Free Trade, Inequality & the Environment
In official discourse the G20 is presented as a critical global meeting “to develop comprehensive growth strategies,” to break down “barriers to trade,” while pushing national economies to become “more competitive.” In reality the G20 text – outlining major agenda points for the 2014 Brisbane summit – articulates a free market vision for international economic policy.
In reality this text translates into violent policies on the ground worldwide, from increasing attacks on environmental standards, to moves that undercut legal infrastructures supporting workers rights, to the heightened commodification of public institutions (i.e. healthcare and education) with the goal of remaking public infrastructure into for-profit corporate systems driven by corporate elites.
Brisbane’s upcoming G20 summit occurs at a time when the richest 1% literally control half of global wealth, a stark fact that clearly illustrates the deep failure of this “free market” world vision to bring any real “development” for the vast majority. In fact, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is closely ideologically aligned to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, pushed climate change off the G20 agenda altogether, describing the issue as “clutter,” while also stating recently that climate action is "socialism masquerading as environmentalism".
In the summer of 2010, Conservative Prime Minister Harper similarly rejected calls, including an open appeal by the UN secretary general, to place climate change as an important agenda item at the G20 summit in Toronto. In fact, a public anti-environment, pro-oil/extractive industry expansion political alliance between Harper and Abbott has been asserted publicly. In Ottawa this past summer, the two conservative politicians held a joint press conference to assert their anti-environment united front, essentially arguing that short term “economic growth” was more important than the health of the planet and by extension our collective long term survival. Clearly this free market fundamentalist vision, pushing us all toward the destruction of life supporting systems on earth, needs to be confronted and stopped, a dystopian vision so clearly embraced and pursued by the G20 process.
As Australian state security forces and police prepare networks of repression against the planned protests against the G20, including blocking off large parts of downtown Brisbane as “security zones,” where free expression and non-state sanctioned protest are essentially banned, recalling similarly draconian moves taken by the Canadian government in 2010 is important.
Toronto’s downtown core was completely fenced off during the G20, as part of an unprecedented security operation costing over $1 billion, involving an estimated 20,000 law enforcement officials, over 1,000 private security guards, closed circuit TV cameras, military-style checkpoints, surveillance aircrafts, along with sound and water cannons. A three-metre high and six-kilometre long $5.5 million dollar concrete and metal security fence snaked throughout downtown Toronto, constructed by Canadian international engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, a corporation with long ties to western military neo-colonial interventions, particularly NATO’s violent occupation of Afghanistan.
Like Australia’s recently passed “anti-terror” laws, allowing the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) to secretly detain Australians without charge and conduct “coercive questioning,” while also spy on the entire Australian internet with just one warrant, Canada moved to enforce unprecedented “security” oriented legal and physical infrastructure leading up to the G20 summit, while mobilizing domestic surveillance operations as part of the infrastructure of G20 repression.
The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) as well as national police forces applied intrusive surveillance and also infiltrated activist networks organizing to protest the G20. Moves that lead to highly mediatized police raids on community activists in the days leading up to the Toronto protests, while on the streets police forces utilized major tactics of repression, like indiscriminate mass arrests and kettling tactics, both strongly condemned by organizations like Amnesty International and human rights officials at the UN. Police forces in London also deployed similarly violent tactics of police repression against anti-G20 protests in 2009, while in Pittsburgh police deployed and used an ear damaging sonic cannon against summit protesters.
Similarly to the upcoming G20 Brisbane summit, most major media outlets and government officials openly collaborated in the lead-up to the summit in Toronto, embracing the very similar language and political framing around the G20 summit and the corresponding demonstrations, creating a political atmosphere that criminalized the grassroots protest mobilization and critique of the G20, particularly groups working on direct action challenges to the summit.
Deep political contradictions between the expressed ideals of both the G20 and the political forces backing it, claiming to respect democratic ideals and personal liberty, were clear in Toronto and are clear today in Australia.
Another political reality that binds together the contexts of current mobilization in Australia and the protest organizing in Canada, are the persisting colonial realities that drive conservative politics in both countries, a political force that also pushes the larger neoliberal ideology behind the G20 institution globally. Grassroots forces on the day-to-day front-lines combating contemporary neoliberalism in both countries, best illustrated by resource industry expansion, are indigenous land defenders, First Nations communities in Canada and Aboriginal movements in Australia.
Meaningful grassroots critiques and protests against the G20, that fully address colonial realities, place anti-G20 organizing on the stolen lands of Australia and Canada in a broader and long-term context.
In this context highlighting the fact that Canadian politicians, specifically former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin, was a key player in pushing the formation of the G20, a move to bind the growing economies of the global south to the western-driven neoliberal economic order. One of the first G20 summits took place in downtown Montréal in 2000, also faced by a grassroots protest mobilization that linked the neoliberal vision of the G20 to the political and economic process of colonization, globally but also locally in the Americas.
The G20 process clearly is a contemporary extension of a colonial framework, an extension of the western European capitalist worldview that sees people and lands as territories and networks to conquer. Similarly to colonialism in early inceptions, like the contemporary manifestations represented by processes like the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the G20, do not accept contradicting systems. As indigenous systems of governance and social organization were actively confronted by colonialism in both Australia and Canada, pushing communities toward genocide, today global economic power refuses space for alternative economic models on a large scale, a fact illuminated by the constant interventions by western powers against living alternatives, as seen in Latin America over the past couple generations. Although social movements both locally and globally have won some important space for people outside of the halls of power today, referenced in symbolic documents like the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the reality is that active dissent against dominant systems of power and economics, represented by organizations like the G20 is not tolerated.
In highlighting this colonial context and also past mobilizations against the G20 followed by systems of repression invoked by state power to protect the undemocratic international summits, points to a continuity between the current organizing in Brisbane and past grassroots efforts internationally. Activists in Brisbane working to confront the economic and environmental violence represented by the G20 is inspiring for activists in Canada that have been organizing against the G20 over the past decade. Specifically the diversity of protest tactics that have emerged to oppose the G20 summit, from the broad demonstrations being planned, to the Plan B action page that has come up encouraging direct action and “decentralized resistance” to the summit. As the Brisbane summit fast approaches, let us find voice in our common struggle across borders to oppose the violent, neoliberal vision represented by the G20 and express our support for the grassroots protests being planned to oppose it.