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.