|Issue No 105||03 August 2001|
CHOGM: What Should Unions Do?
Activists Peter Murphy and Vince Caughley kick off the debate about what is the appropriate action ot take when CHOGM leaders meet in Brisbane
Protesting or Blockading at CHOGM? - by Peter Murphy
Progressive activists have been told since May 1 that stopping CHOGM is next. There are two strongly competing views about how to protest at CHOGM - shut it down, or make it a forum for protest. There are many reasons put up for protesting at CHOGM, using either tactic. Already, some activists have started to "switch off" CHOGM.
The call to blockade and shut down CHOGM has come from just a few organisations, not by consultation, but by declaration. This is not the way to develop the dynamic of popular protest that made such an impact at S11 against the World Economic Forum. It is likely to demobilise and reduce the numbers that will be involved at CHOGM.
What are the politics and crucial issues behind this rather bewildering barrage of arguments and demands around CHOGM?
CHOGM is a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. The Commonwealth is a body of 54 nations, all but one from the former British Empire, but also including since 1995 Mozambique, a former Portuguese African colony, because of its historic ties with the anti-apartheid struggle. Commonwealth countries have a population of 1.7 billion, or 30% of the world's population.
The Commonwealth is the latest evolution of what was the British Empire. It started as the British Commonwealth of Nations after the Imperial Conference of Westminster in 1926. After national liberation movements successfully fought for de-colonisation, which started in India in 1947, the "British" was dropped in 1949 and republics like India welcomed. In 1971, the Singapore Declaration spelt out the Commonwealth's commitment to improving human rights and seeking racial and economic justice. In 1991, the Harare Declaration spelt out more clearly that democracy and human rights are the basis for Commonwealth membership. However, it was in the Harare Declaration that the language of the neo-liberal TNC agenda started to emerge in the Commonwealth, in parallel with other international institutions influenced by Thatcherism and Reaganism (the Washington Consensus).
The Commonwealth is best understood as something like the United Nations on a smaller scale. It has broad, even amorphous goals, works on the principle of consultation and consensus, and has open processes with non-government organisation involvement. The Commonwealth has no military force, or coercive power apart from suspension and expulsion.
The Commonwealth stays together because Britain wants to maintain its economic, political and cultural influence in a post-Empire context, and because the non-Anglo member nations want the economic support they can obtain from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Commonwealth is a north-south dialogue in motion - hence its continual name changes and the continuing review of its relevance at every CHOGM. Because it is a north-south dialogue where the "northern" member nations want it to continue, the "southern" member states have bargaining power. This is a major reason why the issues of human rights, democracy and development dominate its activities.
The Commonwealth suspends or expels nations which have military coups and non-democratic forms of government. Cases in point are Apartheid South Africa, Ian Smith's Rhodesia, Nigeria under the generals, Fiji after its coups and currently, and Pakistan after its recent military coup. Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe is now a focus of Commonwealth concern.
This is in sharp contrast to the World Economic Forum, which is an organisation of the top 1000 transnational corporations (TNCs); or the WTO, which is an organisation of governments focused on neo-liberal free trade and investment; or the IMF which as an international finance agency dominated by the US Treasury Department to impose TNC interests on vulnerable states; or the World Bank, which is a loan agency for infrastructure projects, run by the US Treasury Department also to promote TNC objectives; or the G8, which is the heads of government of the eight richest nations who meet to coordinate economic policy in the interests of the TNCs of their nations. The WEF, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and the G8 promote the interests of TNCs in expanding profits, and pay no attention to human rights or democracy. The CHOGM Business Forum is a meeting of TNCs, much like the WEF, and is a proper target for concerted anti-corporate globalisation protests.
The "Stop CHOGM" case
Those arguing to blockade the Brisbane CHOGM meeting rest their case on two points:
a) CHOGM is the British Empire in another name, and we must repudiate its legacy of dispossession of indigenous people in Australia and all over the world. It is illegitimate and must be shut down.
b) CHOGM is the same as the WEF, WTO, IMF / World Bank or the G8. It is there to promote the neo-liberal free trade and investment agenda against human rights, democracy and genuine development. At the Brisbane CHOGM, there will be a caucus of governments to force nations to vote for expansion of the General Agreement on Trade in Services at the WTO November Ministerial Meeting in Qatar, and to vote for a new general negotiating round - the "Development Round" - with an expanded agenda compared to the Uruguay Round completed in 1994. Therefore it must be shut down.
Protest but no blockade
On the first point, CHOGM is far removed from the British Empire, and only exists because the former colonies see a value in it. Yes, it is a vestige of the British Empire, but so is the Australian Constitution and the Constitutions of all the Australian state governments. But the people proposing to shut down CHOGM for this reason - the British Empire connection - do not propose to shut down the Queensland Parliament or any parliament in Australia. Why not? Because it is manifest today that these parliaments are based on a democratic vote. The Commonwealth applies the same democratic test to its member states. Indigenous rights are abused in Australia, and in many of the Commonwealth member states - and the CHOGM is the perfect place to protest about these abuses. So why shut it down and deny this international forum as a place to communicate this legitimate protest?
It is only in democratic forums that arguments for human rights and genuine development have got any chance to be advanced. TNCs do not support democratic forums which may regulate or constrain their freedom for the broader social and environmental good. But we should.
On the second point, CHOGM has no standing in the WTO, the WEF, or the IMF / World Bank or the G8. Britain and Canada are the only two Commonwealth members that are members of the G8. Decisions made at CHOGM have no direct bearing on these other forums. Nations which may vote for a resolution on a corporate globalisation issue at CHOGM cannot be bound to vote the same way at Qatar. It is highly unlikely that CHOGM will go to the detail of GATS.
However, the general corporate globalisation case will be pushed by the desperate pro-TNC forces at CHOGM. That is a good reason to protest against corporate globalisation at CHOGM and to support those member nations which want to maintain their opposition to a new round in the WTO, and extended agendas for GATS, the Agreement on Agriculture, and the Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights. But to try to shut down CHOGM would be to try to suppress this vital debate.
It would be much better to raise these issues forcefully in protests in Brisbane during CHOGM to support the member nations which also oppose any further power going to the TNCs. Any clear division of opinion (no consensus) on these corporate globalisation issues at CHOGM will be a victory for people everywhere, and we should do our best to make it possible for opposition to the neo-liberal agenda to be expressed. Therefore, the "shut it down" approach is self-defeating.
There are other reasons to object to the call to "shut it down". The broader progressive movement and beyond us, the public, have had no chance to discuss together the best approach to CHOGM, and so the "shut it down" approach is going to divide the protest movement, and tend to isolate the "shut it down" group who will look like a self-appointed vanguard. It worked at S11; it worked to a lesser extent at M1 - another corporate target, but it is not likely to work at CHOGM - not a corporate target.
There are important issues to raise at CHOGM that will be on the agenda - democracy in Fiji after the Speight coup. The Commonwealth needs to be much more forceful in its support for a return to the Constitution in Fiji, and protests outside about this issue should be supported.
Nigeria is back in the fold at the Commonwealth, but human rights abuses in the Ogoni country and elsewhere in the oil fields continue. Protests about this issue should be made at CHOGM.
In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe is waging a war against his own people to hold onto power. Opposition democratic forces, known as the Movement for Democratic Change, want to raise their issues at CHOGM, and should be assisted to do so. The Commonwealth has been very slow to criticise Mugabe until now.
In Papua New Guinea, the police recently shot students protesting against the IMF / World Bank program to privatise everything and to open up custom land for sale. The Howard government strongly supports that program. This issue must be raised on the streets at CHOGM.
John Howard claims there are no human rights abuses in Australia, despite the local and international criticism of mandatory sentencing, his denial of the Stolen Generations, his Wik amendments to Native Title, his cuts to funding for Aboriginal programs, his abuse of the human rights of asylum seekers, his coddling of One Nation. The Howard government should be exposed before the whole world at CHOGM. This opportunity would be denied by the "shut it down" tactic.
All these arguments are about the politics of the competing approaches to protests at CHOGM. They may be answered by claims that both the "shut it down" and the "protest" approaches can go ahead together. This may be what happens, but if so, it will be because of a lack of genuine dialogue among the protesters, and it will undo the movements which want to protest at CHOGM but not deny the heads of government the right to meet.
Firstly, this will happen because the mainstream media, dominated by neo-liberal interests, will focus on the division among the protesters and work to advance their ideological campaign against the global protest movement. In the CHOGM case, they will have plenty of poor country representatives saying that they want to meet and that their right is being denied, thus echoing George Bush, Peter Costello and others who say the protesters are selfish people denying the benefits of globalisation to the poor of the world.
Second, the security deployed at CHOGM to stop a blockade will also stop any protests in the vicinity of the CHOGM events at South Brisbane. This will make headlines, no doubt, but not about the central issues. Nor will it win the sympathy of the public and grow the broad movement against the TNC agenda.
Peter Murphy, Media Alliance Member, Sydney
From Genoa to CHOGM - Vince Caughley
It is not just the scenes of violence and the death of Carlo Giuliani which is fuelling debate in the aftermath of the Genoa G8 protests. Nor is it simply the fact that Italian police hospitalised 60 unarmed people - many of whom were sleeping - when they raided and smashed up the Independent Media Centre.
The sheer size, the determination and the diversity of anti-capitalist protests have opened up questions about the legitimacy of international bodies - the G8, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund - to decide the fate of the people of the world.
The protests have, for instance, focussed attention on various trade deals currently being drawn up behind closed doors - like the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), a World Trade Organisation agreement designed to phase out all governmental barriers to international trade and commercial competition in the services sector.
And despite the media's obsession with balaclava-wearing anarchists, it is the range of representation among protesters that should give the big powers cause for concern - stretching across trade unionists, debt and genetic campaigners, greens, reds, fringe parties, social and religious movements, and a variety of NGOs.
Significantly, the Genoa events show that trade unions are taking an increasingly active part in the push against the neo-liberal agenda, being spurred along by a surge of international protest.
Weeks before the G8 meeting, a wave of industrial action swept Italy. 300,000 metalworkers marched through the streets while pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers caused chaos in the skies. The marches, dominated by young workers, were incredibly lively and militant. Representatives from the Genoa Social Forum - a key group organising protest activities - spoke at the rallies, inviting the strikers to come to Genoa, and were greeted with an enthusiastic response. Thousands of Italian unionists attended.
In the immediate lead up to the G8 meeting, as European authorities began cracking down on the movements of thousands on their way to Genoa, it was direct union action which helped get activists there. French rail unions, for example, were instrumental in getting 500 peaceful protesters from Britain to Italy after the rail company SCNF had been ordered by the French Minister of Transport to cancel their train.
As the dust settles on Genoa, there is a range of tactical discussions being had about how to take particular protests, issues and demonstrations forward, which is one of the strengths of the movement. Local activists - shocked and inspired by Genoa, and involved in the home grown successes of S11 in Melbourne and the national M1 blockades of Stock Exchange buildings on May Day - are currently engaged in such debate.
Trade unions, of course, have for some time been attempting to grapple with the issues being thrown up by globalisation and the difficulties faced after more than a decade of economic rationalism.
But, as some have strongly hinted previously on Workers On-line, trade union leaderships here should seek to more seriously involve themselves in the debates being had, and openly engage with the growing anti-capitalist movement.
There are two key reasons:
1) The issues being raised by anti-capitalist protests around economic globalisation - free trade, privatisation, labour standards, Third World debt, the environment - are union issues. They are clearly issues that affect the lives of union members. GATS, for example, directly affects the 75% of Australian workers employed in the services sector, not to mention all those who actually require things like health, education, transport, employment or emergency services.
2) There is an obvious need for trade unions to maintain their relevance to not only their current membership, but an upcoming generation of politically aware activists. Unions are the organisations to which millions of people have traditionally looked to protect their living standards. They have been a natural home for many young activists whose involvement has been central to helping unions grow - something certainly worth remembering during a time of serious membership challenges.
The next major stop for anti-capitalism in Australia is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Brisbane in October. There will be thousands of protesters demonstrating around a number of issues - Indigenous rights, global warming and the environment, Refugee rights, homophobia, and the crippling debt being borne by developing nations.
Importantly, many are organising to protest against the forms of trade liberalisation being pushed by CHOGM members - especially developed nations like Britain, Canada and Australia - in the run up to the next WTO meeting in Qatar in November. CHOGM represents 40% of the membership of the World Trade Organisation, and will be debating how to get the WTO agenda back on track since the events of Seattle in 1999.
The Queensland Council of Unions' decision to hold a rally and march around CHOGM is certainly a welcome development. A day before CHOGM convenes, the rally will be an important opportunity to "officially" involve rank and file workers and provide a focus for uniting all the different campaigns. A big march through city streets will gain enormous publicity and help build the actions for the following day.
Here in Sydney, a number of groups and individuals are mobilising for CHOGM. Activists involved in the 5000 strong M1 protests have booked a train to Brisbane to be there for the QCU march, and are already getting a strong response from both protesters and the media. They are seeking support and involvement from a range of organisations, especially NSW unions.
The participation of organised workers is crucial in helping to shape the debates and tactics around globalisation and free trade. The situation demands that the union movement respond more effectively to what is, fundamentally, a subjugation of democratic and social values to the priorities of the free market.
CHOGM represents a fantastic opportunity for union leaderships to help narrow the divide between unions and anti-capitalist activists, to give further strength to what is a vibrant, optimistic and intelligent movement. In the process, there is enormous potential to build strong links among all those who are fighting for a fair and decent world.
Vince Cauglhey is a member of the Australian Services union
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Politics: CHOGM: What Should Unions Do?
Activists Peter Murphy and Vince Caughley kick off the debate about what is the appropriate action ot take when CHOGM leaders meet in Brisbane
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