Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

15th September 2000 - Poses and Protests

Copyright © 2000 Russell Brown

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you don't have to be out of the country for long to make the news seem strange on your return. A day will usually do it. After three days this week, the headlines on the plane on the way back seemed positively bizarre.

As part of an elaborate exercise in striking poses, the Parliamentary National Party this week declared it would refuse to vote in favour of an economic partnership with Singapore on the basis that the document contained a provision for the Treaty of Waitangi. The odd thing was that not only the agreement but the Treaty clause had been drawn up by National when it was in power.

To adapt a phrase from the Act Party - it's not as if they actually mean it when they use it, after all - it was politics not principles. Jenny Shipley got the nudge from the party godfathers - Bolger and Birch - to sort it out.

As it happened, National's pose-striking fitted in nicely with that of the Alliance and the Greens. So, in a faintly comical arrangement, National will support the partnership in principle, but oppose the Treaty clause, while the Alliance and the Greens will oppose the partnership but support the Treaty clause. The Singaporeans must be wondering what on earth it's all about.

Further comedy is forthcoming most weeks, of course, from the Herald's editorial column. How dreadful, wailed one leader this week, that Nandor Tanzcos and Sue Bradford had joined the protests outside Melbourne's Crown Casino. Why? It's not as if they're part of the government. And it's reasonable to assume that Green voters actually wanted them there.

No, the Herald's response was all about a great, big economy-size cringe. It was so awful, the paper said, because CNN had interviewed Bradford and identified her as a Green MP from New Zealand. Well, big deal. Do we regard Green MPs anywhere else as spokespeople for their countries? And can't we get over worrying what people in other, much-more-important-than-us countries might think about us?

I personally had no problem at all with the pair of them being present for the protest actions. I don't think being elected to office precludes anyone from taking to the streets. But I wasn't terribly impressed by the protests themselves.

There's a self-righteousness about S11 - the group that organised the protests, such as the protests were actually organised - that annoys me. It sets out with a strategy of physically intervening to "shut down" the World Economic Forum and then acts shocked and surprised when people get hurt.

The actions of the Melbourne police on the second day of the forum were wrong. They had been ordered by Steve Bracks, the Labour Premier of Victoria, to ensure that all delegates could gain entry on the second day, and, as police sometimes do in the face of a crowd, they crossed the boundary. People got hurt.

Bracks later told the press the police had used the least possible force necessary to ensure order. This certainly did not appear to be true.

But the day before, a democratically elected leader - the Premier of Western Australia - was trapped in his car for an hour while it was vandalised by a mob. The attackers reportedly ignored the pleas of a union official and a Green MP for them to back off. An ambulance driver - of all people - was roughed up and had his keys stolen. But both incidents were ignored by the W11 spokespeople, who were nonetheless keen to claim that they had "won", as if it were some sort of competition.

Perhaps it was a competition: one in which each side, the premier and the protest leaders, vied to see who could go further into denial.

In its official communications W11 pillories the World Economic Forum for being unelected and unaccountable. This rather ignores the fact that a good many of those S11 tried to prevent from attending the forum actually have been democratically elected by their own people. Should 5000 protestors be allowed to impede the movements of people who carry, in some cases, the mandate of millions of voters? Should they be allowed to prevent journalists reporting on an event? Would the same actions be tolerable if they were carried out by, say, the One Nation Party?

S11 itself is, strictly speaking, neither democratic or accountable. It operates on a viral model under which groups and individuals can affiliate and share resources on their own terms, with little in the way of hierarchy. This is a powerful and inclusive way to organise, especially in the era of the Internet. Unfortunately, it is also a very difficult model from which to generate any useful or positive consensus.

S11 was built around negative consensus - beginning with the belief that the WEF forum had to be "shut down". Its organisers actually declined an invitation to speak about their beliefs inside the forum. If you visit S11's Website, you'll discover it's against big corporations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and economic policies that create environmental and labour rights abuses. What it's for in any concrete sense is a little more elusive.

Hands up, for instance, who thinks it's a good idea that American farmers can dump genetically engineered soybeans in Asia at better than a 100% subsidy from their government? Roping in the rich countries by getting agriculture into the World Trade Organisation treaties is our only viable way of preventing that.

It was the rich countries, on the other hand, that wanted to build in basic labour rights and conditions to the same WTO round. That was furiously resisted by the third world governments that see a lack of employment rights as their competitive advantage. You may wish to ponder on the fact that that's where New Zealand's parties of the right want to see us.

The simple fact is that some form of globalisation is upon us already. The same interconnectedness that allows the initiative of protest to flow from Seattle to Sydney to Prague also permits and implies the flow of commerce. If free trade isn't the answer then what are the alternatives? Nothing that came out of Melbourne this week shed any light at all.

The difference was shown this week when the S11 spokespeople announced that they'd be heading for Sydney next to join protests being planned for the Olympics by Australia's indigenous people. Rather arrogantly, they hadn't thought to ask first - and the indigenous protestors, who had everything to lose in their chance to embarrass their government and the sad little man who heads it - told them to piss off.

If I'm more than a little bit over the protestors themselves, then I'm quite taken with what might be called the protest media, and Indymedia in particular. These people appear to understand that the way to bring down Bill Gates is not to burn his effigy in the street but to refuse to use his software.

While Australia's newspapers are doing a magnificent job of covering the upside of the Olympics, the likes of Indymedia have highlighted the hypocrisy. This is a good thing.

Yet having spent the first three days of the week in Sydney, I can only wish I'd been able to stay longer. The city looks great, the weather is brilliant and Sydney felt to me as if it was poised on the edge of something great. I talked to a couple of old blokes on the train, who, in their bright shirts and hats, were among the thousands of Australians who have volunteered for Olympic duty. I couldn't help feeling their excitement and their pride.

For all the drug cheating that won't be detected and the corruption and graft that pervades the IOC, Olympics are still a good thing. I deeply admire the commitment that gets an athlete there. I'll watch a lot of TV for the next two weeks. I'll cheer for our people - especially Mark Todd, just to stick it up the wowsers, and Toni Hodgkinson because, well, she's such a babe.

It appears that a load of documents likely to embarrass members of the IOC and the unrepentant fascist who runs it will be released by a US court while the games are on. I hope so. Far from spoiling things, I think that would cap it off nicely for Samaranch and his chums to be tipped off the gravy train at their very own station


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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