The first week of a new Senate has just passed, with nine Green Senators, and much media attention on the “balance of power” and the “new political era”.
And it was a crowded agenda before the winter recess with issues like climate change and treatment of animals in live exports taking up the focus among other issues. But one issue, which the Greens assisted in throwing overboard, was the Greek blockade of the Gaza peace flotilla, and the plight of the Palestinians - in the context of a parliamentary attack on the BDS position of the NSW Greens and Marrickville Council. Unlike Indonesia-bound cattle, the plight of the Palestinians barely rated.
The principal attack, in the form of a National/Liberal motion in the Senate (supported by Labor) provided an opportunity for the Greens to show some concern for the blockading of the Gaza flotilla (involving a number of Australian activists, among them former NSW Green MLC Sylvia Hale). After all this outrageous Greek government piracy (under pressure from Israel and its Western allies) was an urgent human rights issue of the moment, occurring as the new the Senate met, with no further opportunity to raise this in the parliament until after the winter recess. Even if the Liberals hadn’t delivered up an opportunity to raise this, the Greens could have found a way to highlight it. But as it was, they bunked off from the opportunity that was presented, effectively conspiring with Liberal and Labor to shut down debate on the Palestinian issue.
Here’s how it happened (July 5 Hansard p 38).
Queensland Nationals’ Senator Ron Boswell moved the following resolution to attempt to embarrass The Greens in the light of the debate over Israel and the BDS:
That the Senate –
(a) condemns the boycott of Israel instigated by Marrickville Council – part of the Global Boycott Divestments and Sanctions – banning any links with Israel organisations or organisations that support Israel and prohibiting any academic, government, sporting or cultural exchanges with Israel;
(b) acknowledges that Israel is a legitimate and democratic state and a good friend of Australia; and
(c) denounces the Israel boycott by Marrickville Council and others, and condemns any expansion of it.
Bob Brown, on the behalf of the Greens responded with an amendment that would have effectively replaced the motion with this:
That the Senate recognises the rights of the people of Palestine and Israel to live together as self-governing states based on the 1967 borders.
That was it. Brown made no attempt to explain the amendment (though there did appear to be Senate procedural restrictions on debating the issue – an appalling thing in itself).
Even so, if we set aside the bald “two-state” solution presented by Brown (it is Greens policy, though contested as the only possible solution to the conflict), his amendment could have said a lot more about the plight of the Palestinians and offered support to the Gaza Peace flotilla. This could have been followed up by public statements outside the Senate, and press releases on the Greens website. Alternatively, the Green Senators could have made use of other parliamentary procedures during the week such as adjournment motions or “matters of public interest”. One Liberal Senator used this latter procedure (July 6 Hansard p 30) to mount an attack on the BDS campaign. As it turns out the Green Senators chose to say nothing, either in the Senate or later outside. It was left to Independent Senator Nick Xenophon to express some support for the Palestinians in his amendment, which would have retained the original Boswell motion (which Xenophon voted for) but added:
(i) the detrimental effect of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade in Gaza on the Palestinian people living in Gaza, and
(ii) that Australia is a good friend of the Palestinian territories and its people.
Xenephon sought, and was granted, leave to speak to his amendment, something that Brown didn’t do. Both Brown’s and Xenophon’s amendments went down, with the Greens voting for both, and then voting against Boswell’s original (well at least that was something!).
That Labor lined up behind the Liberals, effectively endorsing the implicit racial prejudice behind the resolution (especially with the rejection of Xenophon’s proposed reference to Australia as a “good friend” of the Palestinian people), is shamefully predictable. But the new Green caucus didn’t come out of this looking much better.
Of course it would have been great if Green Senators had taken the opportunity to defend the BDS, or at least the right of elements of the Greens to advocate it, but even setting this aside in the light of the unresolved debate within the Greens, the opportunity to rally support for the Gaza flotilla and highlight Israel’s occupation was not taken up. The simple restatement of the two-state solution asserted the false symmetry that obscures the reality of the power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians and masks the “inconvenient truth” of the brutality of Israeli occupation and dispossession.
It would be interesting to know about the debate in the Green party room and the dynamics of the relationships between Green senators as far as this issue is concerned, given that some Green Senators have good track records in advocating on behalf of the Palestinian people. Lee Rhiannon for example has been outspoken in her support for the Gaza flotilla. There may have been an argument that the Greens should not rise to the bait of Coalition, and Labor, determination to use the parliament to wedge the Greens on the Israel-Palestine question (there were also attacks by a Liberal and Labor MP on Bob Brown and Lee Rhiannon in the House of Representative - Hansard July 4 - though also an extraordinary speech over the health impacts of the Israeli blockade and occupation on the Palestinian women of Gaza and the West Bank by Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou). Nonetheless, the need to give urgent support to the Gaza flotilla activists, and an ongoing voice to the Palestinian people, during this crucial, four-day parliamentary window, required that the Green caucus show courage and rise to the occasion. Instead it was paralysed and silent.
This sadly seems to be a result of the Green Fear and the pall of silence descending on the Greens, in the aftermath of the recent savage McCarthyite campaign against NSW Greens and the BDS policy. In the Victorian Greens, which is leading the charge against NSW on the BDS question, the issue is being dealt with as a procedural matter relating to toeing the federal policy line. Victorian Greens are paranoid about debating the issue itself. In my own local branch (great people and hard-working Green activists) it was made quite clear that a proposal by me that Vic Greens organise a membership seminar, with speakers for and against, to debate the substance of the BDS issue, would not be supported.
In the Senate, this episode also highlights a danger for the Greens as the caucus expands and encompasses a wide range of opinions, the BDS and Israel being one of the more contentious issues. This is the danger that the Greens will replicate the caucus cretinism of the Labor Party where all debate is stitched up and closed down behind party room doors. Labor Senator Doug Cameron highlighted the impact on the ALP of its strict caucus rules, creating MPs who functioned like “zombies”.
The Green rank-and-file need to make it clear to elected Green representatives that they are not to go down this path. The rights, and responsibilities, of MPs and Senators to get up in the parliament and advocate differing points of view, representing the different Green party tendencies, must be asserted, even if this affronts the political and media establishments’ (and certain Green leaders’) notions of how “united”, “sensible” and “constructive” mainstream parties should behave. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine question and issues like the BDS, there will be other opportunities. We have the right to expect that Senators overcome the Green Fear and use the Senate platform to speak out.