Australia: APEC talk shop achieves nothing

Thousands rally despite crack down on civil liberties

As the Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation (APEC) forum wound up in Sydney, John Howard was trying to spruik its success. The reality is however, that no significant decisions came out of this meeting of world capitalist leaders.

APEC talk shop achieves nothing

The Summit concluded with nothing more than a statement that called for a "rapid conclusion" to the world trade liberalisation talks, known as the Doha Round. These talks have dragged on for more than six years and there is little hope that they will draw to a conclusion soon.

The two main stumbling blocks in these talks are agricultural subsidies to farmers in Europe, the US and Japan, and industrial tariffs in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. The reason for the stalling of the Doha Round is the inter-imperialist rivalries that exist between major economies, particularly between China and the US.

The other major item on the APEC agenda was climate change. But the APEC leaders were only able to agree "in principle" on the need for action to tackle this issue. The world’s two biggest polluters, China and the US, were among the nations that signed the statement of "aspirational" goal to restrain the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. But whilst John Howard called it "a very important milestone" the reality is that this is nothing more than empty words.

The ’Great wall of Sydney’

The more significant thing to come out of events surrounding APEC was the massive security operation that was staged to keep protesters away. Among other things special zones were declared that gave police extra powers to stop people entering. The state will attempt to use this operation as a precedent for other demonstrations in the future. Not just for anti-capitalist demonstrations but also against trade union activities in the years to come. The A$600,000 (US$ 490,000) water cannon that was paraded at the event will definitely be seen on future demonstrations and even on picket lines.

The entire APEC summit was held not only behind closed doors but behind a 5 kilometre security fence. The fence was dubbed the ’Great Wall of Sydney’ and cut off a huge section of the Sydney CBD from the rest of the world. It is estimated that A$200 million (US$ 136 million) was spent on the entire security operation.

The police and the government ran an intense campaign to try to convince the public that the measures were needed to keep ’violent protesters’ away from the summit. In the Supreme Court last week police named several groups including the Socialist Party saying that these groups were planning to engage in violent activity at the APEC demonstration. This was the main reason given to refuse permission for the planned protest route.

The Socialist Party condemns the New South Wales (NSW) state police for linking our name to threats of violence. This was proved to be nothing more than unfounded scare mongering as the only violence that occurred on the demonstration was instigated by the police. Eighteen people were arrested on mainly trumped up charges and protest groups are now looking at going ahead with legal action against the police for their heavy handed approach.

In just one ridiculous example of how the police were behaving, a Sydney resident by the name of Greg McLeay was arrested for nothing more than crossing the road incorrectly near an APEC cordoned-off area. Greg, a 52-year-old accountant and father of three was arrested on Friday and thrown in jail under the special APEC powers which allowed the police to hold people without bail. He was strip-searched and forced to spend 22 hours in a jail cell!

It seems that the main threat to APEC summit did not come from ’terrorists’ or ’violent protesters’ but from comedians! Comedians from the popular ABC television program, ’The Chasers War on Everything’ have become folk heroes as they managed to breach the APEC security with nothing more than a few black hire cars, some wrap-around sunglasses and a few fake passes.

The 5000 police officers, 1500 army troops, 450 federal police and teams of sharp-shooters hanging out of helicopters were no match for the 11 comedians who got within 20 metres of Bush’s hotel! All 11 were arrested and have now been released but in just one example of the mood of the public the show now enjoys cult status and has caused major embarrassment to the government and the police.

Socialist Party members targeted

The Socialist Party organized a convoy of buses and cars to carry people on the 900 kilometre journey from Melbourne to Sydney for the APEC demonstration. SP members had been vocal in the press in the lead up to event saying that they were looking at engaging in direct action to disrupt the APEC proceedings. As one SP member said "If George Bush is in town there should be no business as usual. If the APEC leaders want to sit behind closed doors and organize more cuts, privatizations, and free trade then we will organize resistance"

On the way to the event a Socialist Party convoy consisting of a bus and two cars was stopped by a road block in the New South Wales town of Tarcutta. The 3 vehicles were diverted into a secluded truck stop where the drivers were approached by plain clothes police officers who identified themselves as ’APEC investigators’. They were told that all individuals on board as well as the vehicles would be searched for drugs and have checks done to ensure they were not breeching any bail conditions. They also conducted road worthy compliance checks on the vehicles.

The search was nothing more than an attempt to intimidate Socialist Party members and hinder them from attending the demonstration. The convoy was kept for almost two and a half hours whilst drug sniffer dogs went through the vehicles and every last item of clothing was pulled out of the bags. People were also forced to undergo pat down searches.

The police were however caught on the hop when SP members quickly got on the phones doing an estimated 30 media interviews during the course of the search. Several live radio interviews were done and a Channel 10 television news crew arrived within an hour. SP members exposed the police as cracking down on civil liberties and the right to protest. The convoy also had several independent journalists on board who filmed the event and handed the footage to several other television stations. This footage was shown as a major story on the late news that night and the early news the next day.

It was also proved that the police were only using the pretense of doing drug searches as an excuse, in reality they were gathering intelligence. The main thing they were interested in finding was the diary of SP organizer Anthony Main. They read out several diary entries and were extremely interested in where the convoy was staying on the weekend. The police later revealed in the press that SP members had been under surveillance for days before the event.

Thousands protest despite intimidation

Despite the intimidation and smear campaign against the protesters almost 10,000 people turned out to the main demonstration against Bush and against APEC. The demonstration was peaceful and vibrant in character. A variety of organizations mobilsed for the event and the main issues that were raised was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and climate change.

The Socialist Party linked the issues of war and environmental destruction to the need to change the capitalist system. SP members marched behind a banner that read ’Smash Capitalism – Fight for Socialism’, Hundreds of SP leaflets that were written especially for the event were handed out on the day. Many copies of ’The Socialist’ newspaper and anti war badges were also sold.

Unfortunately only a couple of trade unions called on their members to attend the rally. Both the Maritime Union of Australia and the Fire Brigade Employees Union had members and flags on the demonstration but the rest of the labour movement was largely unrepresented.

The fact that the majority of trade union leaders ignored the event is an absolute disgrace. The policies that the APEC leaders have been discussing will have dire consequences on working people. In essence APEC was discussing how to increase the profits of big business through cuts, privatization, free trade and workplace deregulation. Discussions about taking back hard won gains from working people were at the top of the APEC agenda.

In years to come the current batch of trade union leaders will be seen as doing nothing more than overseeing a massive shift in wealth from labour to capital. The history books will note that at a time when profits levels are at an all time high nothing was done to even stem this let alone fight back. This can be clearly seen by the official statistics that show industrial action at an all time low and the lack of interest opposing APEC and Howard’s industrial laws. The anti-capitalist movement, whilst being tiny at this point in time will be seen as the only ones who organized against Bush and against US imperialism in this period.

In a new development a small group of neo-Nazis attempted to infiltrate the APEC rally. They were led by well known racist and retired Macquarie University academic Andrew Fraser. This is not only the first time that Fascists have attended an anti-capitalist demonstration in Australia but they were also disguised as Black Bloc Anarchists.

In a correct decision on the day the Fascists were not physically removed from the rally. Instead they were surrounded and forced to leave after only marching 20 metres. This disciplined approach was successful as it did not provoke a confrontation and give the police and the media what they had hoped for all day.

Anti Capitalist movement split

Much debate was held in the lead up to APEC about protest tactics and how to best deal with the massive crack down on civil liberties. These debates were often heated and in the end led to the anti-capitalist movement being split down the middle.

The two main left groups who were organizing the demonstration in Sydney were the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) and Socialist Alternative (SA), who are a split from the International Socialist Tendency in Australia. They organized the demonstration mainly through the Stop the War Coalition in Sydney.

The state was adamant that no disruptions would be caused to the event and they bragged that no protester would get within a kilometre of Bush, hence the massive security operation. There were months of negotiations about the march route and how close it would go the declared zone and the 5 kilometre barrier.

During the case the NSW police commissioner came out saying that no matter what the outcome he would not let the march go anywhere near the declared zone. Even after this the DSP in particular continued to sow illusions in the outcome of the court case and argued against the idea of coming out and saying that we would march to the police line on the day if numbers were permitting. We had a situation where the police were refusing to accept the decisions of the capitalist courts but so the called socialists in the DSP were prepared to accept them no matter what the outcome!

The night before the rally 500 mainly young people packed a Newtown Church hall for the final ’Stop the War Coalition’ meeting. There were two clear points of view on offer on the night. DSP / SA argued that the march route should stick strictly to the one approved by NSW Supreme Court that week. They under-estimated the big anger amongst Sydney residents over the 2.8 meter fence surrounding their city and the big impact of this Baghdad-style Green Zone on small businesses and thousands of workers who lost at least one days pay.

The other left groups, including SP, as well as the anarchists and the vast bulk of non-aligned people – argued that caving into the Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent for the movement. Obviously if the rally the next morning was small, we might have to stick to the ’sanctioned’ route – but if the balance of forces was more favourable to us, we should undertake some (at least symbolic) defiance of the anti-democratic laws introduced for APEC.

The virulent opposition to this position from the DSP was not unexpected, as they play the role that the Stalinist Communist Party (CPA) and Australian Labor Party (ALP) used to do in the activist movement, before those organizations either ceased to exist or became out and out capitalist parties. What was more surprising to some was the turnaround by Socialist Alternative, from ultra-left in the past, to advocates of the NSW Supreme Court position today. This turn to opportunism has parallels to a similar shift to the right by the UK SWP.

Unfortunately for the DSP and Socialist Alternative, they lost the vote by about 30 out of 500+ voting. After they lost the vote the DSP/SA called to put the proposal to the rally on the day. This was supported as many of the more militant activists in the meeting were confident that there is massive sympathy in society against the crack down on civil liberties. Most people in Sydney were disgusted at lockdown of the city and support the right to protest. This has been seen even more in the lat few days with even sections of the capitalist press having to come out against the approach of the police.

However, like any labour movement bureaucrat, the DSP and Socialist Alternative simply ignored this decision the following morning through using their control of the marshalls (which for years Socialist Alternative were opposed to!) as well as the PA system and stage.

They did not put the proposal to the rally and the marshals did not call for a sit down at the lines. These two groups have now been exposed as not only being the conservative elements in the movement but also for their undemocratic approach. They successfully de-radicalised the rally played the role of a handbrake on the movement similar to what the trade union leaders are doing today and the Labor Party has done in the past.

The rally, as a consequence, was more like a peace or environment rally, and the expressing of non-violent but active opposition to the anti-democratic laws and the stealing of Sydney by the APEC leaders was not undertaken. In this sense, the march was a bit flat for some of the more advanced layers of the youth on the day.

System in crisis

If the events surrounding the APEC summit showed nothing else they showed the weakness of the capitalist system. More and more people are now starting to realize that these meetings are not about improving our lives but about coming up with ways for big business to increase their already massive profits.

The only way the ruling class can see to deal with this is to crack down on protests and spend millions of dollars on security and fencing off the venues. If big business and their representatives in the capitalist governments were so confident that their system was working they wouldn’t need to resort to such extreme measures. In reality their system rests on extremely fragile foundations. This was highlighted by the tensions that exist within APEC and the fact that no significant decisions came out of the summit.

The last thing Howard, Bush and the APEC leaders wanted in Sydney was visible street protests criticising their policies. This was exactly what they got and they can expect more of the same every time they try to meet. The Socialist Party is proud to stand in the best traditions of the anti-capitalist movement by participating in the protests against Bush and against APEC. We pledge to continue to attend and to organize similar protests in the future.

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September 2007