level in Sydney and around the country with supporters of human rights and Palestinian self-determination contacting the Marrickville councilors in support of the December boycott motion. Marrickville Council also received letters of support from Israeli activists from Boycott!, an Israeli campaign which supports the Palestinian boycott call from within Israel.

Council members also received a letter of support, congratulating them for passing the original December motion in support of BDS, signed by more than 21 prominent academic, political and cultural figures, including journalist John Pilger, renowned film maker Ken Loach, Ronnie Kasrils, a former South African government minister, Naomi Klein and Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein. The letter was also signed by the South African Municipal Workers Union and the Congress of South African Trade Unions led Coalition for a Free Palestine. The letter from the prominent figures pointed out that the smear campaign against Marrickville Council by “some defenders of Israel’s occupation and racial discrimination system” and the argument that it would be costly and difficult for the Council to implement its BDS policy was “little more than a cynical diversion by those who wish to protect Israel from being held accountable for its gross violations of international law”.