Council overwhelms itself on Israel-Hamas conflict

Council overwhelms itself on Israel-Hamas conflict
Sean Car

City of Melbourne councillors spent four hours debating a war taking place on the other side of the world at its February 20 meeting, which expectedly drew usual questions about local government overreach.

While everyone has their views on what the role of local government should be and which “lanes” it should remain in, this latest example of a council veering into foreign affairs should only raise the question around “good governance”.

To Docklands Cr Jamal Hakim, and many other sitting councillors, when it comes to the current war in Gaza, “good governance” is making a statement on behalf of Melburnians affected by the conflict in an effort to preserve our city’s proud multicultural values.

Cr Hakim, who brought the motion to the Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, highlighted that more than 100,000 Palestinians had been killed, injured, or declared missing since the war began.

These numbers, together with the many Israeli civilians who continue to be held hostage by Hamas, are not something that any member of our community, politician or not, can ignore.

As a major international city, Melbourne is home to many people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds, all of whom will be feeling the impacts of this tragic conflict in Gaza differently.

It’s far from the first time the council has formed a position on an international issue either. Only recently it terminated its sister city relationship with St Petersburg amid the war in Ukraine. It’s also called for the release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is a Melbourne resident.

And the conflict in Gaza is sadly having real-world impacts for the people of Melbourne. The rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia is a disgusting and unfortunate reminder of this fact.

The motion on February 20 introduced by Cr Hakim sought to take a stand for the thousands of innocent Palestinians who have lost their lives in the war against Hamas and help give voice to constituents in Melbourne feeling this pain.

 

But while few could disagree Cr Hakim had nothing other than the best of intentions in bringing the debate to Town Hall, it’s also not hard to argue that this process could have, and should have, been handled a lot better.

 

It’s understood Cr Hakim and Lord Mayor Sally Capp had agreed that the City of Melbourne ought to make a statement reflecting the pain being felt on all sides of this conflict in our city, while calling for peace and unity.

Fair enough. And “a statement”, championing peace, while condemning atrocities on both sides issued at the beginning of the meeting before the usual agenda of council business kicked off, perhaps is all it should have been.

But as the Lord Mayor prepared to go on leave amid changing circumstances and further consultation with those groups affected in the community, Cr Hakim took on the responsibility of drafting a motion – one which ultimately made its way onto the meeting’s agenda, inviting media attention, fierce debate and some 200 protestors to rally outside Town Hall.

It was often noted during the debate that the council should be commended for providing a space for people to have their views and feelings heard on this issue. Absolutely. We’re fortunate to live in a city where this is made possible.

As beloved Melburnian and council regular Chris Thrum said during the meeting, “peace be in this room”.

But ultimately, “good governance” is a balance between practicality and pragmatism.

Pragmatism is not shying away from important issues, local or global. It’s having the courage of conviction to do what’s right, and not what’s easy. But the practicality of government is also recognising reality, and the need to deliver real-world outcomes.

While symbolic, all the debate largely achieved was eat up four hours of a council meeting stacked with incredibly important items. These included the Queen Victoria Market southern site development plan, a new homelessness strategy, a developer contributions plan for Fishermans Bend, a neighbourhood planning update, a fair access sport and recreation plan, and a motion on guidelines for the adaptive reuse of city buildings.

Some of those community members who attended the meeting had to wait until after 10pm to have their say on these issues that fall under the auspice of local government, unlike the motion on Gaza which dominated proceedings.

And after close to three-and-a-half hours, Cr Hakim’s motion was ultimately voted down five to five, with Acting Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece using his casting vote to sway the outcome.

Ironically, Cr Reece then put forward an alternative motion, which in his words was “less divisive”. It was unanimously supported.

Despite Cr Hakim saying it didn’t go far enough in calling out the disproportionate response by Israel in its fight against Hamas, he too ultimately voted in favour.

At the end of it all, “good governance” might have recognised the need for clear communication from the outset, which might have helped ensure a similar outcome was achieved via a simple statement read out at the beginning of the meeting.

What transpired was a ridiculously long debate, a whole range of unnecessary security concerns for people attending, and no material impacts on the war in Gaza itself.

In the future, the council would be wise to ensure that all matters relating to foreign affairs, albeit with local significance, go through a more rigorous process to provide for a more efficient outcome.

The power of good governance compels it. •

 

Caption: Acting Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece addresses the media the morning after the debate.

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