Friday, April 22, 2011

Why foreign policy is a matter for local government in a global city...

Note: this post was submitted as an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, so hopefully that explains the style in which it was written. As it happened, Fiona Byrne, the Mayor of Marrickville who was at the centre of this particular debate, wrote her own piece which was published in the Herald instead. I can't imagine why they would have wanted something from the Mayor herself rather than an unknown academic, but there you go...!  Anyways, it's reproduced here because I might as well not waste the work, and I'm sure this blog will soon have a circulation the size of the Herald's... 

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a loud debate in Sydney over Marrickville Council’s potential participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Santions movement against Israel. The debate has drawn attention not only to politics in the Middle East, but also to the role of local government in Sydney.

In arguing against the boycott, its opponents have frequently attacked or derided the notion that a local government should take action on political issues which extend beyond its boundaries – in this case to the other side of the world. Newly-elected NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has told Council in no uncertain terms that the role of local government is to focus on roads, rubbish and rates, and has taken the extraordinary step of threatening to sack the Council if the boycott goes ahead. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce and the Jewish Board of Deputies have also both criticized Council’s involvement in matters of foreign investment and policy. More light-heartedly, a Herald editorial made merry at the prospect of Marrickville Council sending troops to Israel if diplomacy failed.

Whatever the merits of this specific boycott proposal, we should reject the notion that local governments should not action on matters that extend beyond their borders. We live in an increasingly inter-connected and globalised world, and local governments have a vital role to play in helping us to take action on a whole range of issues across a variety of scales.

The very fact that an analysis of the potential costs to Marrickville Council of fully embracing a boycott amounts to $3.7 million reveal that Council is already deeply enmeshed in foreign politics, through its purchasing of goods and services provided by multi-national companies with their various environmental, labour and investment practices. The notion that local governments ought to be concerned about who they contract to provide goods and services for their rate-payers, and that their concerns might extend beyond costs to other issues, is entirely appropriate.

Further, local governments are already acting on a range of policy issues that are fundamentally extra-local. Most recently, Local Agenda 21 has seen local governments around the world take action on climate change where regional and national governments have failed. As Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore points out, while national governments were busy failing to reach any binding decisions in Copenhagen a couple of years ago, the leaders of some of the world’s biggest cities were getting together to agree on the actions they would take to reduce their city’s carbon emissions.

In Sydney, you may also see signs declaring a range of local government areas to be ‘nuclear-free zones’. Such signs are relics of debates that took place some time ago about nuclear energy and weapons technologies. Here again, many local governments decided that even if the Commonwealth and State Governments were not prepared to ban nuclear technologies, they could take action to at least prevent these technologies being placed in their locality.

More recently, during the Howard years when refugees on temporary protection visas were denied rights to work and social security, local governments were frequently forced to pick up the slack and provide services to those who were potentially made destitute by this policy. In Sydney, over 20 local governments (including Marrickville) banded together with the Refugee Council to declare themselves “Refugee Welcome Zones”. Here, in another example of a local ‘foreign policy’, these councils recognized the vital role they played in providing hospitality and services to asylum-seekers and refugees even as Commonwealth policies sent a different message.

Of course, local governments have also been involved in skirmishes with the State Government in recent years over urban planning responsibilities, as the former Labor Government assumed powers in matters that it deemed beyond the remit of local government because of their ‘state significance’. In that dispute, Barry O’Farrell sided with local government, and has recently agreed to repeal the infamous Part 3A provisions enacted by Labor to give some powers back to local governments.

As these issues and others demonstrate, important policy issues are rarely confined to one scale or another of government. Just as Commonwealth policies on issues such as social security and immigration have profoundly local consequences, so too local action on a range of policy matters can ‘scale up’ and have important consequences.

So, whatever the merits of the specific proposal for Marrickville Council to take action in relation to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, its right to take action on matters that extend beyond its borders should not be questioned. In an inter-connected world, local government is just as valid a mechanism as any other for citizens to take action on the full range of issues that concern them.

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