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Protest and Occupy: the promise for 2012

More patronage for pollies?

To depict the individual whose activities symbolized the most significant events of 2011, Time magazine featured a protester.

That protester was for democracy and against authoritarian rule throughout the Middle East. He or she was also a member of the Occupy Movement, campaigning against corporate greed, the excesses of big banks, governments’ collusion in propping up such institutions and rewarding those, mostly invisible, executives who continued to think they were entitled to huge financial spoils, even if a country’s economic system crashed, even if unemployment and poverty increased and people lost their homes.

Around the world and in particular in the USA, the Occupy Movement continues to protest the clash between corporate power and those – the protesters’ placards say ‘We are the 99%’ – for whom financial chicanery is invisible but who have suffered the consequences of a greedy market based, free for all. In America, along with proposals to Occupy Congress, a general strike is planned for May 1st.

Although principled and gutsy activists have occupied financial centres in Sydney and Melbourne, there’s a tendency to think that injustices which motivate protesters across America and Europe do not have much relevance for the lucky country. As long as China needs Australia’s raw materials, our economy will sail along, the disparity between rich and poor will not be too obvious, corporate excesses not too prevalent and if they are, it must be because amazing CEO’s and associated Company directors deserve their rewards. In the middle of a beach bound summer, the Occupy Movement is not worth thinking about.

However, a front page story in last week’s Sydney Morning Herald story shows why we’d all benefit if we encouraged the protests of the Occupy Movement. Under Freedom of Information, journalist Phillip Dorling reported that the former NSW Premier Nick Greiner sits as chairman of numerous boards including the manufacturer Bradken, the companies QBE Insurance and Blue Star Print. From the former company he receives $262,580 and as current chairman of infrastructure NSW for the O’Farrell’s Government the Premier’s Office claims his is salary $71,000, but will not divulge any the other benefits.

On top of such an accumulation of salaries, fees and other perks, the same former Premier claimed $1.83 million in expenses over the last three years of which $588.532 was in the last financial year.

To avoid appearing to scapegoat Nick Greiner, it’s fair to mention that other former NSW Premiers, Bob Carr and Neville Wran also claimed generous expenses and the same Herald article reminds us that ex Premiers who have served more than four years do have approved entitlements: a car, a full time driver, two full time staff, an office, a gold life pass for rail travel throughout Australia, free travel on State Transit for life, twelve first class return flights within Australia and twelve return flights within the State., They are also entitled to a home phone and free postage.

I’ll no doubt hear that any such criticism is not justified given the obscene rewards paid to company chiefs or to ex politicians in the United States. It will be said that our ex leaders have approved entitlements, can use their experience in the corporate world and are not over remunerated. From the point of view of people who’ve lost jobs, savings and homes, or who can’t find a place which they could afford to rent, that statement would sound offensive. How much financial reward does any one person need ? What does it take to be satisfied ? How much is to enough ?

A significant feature of the Occupy Movement has been its questioning of the notion that corporate executives – not just the chiefs of banks – have an expertise which is beyond the skills or ken of ordinary citizens who should therefore be grateful to such individuals for having created ‘wealth’.

This question about alleged corporate – including ex politicians’ – skills, knowledge and entitlement to massive financial remuneration needs to be de-mystified. Let’s stop fooling ourselves. Sitting as Chair or Director on a board can merely mean maintaining a privileged culture of insider game playing – rubber stamping decisions, thinking uncritically to vote en bloc for absurd salaries, plus appearing well dressed and united to keep any critics at bay at annual general meetings. I’ve been to enough corporate conferences to realize that with exceptions – usually those who are capable of a touch of humour and humility – too many leaders have been deluding themselves into thinking they’re so special they should even be rewarded for being a failure.

If you think that commentary reads like an unsubstantiated claim generated typically by any critic who can so easily be dubbed ‘from the left’, let’s consider the judgments of analysts who have studied at great length this philosophy of take what you can. Incidentally, participants in the Occupy Movement in Ireland say, ‘It’s not about left and right. It’s about right and wrong.’

In several books, including One Market Under God (2000) and last year’s Pity the Billionaire, author Thomas Frank identifies the divisive trend to bury Enlightenment values, such as fairness and altruism and to scoff at any policy which encourages the ideal of benefits being shared equally. The sub title of his Pity the Billionaire study is ‘The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right’. In that work, Frank examines the false claims, the greed and manipulation of bankers, dealers, accountants and speculators plus politicians’ collusion with such behaviour. He shows how such a culture has produced a ‘market based civilization’. About such a civilization, Frank concluded, ‘If ever a financial order deserved a 30s –style repudiation, this one did. Its gods were false. Its taste was bad. Its heroes were oafs and brutes and thieves and bullies. And all of them failed, even on their own stunted terms.’

In the optimistic early sixties in London I was taught that in any sector of society, economic and social policies should be about ‘the dominance of altruism over egoism.’ Such vision and values bolstered much of post war policies in the UK, across Europe, in Australia and New Zealand and contributed significantly to the building of civil societies. In author Will Hutton’s terms, that drive for social betterment became the cornerstone of such societies.

The Occupy Movement has challenged those selfish and ultimately self defeating values which are building the ‘market based civilization.’ Alternative values embrace the ideals of a common humanity and in 2012, Australians could re-invigorate those ideals by contributing to the goals of the Occupy Movement. If they do, then at least one part of the potential of Time magazine’s protester will be realized.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees is Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

Article first appeared in On Line Opinion, 20/01/2012