Greens councillors in Darebin, a local government area in Melbourne’s north, are being challenged by a grassroots campaign from community members determined to maintain the council’s position of solidarity with Palestine.
Darebin is one of seven councils in Victoria to have become a terrain on which local communities have sought to challenge the political mainstream’s pro-Israel consensus. In a sign of the depth and breadth of the mass politicisation precipitated by Israel’s war on Gaza, local councils have been transformed into sites of political contestation—much more intense than the mechanics of roads, rates and rubbish usually entail. Community activists across the state are pressuring councils to oppose Israel’s genocidal onslaught and forcing councillors to reveal where they stand.
Nowhere have these political fault lines been drawn more sharply than in the supposedly progressive Darebin council. Last November, amid mounting death and destruction wreaked on Gaza by the Israeli military, Darebin councillors resolved to stay quiet. “Their response was, basically, ‘it’s not our problem’”, explains Lachie Challis, a Victorian Socialists member and one of the Darebin locals who subsequently helped establish the activist group Darebin for Palestine.
When Challis and others caught wind of councillors’ plans to pass a mealy-mouthed motion on 18 December that would call for peace but refuse to significantly criticise Israel, they launched a petition demanding that councillors support the “withdrawal of Israel from occupied Palestinian land”, and acknowledge “that the conflict did not begin on 7 October, but with the Israeli occupation of Palestine”. Almost 600 people signed within four days.
This emergent grassroots campaign, however, appeared to have little sway with Greens mayor Susanne Newton, and Greens councillors Tom Hannan and Trent McCarthy. In the December council meeting, Newton tried her best to prevent any discussion on Palestine and the content of a solidarity motion. As Jaan Schild, an anti-Zionist Jew and queer activist present at the meeting, explains: “there’s a time limit on council meetings, and the Greens knew that if they postponed for as long as possible, it would be impossible to have any discussion on Palestine”.
“An image has stuck in my mind from [that] meeting”, Challis told Red Flag—of the Greens mayor who “sat there doing everything possible to block the motion with a ‘no woman is free until every woman is free’ sticker on her laptop. Palestinian women are excluded, I suppose?”.
With support from independent councillor Gaetano Greco, pro-Palestine activists and community members were eventually able to score a victory. Just after 10pm, five minutes before the meeting was set to close, the council voted up a motion supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and committing the council to fly the Palestinian flag indefinitely outside the Preston town hall.
While Darebin for Palestine activists were celebrating, however, movements behind closed doors to revoke the motion and bring down the Palestinian flag began. They came to a head last week.
On 8 January, Darebin councillors convened a last-minute online meeting, from which the public was barred from participating. The urgent motion to be discussed, spearheaded by Greens councillor Tom Hannan, bore the innocuous-sounding title, “Significant Dates for Flying Flags on the Community Flagpole”.
In explaining the motion, Hannan told councillors that “a timeline for taking down the Palestinian flag is required for other flags to be raised and to promote cohesion and inclusion in our community”. The Palestinian flag, he said, had to come down so the council could raise the queer flag for Midsumma Festival and the Aboriginal flag for Invasion Day.
It takes a particularly bankrupt set of politics and a particularly chilling bureaucrat to propose a new flag policy as a matter of urgency in response to community activism against a genocidal bloodbath. “This motion”, Greco rightly quipped in the January meeting, “is contemptuous of what is happening on the ground in Gaza”.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Greens councillor sought to shield his attempt to roll back community support for Palestine under the cover of LGBTIQA+ and Indigenous rights.
“We should not be in a position of having to put one cause against another”, Hannan fretted.
And he is right: the Darebin council has multiple flag poles. It consistently flies the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags outside the town hall. The council could have also voted, as proposed by Greco, to re-raise the Palestinian flag immediately after Invasion Day. It instead voted up Hannan’s motion.
The only ones arbitrarily pitting struggles for social justice against each other were Hannan and his fellow Greens councillors—in opposition to the communities in whose names the Palestinian flag was set to be lowered, and without any consultation. As Darebin for Palestine activists put it in their 11 January press release, “the Darebin community is remaining vigilant against councillors’ craven attempts to pinkwash genocide apologism and wedge Indigenous struggles against settler-colonial violence”.
“The Darebin Greens and other councillors have shown their true colours,” they continued. “They don’t want to take a strong, principled stand against the genocide of the Palestinians, and instead have worked to actively undermine it”.
Many are shocked by these councillors’ political cowardice, as it stands in contrast to stance taken by Greens politicians at a state and federal level. Federal Greens senators Mehreen Faruqi and Janet Rice staged a parliamentary walk-out last November in protest against the federal Labor government’s unflinching support for Israel. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam has spoken at pro-Palestine rallies and thrown her weight behind school students striking for Palestine.
To Challis, the conduct of the Darebin Greens councillors shows they are bereft of “backbone, political convictions, or knowledge of what has been happening in Palestine since before 1948”. To Schild, these councillors embody the contradiction of a party “filled with petty bureaucrats less than willing to follow the lead of their more famous leaders”.
While the Palestinian flag for now remains raised above the Preston town hall—thanks to manoeuvring by Greco and ongoing pressure from activists—the future is unclear. An online-only special council meeting has been called for Monday 22 January, which will likely determine the Darebin council’s stance on this issue. Activists are calling on locals and the broader community to mobilise for a rally this Thursday evening, 18 January, to keep up the pressure on the local council. Another protest is planned for 5pm Monday 22 January outside the town hall.
Join Darebin for Palestine at the protest this Thursday 18 January at 6pm, meeting outside Ged Kearney’s Office, 159 High Street, Preston (details here: https://fb.me/e/8owDpChZx) and the protest on Monday 22 January at 5pm, meeting outside Preston Town Hall (details here: https://fb.me/e/54SqtEYfQ)
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