Councils battle over Palestine

21 January 2024
Brendan Stanton

As the genocide in Gaza rages, the Palestine Solidarity movement in Australia has proven itself to be the largest and most sustained anti-war movement in decades. We’ve seen massive and consistent weekly marches, historic high school walkouts and disruptive protests of docks, shopping centres and racetracks, alongside many community events.

To date, seven Victorian councils, representing more than one-fifth of the population of Melbourne, have passed motions calling for an end to the onslaught, and community campaigns in several others have motions in the works.

The federal government continues to support Israel. So local councils have emerged as lone government supporters of the Palestinians.

In recent years, councils have increasingly weighed in on broader political issues, including solidarity with Ukraine. But showing this same basic solidarity with Palestinians runs counter to the priorities of Australia’s imperial interests, and political lines have been drawn at each stage.

Socialist councillors in Merri-Bek and Maribyrnong, in Melbourne’s inner north and inner west respectively, kicked off these efforts. They drafted two of the strongest motions to date, which called not only for a ceasefire, but for councils to show solidarity by raising the Palestinian flag and investigating how to participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to cut ties with the belligerent Israeli state. These motions garnered support from socialist, Greens and left-wing independent councillors, and mobilised significant community support.

Both motions faced stiff opposition from Labor councillors and right-wing independents. Objections ranged from councils needing to prioritise “local” issues (such as “trees dropping nuts all over our streets”) to the political arguments that “both sides are at fault” and the implication that genocide is possible only if Jewish people are the victims of it. Nonetheless, activists rallied, community members booed down the cynical opposition, and both historic motions passed.

However, less than 24 hours after the Maribyrnong motion was adopted, Labor and independent councillors drafted a “Motion to Rescind Supporting Peace in Gaza and Palestine”. This was met by community pressure, spearheaded by Victorian Socialists Councillor Jorge Jorquera, and the motion to rescind was itself rescinded before the meeting. Hundreds came to celebrate the raising of the Palestinian flag in front of Maribyrnong Council at the next meeting.

A month later, a similar motion was moved in Darebin council by independent councillor Gaetano Greco with backing from a community group formed by members of the Victorian Socialists and others. So far, they have overcome bureaucratic hurdles ranging from the Greens mayor trying to run out the clock at the meeting (to avoid the motion being discussed) to subsequent motions to bring down the Palestinian flag by wedging other left-wing issues against Palestine. Thanks to concerted community pressure and protests involving hundreds, however, the Palestinian flag still flies over Darebin.

Three outer-suburban, working-class councils also passed motions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. These efforts were punctuated by the biggest rallies in recent memory in Dandenong, Broadmeadows and Werribee, despite those councils being dominated by Labor Party members and right-wing or apolitical independents. If there had been elected socialists within these councils, there’s every indication the motions could have gone even further.

Yarra Council in Melbourne’s inner north-east also passed a contested motion calling for a ceasefire.

Not all efforts have been successful. An early attempt to put a motion at Geelong Council resulted in councillors being gagged from speaking to it by the unelected CEO. In Monash and Shepparton councils, relatively modest motions were voted down.

Community campaigns have been initiated in Banyule, Brimbank, Bendigo, Hobson’s Bay, Melbourne, Melton, Moonee Valley and Whittlesea council areas. A local group is forming even in Glen Eira, where a pro-Israel motion was passed in October and the suspicious firebombing of a Palestinian-owned burger shop prompted local protests in November.

This groundswell shows that even in places where community initiatives haven’t yet taken off, there is likely to be a receptive audience.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in the Palestine solidarity movement in Melbourne. This is not only an opportunity to broaden the base of support for fighting for genuine liberation in Palestine, but also to call out local politicians and lay the basis for rebuilding the anti-imperialist left at every level of society.

Get involved in your local campaign and get in touch with Victorian Socialists’ Palestine Action Group to find out where to get started.

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