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Contain the ratbags at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in mid-September says Crikey’s Frieda Trade, a keen supporter of globalisation.

By now, everyone knows that S11 is an umbrella organisation for planning the WEF protests that consists of a ragtag bunch of loony fringe activists such as: groups like Feminist Avengers, Snuff Puppets, Public First and the usual suspects of anarchists, socialists and various green left organisations.

But a few areas deserve closer attention.

S11 and its Media Strategy

From reading all the messages posted on the message group that there is certainly a love-hate view of the media. They realise that garnering as much media attention is essential for their operation but they don’t particularly like media outlets that cast a critical eye on they goals and methods. One only has to read some members’ suggestions about trashing the “conveniently located” offices of the Herald Sun after it ran a piece critical of their efforts to recruit school kids.

There is also a concern that any publicity about violence will scare away some potential protesters and groups such as the trade union movement. To counter this, according to the minutes of their meetings posted on e-mail bulletin boards, S11 have decided to publicly disavow any sort of violence. This strategy is designed to allay the fears of those weighing up participating.

The problem with this is that it becomes very obvious from reading the same bulletin boards that the media spokespersons don’t really speak for the members. The participants in the discussion groups seem more intent on exchanging information on lessons gained from Seattle and how to counter police tactics than anything else. Love and peace are not topics of conversation.

The Police

The police have already stated that they intend to keep the Forum open. This does set the scene for violence, especially with S11 committing itself to what they euphemistically refer to as “non violent direct action”. This is a virtual recipe for violence as the police will be forced into removing activists from the major choke points around Crown Casino which they have outlined on the S11 web site.

The S11 people are already talking about the necessity of claiming to be victims of police aggression and brutality, several weeks before the WEF has even taken place.

Violence

The problem with the situation is that while the police may succeed in their goal of keeping the Forum open, no such promises have been made about the security of “soft” or unguarded targets in downtown Melbourne. In fact, it is virtually impossible for police to guarantee that there won’t be a repetition of the vandalism, looting and general lawlessness that engulfed Seattle.

The Trade Unions

The trade unions are obviously quite tetchy about getting too heavily involved in the protest at the moment. The last thing they need is a major PR disaster while they are going about a rollback programme in IR.

Things are also complicated by the fact that the host is a Labor premier.

The media-conscious ACTU President Sharan Burrows and Secretary Greg Combet have been keen to distance themselves from the protest at this stage. Unlike Kelty and George, who didn’t always have a great deal of media savvy, Burrows and Combet are shrewd enough to see the potential for damage to the union movement through the repetition of the storming of Parliament House. Currently, they have planned separate actions and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Despite this, some unions like the CFMEU are committed to taking part in the protest. After all, it is difficult to ever envisage CFMEU Secretary Martin Kingham ever passing up the opportunity to call a “stop work” meeting and engage in a protest.

Aside from the moral support of some unionists, there remains a question mark over whether any trade union money has been funding S11 directly. The minutes of S11 meetings posted on the web site certainly indicate that when confronted by a funding crisis, their initial reaction is to approach Trade Hall for money.

What the minutes do reveal are regular meetings between S11 and trade union officials, making it rather difficult for Trades Hall to claim to be “in the dark” over what S11 are planning.

The funding issue and planning issue are both interesting when one remembers that the Police Association is affiliated with Trades Hall. I’m not sure how impressed the policemen and policewomen on the picket lines will be if it is proved that the protesters engaging in non-violent direct action or, good old-fashioned violence, have been funded with union dues.

It is really difficult to see just why the trade union movement have allowed themselves to be drawn into something that could blow-up in their faces, both figuratively and literally.

School Kids

In view of the trade union movement’s ambivalence about becoming involved in the protests, S11 has aggressively sought to recruit students, particularly high school students, to their cause. In Victoria, fringe groups like Resistance have been trying for quite some time to bolster their ranks of sad, ageing activists and inject a bit of fresh blood. But, by and large, this has failed because they really haven’t had any real event to focus their recruitment drives around. This has now changed with the WEF.

The S11 web site reveals various students from different schools organising groups to attend. I’m not quite sure whether the Education Department has a policy on students simply getting up and skipping class, but I’m fairly sure that they must have some regulation that covers it.

A number of explanations have been offered for the likelihood of school students being attracted to the WEF protests such as a “sophisticated cynicism” to the events unfolding around the world. But judging from a conversation I overheard in a tram between three students, the reasons are far more obvious such as an excuse to bludge a day or two off school and prospect of engaging in some fairly mindless (and hopefully) anonymous violence and vandalism. While they had been assured by an organiser that it was up to them whether they participated in the violence or not, much to my surprise, it was the violence that really appealed to these three young girls.

Victoria: The place to be?

The WEF offers Melbourne and all Victoria, for that matter, a great opportunity to showcase its strengths and attract jobs and investment from some of the most powerful business executives in the world. Steve Bracks has gone as far as describing it as an “unparalleled opportunity” for Australian businesses to network.

Which begs the question, why are some groups like VCOSS, Brotherhood of St. Laurence and the trade unions, to name a few, doing their best to take the gloss off Melbourne during this forum?

In a politics class I was tutoring, Brotherhood of St Laurence Executive Director Fr Nic Francis rightly pointed out that many of the problems that confront society today like youth suicide, drug abuse and homelessness are caused by a lack of real jobs. A point also made by Victoria peak social welfare body VCOSS repeatedly. Putting aside the prospect of violence, given the potential of this event to attract new capital and create jobs (“real” jobs) their stance is puzzling. Executives peering out of their hotel rooms at the motley collection of protesters are hardly likely to be convinced that when it comes to setting up their operations or investing that “Victoria is the place to be.”

The trade union leadership has made a point of protesting the loss of jobs overseas in various industries. One might have thought the WEF provided them with an opportunity to attract some investment back into Victoria.

Globalisation is not just a negative as it appears fashionable to say and even protest against. Potentially there are great advantages and rewards to be gained from globalisation. It is just a pity that some people seem blinkered to this and are prepared to spoil things for everyone.

Wash-up

In the end, there are three interesting questions that will be answered by the planned protests at the WEF. They are: 1. How will the media treat the S11 protests? Whether they will portray them as a repeat of the momentous events of 1968 or as a group of ratbag fringe loonies trying to co-opt students who just want to skip some school and fun?

2. Whether the more established and reputable organisations like VCOSS and Brotherhood of St Laurence be prepared to, in effect, give their blessing and endorse fringe groups like the S11 as the “shocktroops” of Civil Society for the sake of a bit of publicity?

3. Will the police do their job and keep the Forum open and defend people’s right to association?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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