The NSW Greens’ longest serving MP has rejected his party’s support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel.

Ian Cohen, the first Green elected to the NSW parliament, says the boycott issue has undermined the party’s bid to capitalise on voter discontent with Labor.

At the NSW Greens’ state conference in December the party passed a proposal calling for Australians and the Australian Government to support a boycott of Israeli companies, sporting, cultural and academic events because Israel had instituted a system of “apartheid” in the Palestinian territories.

Cohen told Crikey, “No, I don’t support the boycott. I support criticism of Israel. I don’t think it [the boycott] was the right way to go about it at this point in time.”

According to The Greens, the boycott proposal was passed unanimously by local branches across the state. But the rejection of the policy by party elder Cohen — who is retiring at this election after 16 years in the Legislative Council — shows not all the party faithful are on side.

The NSW branch of The Greens is regarded as the most radical in Australia — and the most unpopular with voters. At the last federal election the Greens in NSW gained the lowest senate vote of any state or territory with 10.69%. The latest Newspoll has The Greens winning 12% of the vote on Saturday — down from 17% a month ago.

Cohen said support for the BDS had been a distraction during the campaign and made it harder for the party to get its message out. But he added that this was largely because the media — particularly The Australian‘s state political editor Imre Salusinszky — had overhyped the issue.

“I know Imre well. He’s very pro-Israel and he has continued his campaign through his position at The Australian.”

He said the Greens’ BDS policy was essentially a moot point as they will not have the numbers in parliament to push through a boycott of Israel.

Over the past fortnight Salusinszky — who described the Greens’ support for the boycott as “nutty” — has been involved in a war of words with the Greens’ candidate for Marrickville, Fiona Byrne, with both accusing each other of lying.

Last Tuesday Salusinszky wrote: “Ms Byrne confirmed to The Australian that if, as polls predict, she is successful in Marrickville and becomes the first-ever NSW lower house Greens MP she will seek to extend the Israel boycott across the state.”

Byrne denies telling Salusinszky this. But in February she said: “It’s the NSW Greens policy to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is a global movement. I would suggest that the NSW Greens would be looking to bring that forward at state parliament if we were elected.”

The Labor Party has branded Byrne, the lord mayor of Marrickville,  an “extremist” for supporting Marrickville Council’s decision to boycott Israel. She has also been forced to deny she would push for a boycott of China because of its treatment of Tibetans.

Ian Cohen told Crikey that although he doesn’t support a state-wide boycott of Israel, it was reasonable for councils to join the BDS campaign if they supported it. He said it was similar to past councils declaring themselves nuclear-free.

The long-time conservation campaigner defended his criticism of the Greens earlier in the campaign for not preferencing Labor in the upper house.

“There is a 90% likelihood that [Christian Democrat] Fred Nile, the shooters and the fishers will hold the balance of power with a Coalition government. I’ve taken the position strongly that Greens voters should promote democracy. One of the ways of promoting democracy is not to have a conservative-controlled upper house with a conservative government. It’s not about supporting Labor in itself.”

The Greens’ other strong hope for a lower house seat, Balmain candidate Jamie Parker, said he backs the party’s boycott policy but would not press the issue in parliament.

“It hasn’t registered as an issue in my local electorate,” Parker said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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