We have heard a lot from the media this past few weeks about the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) Policy that is being championed by the NSW Greens. The support for the campaign has been blamed for a number of things, such as a lower than expected vote in Marrickville and Balmain in the state election as well as a “split” in the Greens. There is variance of opinion about the BDS policy in the Greens – but it’s hardly news that there is a variance of opinion in an Australian political party. Ask Scott Morrison and Joe Hockey about paying for funeral costs – and Kevin Rudd, Paul Howes and Julia Gillard about carbon prices. The elements of the media that highlight this “split” are the same that have continued to search for ways to “destroy” the Greens, in the case of The Australian, or just wound them, in the case of certain Fairfax journalists who like to raise the socialist menace tag in relation to the Greens. This issue, though, needs context and a solution.
First of all, what is BDS? The actual policy of BDS has been poorly explained by most of the journalists I have read in relation to the policy. BDS is a campaign started by Palestinian activists wanting to highlight the way the Israeli state has ignored international law and continues to oppress Palestinians. It is important to note that it is the Israeli state that is being discussed, not Jews as a diaspora. This is an important distinction ignored by Greg Sheridan, who shamefully claims that BDS is “very close to being downright anti-Semitic”. That’s akin to saying action against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is anti-black. It is also forgotten in the ridiculous graphic at the start of Joe Hildebrand’s satire on the BDS. BDS is not anti-Jew, it’s anti an Israeli government that continues to act outside common decency towards other groups. I would wonder if Jewish artists like Daniel Barenboim would like to be branded “anti-Semitic” for supporting boycotts against Israel. The BDS campaign is a reasonable one, considering how the Israeli state continues to build settlements on Palestinian land, as well as ignoring international requests to negotiate a way of resolving the issues arising in regards treatment of the Palestinian people.
The complex nature of the BDS and the people involved with it overseas is part of the problem the Greens face with trying to promulgate it as official policy. Our media outlets are much too provincial and aggressively parochial to allow for discussion of important international issues. For one, we have people like Andrew Bolt, who never fails to get his boot into the Greens. His blog provides a neat summary of how closed minded the News Limited approach is to issues such as Israel and Palestinian rights. He is willing to quote Sheridan in saying it is “virtually anti-Semitic” and insinuate that Lee Rhiannon, in pushing the BDS, is a communist trying to change the world, as well as quoting from a Labor MP who is a friend. It is fascinating seeing The Australian and Bolt willing to give positive coverage to the ALP – but only when they are kicking at the Greens. The hypocrisies and closed shop nature of the media are shown very clearly at times such as this. Added to this is Joe Hildebrand’s easy target satire about Woody Allen films and this editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald – the only time I have seen a Herald editorial sound like it was written by the writers of the Ben Elton Show. I can’t imagine any of our journalists – from Peter Hartcher to Greg Sheridan – being able to balance a Palestinian perspective on the question of Israel with their generally pro-Israel stance. Nor can we expect much coverage of Daniel Barenboim’s work in regards to the issue – having a Jewish person championing Palestinian rights ruins the neat little picture that we see about Israel. In addition, as Anthony Loewenstein points out – these same media outlets do not print Palestinian voices about their BDS campaign.
This brings us back to the Greens and the adoption of the BDS. The NSW Greens are the ones who have included it as official policy, at least at a State Delegate Council (SDC) level. I was at such a council before the state election and heard arguments from many angles. It has created a lot of discussion and passionate advocacy from many quarters. Opposition from media outlets and pro-Israel groups have created a divergence of approaches. There are a number of Greens who have endured negativity from the media over the years and want to continue with the policy, their resolve strengthened by the negative coverage. The “we will not be bowed” attitude can be seen by many who rail against “Zionist media” and the like (the label “Zionist media” makes me very uncomfortable – it’s not a good label to use for BDS advocates). This would be felt by many in Marrickville at the moment, as it was their influence on that council that led to a chance to put a BDS policy into practice. An act, it must be said, that was also supported by ALP councillors. As David Shoebridge, one of the NSW Green Upper House members, points out, the issue has become a straw man that can be targetted by people who just like to criticise the Greens.
Another approach is to say that it isn’t particularly prudent to pursue foreign policy outcomes like the BDS when the Greens are still forming as a genuine political alternative to the ALP and the Liberals. This is an approach favoured by Bob Brown and Cate Faehrmann, one of the NSW Upper House Greens. Theirs is essential a pragmatic approach, which is outlined by Faehrmann with the argument that the Greens should be focused on the “urgent task of bridging the gap between those who vote Green and those who agree with our values but don’t”.
That brings me back to offering some ideas of my own, speaking as a new Green. One of the main goals for the Greens is to attract people to vote for them for the first time – a goal neatly summed up with “Change your Vote, Not your Values” – a much better slogan than the “Real Change for a Change”, which sounded like a pale version of the Liberal slogan. As a result of this, the Greens need to make the message simple and streamlined in order to make itself appear as a credible alternative, that will be committed to helping Australians achieve a better life. That means that the current Green focus on sustainable jobs, improving public transport, education, health, childcare as well as provide realistic goals for sustainable energy should be the party’s core message. It is that message that was pushed in the Western Suburbs’ Green campaign and has resulted in an increase in the Green vote out here. What perhaps isn’t realised is that there are a number of poorer areas out here that need improved public infrastructure – and the Greens are the only party that overtly offers improvement of them as public entities, as opposed to the public-private solutions of the ALP and private solutions of the Liberals.
In terms of the NSW election for the Lower House, I am not stating that the BDS was a major player in the lower than expected Balmain and Marrickville vote. I wasn’t surprised by the smaller increase of the Green vote in Balmain and Marrickville, simply because people in those areas had already swung to the Greens in 2007 and in the subsequent council elections. The real success of the Green campaign in both seats (and in Penrith) has been to achieve what can be considered to be “rusted on” Greens voters. Where the Greens suffered in the NSW election was in losing voters in places like Toongabbie, where Nathan Rees was preferenced. It was also clear that the ALP spent a lot of money promoting the “local nice person” image of their two candidates, which would have had an impact.
This is not to say, though, that I think the BDS is not a problem for the Greens. I believe that Green core business is currently being muddied by well-meaning, well intentioned policies from areas where the Greens are strong. Policies like the BDS play well to the current Greens in inner city seats who are committed to international social justice. It is a good idea to use council access to make statements about wrongs that are happening elsewhere, raise awareness, educate people. There is, however, a need to have a more pragmatic approach to gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the wider populace and it’s clear that this is not going to happen with the continued commitment to the BDS. The opposition is much too strong to fight, and a continued fight might cost a significant loss of people interested in voting Green for the first time. BDS should not be considered as a policy so important that it damages the party to the extent that is reduces its ability to be a credible alternative. That’s partially because the BDS is an unachievable policy on a State and Federal level in Australia – and always will be.
And, ultimately for the Greens, we need to be focused on the achievables, because there are many of those. If holding back on unachievables like the BDS is needed to maximise the Green vote and hence Green advocacy for the achievables, then that needs to occur.
Addendum. Since I wrote this, two new actions have captured my interest and reframed by perspective on this issue. One is this tweet from Paul Howes, National Secretary of the AWU (@howespaul) – “Taken the family to Max Brenner for no reason than Marrickville Council and Fiona Byrne want us to boycott them”. That, along with Joe Hildebrand’s Woody Allen piece, shows how opponents to the Green agenda will say deliberately ignorant things to attempt to make BDS appear anti-Semitic. Howes’ tweets over the past month have been almost exclusively anti-Green – during the NSW election he made frequent references to Jamie Parker’s previous business interests. Not many anti-Liberal tweets, though.
The other is this opinion piece by Fiona Byrne, where she outlines a pragmatic approach to the BDS – as in, make a statement, but don’t make it cost people. It is best summed up here:
“In this way Marrickville Council can continue to show our support for the Palestinians, while not having a financial burden on ratepayers or affecting the operations of the council”.
If there is something that gets Australians to protest, it’s something that will cost us money. Good to see some pragmatism in the equation in Marrickville.