I recently attended a meet the candidates event sponsored by the Inner West Courier at Marrickville Town Hall. The Liberal candidate, Rosana Tyler, was invited but declined to attend. That was probably wise – it was packed with Labor and Greens supporters, reflecting the voting patterns of the electorate. Fiona Byrne, candidate for the Greens and current Marrickville Council mayor, and Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt, incumbent member (and wife of Anthony Albanese, MP for Grayndler) had a chance to put their case for election. It was pro forma stuff for both politicians, although with Tebbutt showing her substantially greater experience by speaking at length without notes. That experience was also evident during the 90 minutes of questions from the floor that followed, with Tebbutt expertly parrying difficult questions. The questions to Byrne were rarely challenging, partly because she hasn’t been part of a shambolic government, and partly because of the heavy Greens contingent (she got the most interruptive cheers as well, by far).

The only question that went to Byrne’s record was about Marrickville Council’s decision (media release 10 January) in December last year to join the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

It’s generating a mild type of controversy, most of it centred on Byrne despite, as she answered that night, 10 out of 12 councillors voting for the measure. Still, it’s fair that the mayor be held responsible, being both a figurehead and a principal instigator of the policy. Her substantive points – rather than the “it wasn’t just me” defence – are reasonable, but I would contend that they are inadequate. In no particular order:
– the boycott is in keeping with previous actions, like Marrickville council’s boycott of Burmese products;
– the boycott was requested by residents;
– councils are elected to represent the interests of residents, and such interests go beyond basic council responsibilities like rates, roads and rubbish.

The appeal to the previous boycott against Burma only makes sense if Byrne believes it will make the person objecting reveal themselves as inconsistent by saying one was OK and the other was not. But if, like me, it is not the target that matters but the boycott itself, then her argument is irrelevant.

The claim that Marrickville council’s decision was justified because they did what the voters asked of them might seem a straightforward practice of democratic values, but does not stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, after quite extensive research I have been unable to determine how many residents made the request, and the cynic in me thinks that if the number had been substantial then Byrne would be referring to it frequently, and the lack of information points to a small number. Secondly, regardless of how many petitioned the council, it made no attempt to establish what the views of the wider electorate were, and therefore any claim of a democratic mandate is laughable.

The third argument is an interesting one. I’ve seen versions of it used by student unions as well. Let’s assume a majority of residents would support the boycott – does that mean Marrickville council should involve itself in these issues? I don’t think so. That’s not because I think councils are unable to contribute to debate or action on a particular issue beyond their traditional remit. My objection instead rests on identifying the reason for having local councils in the first place: the division of labour is a pervasive principle of social organisation.

By splitting governmental responsibilities between the three tiers, we allow each to specialise, to use processes of information-gathering and decision-making of differing scope and scale, in order to better serve the people. Some activities lend themselves to centralisation, some to decentralisation, and while our current messy system is nowhere near ideal in this respect, that is the rationale for creating councils – local knowledge solving local problems.

Further to that, a question of opportunity costs arises. If Marrickville council is spending time and money joining boycotts against foreign nations, what more relevant work is not being done instead? It’s certainly not the case that they have nothing more to get on with. But let’s not stop there – if Marrickville council is busy boycotting Burma and Israel, what other countries, arguably or patently worse, are being ignored? At what point would the council say “OK, we have to get back to fixing potholes now”, and how would that point not be arbitrary?

I’ll finish by noting that Marrickville council probably didn’t think the boycott through very carefully. The Israeli ambassador has mentioned that it could contravene WTO rules. The Souther Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, a grouping that exists to generate economies of scale in purchasing certain products, would be compromised by Marrickville’s stance. It could be argued that the boycott breaks the law, specifically the Trade Practices Act and the Local Government Act. It all points to a council that is falling short of a acceptable standard of professionalism, acting more like a student union than responsible managers of local affairs.

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10 Responses to BDS is BS

  1. john walker says:

    “acting more like a student union than responsible managers of local affairs.” isnt that the greens all over?…. Though local government attracts all sorts of odd people ; our local shire is full of councilors that want to interminably , circularly, debate all sorts of higher level policy – whilst at the same time having little interest in delivery of water and removal of sewage- — a public position on a council seems to offer comfort to those whose own lives are, privately, pretty ordinary.

  2. TerjeP says:

    Nicely put Jarrah.

  3. Jarrah says:

    ” isnt that the greens all over?”

    They’re all over the shop. Some of their stuff is impeccably long-sighted, or good common sense. Other bits are utopian dreaming or poorly thought out. When it comes to hot-button topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict (or GM food, or nuclear energy, or privatisation, etc) they don’t bother thinking about it, they just react.

  4. MichaelR says:

    I can see that you’ve made some valid points. However, you don’t seem to show any interest in the actual issue – whether Israel should be boycotted. Is this because you don’t think it relevant, or because you disagree with the boycott?

  5. Jarrah says:

    MichaelR, like I said in the post, “it is not the target that matters but the boycott itself” (in this context).

    I have to admit I’d have more sympathy for the BDS if it were more precisely directed at products from illegal settlements in the West Bank, though I still think local councils are not the vehicle for that kind of action. I also think the comparison with apartheid South Africa (made by the BDS movement) is overblown, and in fact detracts from the real issues.

  6. When I was living in London a few years ago, then Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone actually held his own foreign policy conference. Slightly out of scope for a local government, but not even Red Ken thought he had the power to initiate a trade boycott.

    In any event, I reject the right of a government of ANY description to prevent an individual from entering into the free exchange of good and services with another based on their country of residence.

  7. john walker says:

    Jarrah – have heard that the greens did not manage to even win the Newtown booth.
    Is that true?
    The Greens power base for their own stand-over behavior is very thin.

    The long term usefulness of the greens as a bogyman threat : a labor government= left vegan greenie wankers calling the shots, is only creditable as long as labor does not call their bluff, after all what could the greens do—- support a change of government? They (along with Mr Rudd) helped get rid of Mr Turnbull , for which they all deserve a Darwin Award, no?

  8. necklace says:

    The nation of Israel has made a greater contibution to humanity than both the Palestinians and the Greens put together. If this lunatic Mayor wants to truly boycott Israel, here is (partial) list of Jewish contributions that she will have to forfeit:

    Prozac, Valium, The Polio Vaccine, Radiation,Chemotherapy, the Artificial Kidney Dialysis machine, the Defibrillator, the Cardiac Pacemaker, Vaccination against the deadly “Hepatitis B” virus, the Vaccinating Needle, Laser Technology.

    Discount Stores, Pawn Shops, the Shopping Cart and the Ready-to-Wear Clothing Industry. Levi Jeans, Lipstick, the Ballpoint Pen, Contraceptives, Instant Coffee, Television Remote Control, Traffic Lights, Scotchguard, the Flexistraw.

    Google, the Wire Transmission Facsimilie (FAX) , the Microphone, the Gramophone, the Microprocessing Chip, Optical Fiber Cable, Laser, Cellular Technology, the Videotape Recorder.

    Monotheism, Psychoanalysis, the Theory of Relativity, the Weekend (the Sabbath). The Atomic Bomb, the Thermonuclear Bomb, Genetic Engineering, the Nuclear Chain Reactor, Virtual Reality.

    Hollywood, the Sit-Com, the Long Playing Record, Woodstock, Sound Movies, Videotape, Color Television, Instant Photography, Holography.

    Drip Irrigation, Scale Model Electric Trains, the Pager, the Walkie-talkie, Refrigerated Railroad Car, High-vacuum Electron Tubes, the Incandescent Lamp, Kodachrome Film, the Blimp, the Adding Machine, Stainless Steel, Tapered Roller Bearings.

    At least 178 Jews have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 23% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2008. Yet, they only make up 0.25% of the world’s population.

    The Jews have done a lot to improve our quality of life. How does it benefit us to turn them into enemies?

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