Council foreign forays face axe

A NSW Coalition government plans to take action against councils on Sydney's "inner west bank" that dabble in foreign policy by pursuing boycotts against Israel.

Opposition local government spokesman Chris Hartcher told The Australian yesterday that, if the Coalition won government, he would use his discretionary powers to "call councils to account" over the issue.

His comments came as a storm of controversy developed around Greens candidate Fiona Byrne, who is favoured to oust NSW Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt from the inner-west Sydney seat of Marrickville on Saturday.

In January, Ms Byrne, as Mayor of Marrickville, supported a wide-ranging boycott of Israel. She has been unable to explain the discrepancy between recorded comments in February, in which she said she intended to push for a statewide boycott, and her statement last week on the Greens website denying she vowed to introduce the ban.

Ms Byrne said in February: "I would suggest that the NSW Greens would be looking to bring (a boycott) forward at state parliament if we were elected."

Federal Greens leader Bob Brown stood by Ms Byrne yesterday, as she faced mounting criticism from supporters of Ms Tebbutt and voters on the streets of Marrickville.

Senator Brown dismissed the controversy as "a bit of a spat between a journalist and a candidate for the state parliament who's doing extremely well".

Ms Byrne did not retract her accusations that The Australian's original report on the story was "misleading", "factually incorrect" and a "misrepresentation". "I did not say I would introduce the boycott and divestment strategy," she said yesterday. "The meaning of my statement at the press conference in February was unclear, and has been misinterpreted."

Asked in a farcical ABC radio interview yesterday why she had changed her position, Ms Byrne replied five times: "I have no plan or intention to introduce the global boycott and divestment strategy in state parliament."

Mr Hartcher said the role of local councils was to deliver services to ratepayers. "Australia's foreign policy is a matter for the federal government and not a matter upon which local councils should be spending ratepayers' money," he said.

"We will not tolerate it. Our estimates are that Marrickville council spent up to $40,000 in officers' time in developing this anti-Israel policy and we regard that as outside their statutory function. "If we are elected on Saturday, Marrickville council can expect close scrutiny."

Mr Hartcher's views reflected those of voters on the streets of Marrickville. "It's not the council's territory," said Avril Rimes, a Labor voter who is considering voting Green. "It can only be divisive here in the local community."

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies President Yair Miller said that if Green MPs pushed for a boycott across the state they would have to explain to taxpayers "why NSW would not be getting access to cost-effective . . . Israeli-made products currently used in NSW".


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