Occupy Wall Street Down Under:
A TALE OF TWO CITIES (and countries)
By Eric Williams
Melbourne, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand – 95 people were arrested, over two dozen injured and Australia’s second city shocked, as mounted police moved-in on a band of protesters, numbering roughly about 200 in all. It was the sixth day of a nearly week-long occupation at Melbourne’s City Square city and state officials were determined to break-up.
It was the afternoon of October 21st, a Friday, as police on horseback had surged into the crowd with night sticks flailing, followed by a second wave of cops who used attack dogs and pepper spray when the mass arrests began. Robert Doyle, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, stood at a City Hall window flanked by staff members looking on approvingly. Citizens of Doyle’s city had made their point for six days in the Occupy Melbourne actions, now it was time to move-on….. so was his mantra in the hours and days that followed.
For most Melbournians the action by police to move the protesters out of the City Square was shocking, excessive, and even brutal. Yet Doyle, and later Ted Ballieau, the Premier of Australia’s Victoria state, had justified the actions of police as measured, controlled and professional. What was particularly striking about the actions of elected officials and police in Victoria was the stark contrast in the way how other ‘Occupy’ activists in Sydney and Brisbane were treated. They were allowed to continue their protests without police intervention. But that was soon to change in the two other Australian cities within a week’s time.
One reason for the abrupt decision to move the Occupy Melbourne protesters out of the City Square may have been the visit by Queen Elizabeth, whose long anticipated visit to Australia was already underway. The Queen was attending meetings, ceremonies, and formal affairs in Canberra, the Australian capital, when the Australian Occupy Wall Street spin-offs got started. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were among the large cities the Queen was slated to visit, and it is speculated that officials in all three cities were ordered from on high to ‘clean-up’ the sites where protesters had set-up camp before the British Royal was due to hit town.
In this global recession, Australia is a funny place when compared to the rest of the industrialized world. While calls by the Occupy Melbourne group focused on the issues of reigning-in corporate greed, and greater oversight of the banking industry that mirror those voiced by other ‘Occupy’ movements across the globe, Australians according to recent polls see themselves as somehow insulated. This perception is fed in large part by the success of the country’s mining industry that drives this nation’s economy in ways both seen and unseen. Fuelled by Chinese demand for iron ore and other minerals, the mining industry is an engine in much the same way as the steel industry once was for the U.S. But even with that success, there may well be storm clouds on the economic horizon.
There are pockets of economic discontent inside Australian society that receive some news coverage. At the same time some of the news coverage can be scant, spotty or even marginal. In many quarters it usually takes something dramatic to draw media attention. For example, Baiada Poultry, the largest chicken processing plant in Australia is one such place where worker discontent over both company hiring practices and safety issues is slowly boiling to the surface. In August of this year, Sarel Signh, 36, a company employee was killed instantly when a Baiada Poultry company machine sucked him into a large valve and instantly decapitated him at a company plant just outside of Melbourne.
Then in late October following months of union backed worker slow downs, Alan Joyce, the CEO of Australia’s largest airline, Qantas, ordered a company ‘lock-out’ of his employees. Joyce’s dramatic and abrupt call to shut down the airline was his way stemming the tide of worker slowdowns from baggage handlers and other Qantas employees that he said had cost the company millions of dollars. But his call for a sudden ‘lock out’ also had consequences as it stranded thousands of Qantas customers at airports across Australia, and around the globe.
The Occupy Melbourne group has since moved to Treasury Gardens, a public and green space area that sits south of Victoria’s State Parliament House. There are no tents allowed, let alone a media centre, and one local activist, Alex Ettlinger, had said that the Melbourne group had been threatened with further police action should even one tent be erected. This threat, says Ettlinger, has had a chilling effect on the Occupy Melbourne movement participants in the weeks since the clash with police.
What remains interesting for this writer is the way in which the call for greater scrutiny of the financial industry is played out in the media.
Much could be said about media critics of the Occupy Wall Street spin-offs on Australian shores, like, Chris Berg, the widely respected voice of reason found in The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Or, in contrast, by the Australian Rush Limbaugh-wannabe, Andrew Bolt, whose shrill commentary that there is an absence of specific demands by the protesters should translate into not taking them seriously. Yet, reaction to that stance from both pundits has brought a surprising storm of criticism from both readers of the newspapers that carry their critiques, and the broadcast organs that air their views.
The Rupert Murdock-owned Herald Sun screamed with the headline, MADNESS, as the Occupy Melbourne sit-ins reached a head with the arrest of 95 people. New York Daily News-like photos of the skirmish dominated the first seven pages of the paper. The more sedate broadsheet, THE AGE placed the story on page three, with few photos, and little commentary. While the national newspaper, THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, (also a Murdoch-owned Media organ) quite surprisingly, had no coverage of the dramatic events that took place in Melbourne’s central business district, at all.
In quotes right out of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuiani’s playbook, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, called the protesters “disruptive,” and that the original group of occupiers had been taken over by “professional protesters who were likely to cause trouble in the City Square.” He defended the tough tactics by the state-run Victorian police in clearing the City Square, tactics that have been widely criticized in the public arena.
Despite a virtual mainstream media news blackout of the ‘Occupy Movement’ since the Melbourne police actions, activity continues across Australia. Occupy Perth gatherings, and sit-ins were allowed to proceed without a police crackdown. This is noteworthy in that Perth, a city that to Americans could be likened to San Diego as it is located on Australia’s west coast, is largely a politically conservative metro-area. The same could be said of actions in Adelaide, in South Australia, and in Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, where Occupy Wall Street spin offs continue, although smaller than what is now taking place in Australia’s larger eastern cities.
Across the Tasman Sea, the scene is quite different than in Australia. Elected officials in New Zealand’s largest city have allowed the Occupy Auckland movement to proceed, and even to flourish. A campsite of over 50 tents just outside to City Hall in Auckland’s Central Business District, sit in an adjacent park, and remain in place as of this writing. The site, known as Aotea Square, includes a kitchen area, a meeting tent, and even a fully operational media centre that keeps tabs on similar gatherings across New Zealand. The Occupy Auckland group had been present in Aotea Square for 23 consecutive days without incident.
During a recent visit by this writer, a march along Auckland’s Queen Street, a major thoroughfare in that city was underway one Saturday morning. It was comprised of roughly 100 local residents who had marched peacefully along the way making frequent stops in front of bank offices where short speeches about the bank profits and questionable practices of the various financial institutions were voiced. Some of the marchers blew soap bubbles at the bank offices and at the handful of employees who had to work that day. It was a humorous, yet symbolic display, to what many economists call the hype surrounding financial ‘bubbles’ of ‘runs’ covering the gamut of housing, business and financial bubbles that investors are drawn to. There were no more than two police cars present that had tagged along the march, and the two vehicles quickly disappeared once the marchers had returned to the camp site at City Hall.
New Zealand banks, collectively, announced a fiscal year profit of over $2.6 billion Kiwi dollars just days before my arrival. The activists had said that these profits were derived largely from ‘interest margins,’ or the interest rates generated from the pockets New Zealanders pay in bank interest for the use of credit cards, and other financial transactions. Most of the profit, they said, was later transferred out-of-country and shifted to other financial institutions across the Tasman Sea, most of which is based in Australia. And so, at least from the Kiwi activist viewpoint, such a practice flies in the face of the claim advanced by the banking groups who say their profits help to generate New Zealand jobs.
The practice of shipping money across the Tasman is one that even has officials of New Zealand’s Federal Reserve asking questions. Also important is that this is an election year in New Zealand. John Key, New Zealand’s sitting conservative Prime Minister is in a hotly contested race for re-election against Phil Goff, a Labour Party candidate. Key, who some believe will win re-election , has come under fire from the Occupy Auckland movement for his Wall Street connections, and his policy of privatizing public assets, and his cosy relationship with the business community.
What is also a matter of note, and one issue that is largely unknown to people living in the Americas, or in other parts of the world, is the tensions between Australia and New Zealand. It is largely economic, but fair to liken it to the tensions between, say, Canada and the United States. In this scenario, New Zealand would be Canada, and Australia the U.S.
Since the late 1980’s Kiwis have flocked to Australia in large numbers. In the 1998 financial year 26,000 Kiwis moved across the Tasman to Australia in search of work. Last year that number nearly doubled to 45,000 New Zealanders who left their country for Australia. In the 13 years since 1998 nearly 483,000 Kiwis moved to Australia, essentially joining an estimated more than one million Aussie-Kiwis according to Statistics NZ. These are remarkable numbers when one considers the overall population of New Zealand, roughly just four million citizens. Most, who have left, according to the Auckland-based Sunday New Zealand Herald in a recent article, cannot come home.
“There are so many of us who want to come home,” says Jules Paalvast, whose husband Adrian works in the Australian forestry industry. “It’s just so hard to get (back) there. You just can’t afford things, and the pay isn’t as good,” She added. Her husband earns more than three times the salary of what a Kiwi would earn for the same job. In a recently televised political debate between Key and Goff neither man offered any solutions for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders drawn to ‘Oz’ by higher wages, but who are essentially stuck there unable to return. It is families like the Paalvasts who members of the Occupy Auckland group say they speak for.
The contrast between what had happened in Melbourne on the 21st of October and what continues to take place in Auckland could not be more striking. One government coming down hard against its citizens, while another having a hands-off approach. Yet there are similarities in both message and tactics to the ‘leaderless’ leadership of the Occupy movements in Australia, and New Zealand. In the case of both nations, input from the indigenous communities is noteworthy and significant. In Melbourne noted Aboriginal activist Gary Foley has lent a sympathetic voice to the cause. In Auckland it was Te Ariki-nui Te Kuru Pounmu, a leader of the Maori Wai Taha nation who addressed the crowd at Aotea Square the day I attended that rally.
It is hard to say just where the Occupy movements will go in the coming weeks and months ahead. Members of the Occupy Auckland group handed out leaflets that proudly proclaimed themselves as a “leaderless resistance.” Also, as in the United States a platform of demands elected officials might take to the table to negotiate, are absent. Yet these related global movements inspired partially by the so-called Arab Spring, and by the actions in New York this autumn could very well morph into something very special not seen anywhere in the industrialized world in over 40 years. As the noted New York Radio News Broadcaster, Stan Brooks, might say on all of this, “Stay Tuned.”