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The Greens should hang tough to prosper at democracy crunch-time

By Hamish Ford - posted Thursday, 28 April 2011

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Marrickville Council vote, after a three hour debate, to rescind its support for the international BDS campaign (originally enacted with a Greens-initiated 10-2 majority vote in December) marks a significant moment for both politics and democracy within NSW and Australia.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 argument 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 neighborhood, 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 in this case clearly apparent views on the matter held by the actual subjects of such hand-on-heart concern are apparently of no import whatsoever.)

What right do the Liberal Party, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, both liberal and conservative Jewish opinion and lobby groups, federal ALP backbenchers and former Labor councilors 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 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 viscous 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% in the Legislative Assembly and 2% in the Legislative Council. This amounts to roughly a 20% increase on the party's 2007 state election result, and more than double the swing. Far from a failure then.

Prescient principles – shaky execution

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About the Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle.

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