Did the Greens’ stance on Israel cost them lower house seats in the NSW election? Antony Loewenstein talks to key Greens about BDS and dirty politics
“I mean they just never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” That’s what NSW ALP campaign spokesperson Luke Foley had to say about the Greens’ performance to Mark Colvin on ABC Radio on Monday. This, after playing a key role in the biggest electoral defeat in Australian political history. With the credibility of the ALP at an all-time low, it’s hard to understand why Foley was called on to comment on the performance of another party. Given the extent of Labor’s drubbing, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand why tired ALP figures are so ready to point the finger at the Greens. But do their criticisms hold any weight?
The Greens were sitting on 44 per cent of the primary vote in Marrickville according to a Galaxy poll two weeks out from the election, but come polling day they ended up with just 35.1. One of the key issues in the Marrickville campaign was the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel supported by Greens candidate and mayor Fiona Byrne in Marrickville Council — and the ferocious response to it in the final weeks of the campaign.
New Matilda has spoken to key members of the NSW Greens to determine what went wrong and what went right — and to consider the real electoral effect of the NSW Greens embracing the BDS campaign.
First some buried facts: The NSW Greens increased their statewide vote on the 2007 election by 2 per cent. Byrne helped drive a 7 per cent swing against a popular sitting member, Labor’s Carmel Tebbutt. The Greens’ Balmain candidate Jamie Parker may yet unseat a former NSW Labor front-bencher.
NSW Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon acknowledged to New Matilda that the Greens could have explained BDS better both internally and externally:
“Months before the election we needed to explain why the Greens backed BDS and we needed to work closer with our allies on BDS; academics, the Arab community and social justice movements in Sydney and Melbourne. Collectively we didn’t do enough to amplify support for BDS and show that this is part of an international movement.”
Rhiannon argues that the largely decentralised nature of the Greens campaigns is both an advantage and disadvantage. “It sometimes allows us to win seats, but hard to get a united position on issues.” Too many Greens believed the pre-election hype that two lower house seats were in the bag, she said, pointing to the Galaxy-Daily Telegraph poll in mid-March that showed a massive win for Byrne in Marrickville.
“Too many Greens became over-optimistic”, Rhiannon told New Matilda. “[Liberal leader] Barry O’Farrell was always careful to say he wouldn’t win. Australians like the underdog and Greens didn’t say we were the underdog. It’s better if you’re realistic not idealistic as we know how dirty ALP fights in the end.”
Galaxy Polling head David Briggs told New Matilda that he stands by the accuracy of the poll that found 44 per cent primary vote going to Byrne. He thinks that the Greens failed to take the seat due to a combination of anti-Greens coverage in the media, an ALP and Liberal policy of “vilification” against Byrne and decline in backing for the Greens in the last days before the poll.
Tebbutt was able to portray herself almost as an independent, Briggs said, rather than as a key member of the Labor Party. He argues that it’s quite possible the disastrous poll for Labor in mid-March galvanised the ALP to direct a huge amount of resources to Marrickville to save the seat.
For Rhiannon, one of the saddest sights of the election was the ALP Left, “who call themselves the conscience of the party, driving this attack on the Greens over BDS. Anthony Albanese and Luke Foley ran a sophisticated campaign through the media to discredit the Greens. This is a party who has sometimes worked closely with the Palestinians — but in this case it was a bankrupt move for political reasons.”
Greens MLC David Shoebridge told New Matilda that he wouldn’t go into detail about the party’s campaign but questions why ALP figure Luke Foley is given credibility as a commentator on the Greens vote “when he has been the core spokesman for the ALP’s greatest political defeat in Australian history. Foley wants the post election narrative to be about the Greens performance instead of his own role in the ALP disaster.” (Foley refused to comment for this article, questioning my independence in an email exchange.)
“There are no institutional interests in wanting the Greens to succeed”, Shoebridge said. “Almost all institutional interests are challenged at either the state or federal level, such as the Catholic Church, mainstream media, private schools and the mining lobby. It’s no wonder that major media outlets are able to find people to push that critique. It’s in their interests to have the ALP to continue state dominance, despite all its grossly anti-democratic policies.”
The Greens faced the difficult task of struggling for traction in a state that was desperate to get rid of the Labor Party. “75 per cent of NSW people wanted to wake up on Sunday morning with a different government”, Shoebridge said. “It was anti-ALP, which meant the Liberals, which made it difficult to get people to vote Greens. What was seen as the best way for people to get rid of the ALP? Vote Liberal.”
The real effect of BDS on the Marrickville and Balmain campaigns is impossible to determine but just retired Greens MLC Ian Cohen told New Matilda that he thinks it was a major factor, a position he’s held, with various degrees of consistency, for some time. He’s opposed to BDS, believes it unfairly targets Israel and ignores other gross human rights abuses across the world:
“Many pro-Israel people worried about the lack of consistency and this included Greens members. Nothing was said about dictatorships in the Arab world from the Greens … I believe there is a huge scope for criticism of Israeli behaviour against the Palestinian people but BDS for the Greens was an old style, in the trenches method of pushing a campaign. It wasn’t properly assessed how it would affect the NSW election campaign. The Jewish community outrage had a significant impact on our candidates.”
The Greens are now examining possible legal action against writers who have potentially defamed members as anti-Semitic .(News Limited’s Andrew Bolt is one of the worst offenders.)
Jamie Parker revealed to New Matilda the extent of the hatred directed at him during the campaign due to the Greens BDS policy. He had countless letters sent to him calling him a Nazi and Jew hater. His car was vandalised and campaign signs spray-painted with swastikas. He received death threats and some abusers said they knew where he lived. “One letter said I wanted to turn Balmain power station into a gas chamber and the light rail would take people there”, Parker tells me. “Lefty Jews told me that you can’t be surprised if extreme people do extreme things but they wouldn’t come out in public and condemn it.” He was appalled.
When the Murdoch press editor David Penberthy wrote that, “[Fiona] Byrne’s been busy advocating a polite modern rendering of Kristallnacht in the Inner West”, Parker hoped progressive Jews he knew would condemn the offensive comparison. They did not. “These Jews provide cover for extreme actions if they occur. If there’s a sniff of you being critical of Israel, such Jews will attack you and cut you loose.” BDS simply made many Jewish people unreasonable and extremely upset, Jews told Parker.
Parker says that the reaction of the Zionist lobby and local Jewish community during the election has revealed that they are willing to allow smears and violent actions against the Greens. Parker, who has spent years working on collaborative projects between local Jews and Palestinians, is now fed up with what he sees as Jewish silence. Local Jewish leaders have contacted him since Saturday to try and repair the damage but they still refuse to apologise for aggressive Jewish behaviour.
This is reminiscent of a current trend seen in Europe, with the far-right and anti-immigration parties visiting Israel and praising her achievements at fighting the supposed Muslim hordes. The Zionist lobby and mainstream Jewish community remains largely silent because such hateful figures, traditionally from the anti-Semitic fringes, are embracing Israeli government policies.
“Greens have a lot to learn when our political opponents and the Murdoch press are working together to attack us”, says David Shoebridge. The Greens “should learn what it means to be playing for-keeps politics. We constructed a campaign on positive messages and positive vision … but in fact history says that negative campaigning will win in the last weeks of campaign. It’s hard for a positive campaign to respond to a gloves-off campaign but we need to learn that without compromising our principles.”