When I talk to people in the street about Occupy Melbourne and the Occupy movement I get all sorts of responses. Always interesting, generally encouraging and mostly positive it is clear that people in Victoria and on the internet are really thinking about the movement and what it means for them.
However, a lot of people who are undecided about Occupy Melbourne (and even those who are interested in and supportive of the movement) have commented to me and others in the movement that they are unsure what it is we stand for and what we are protesting. I realise that a lot of the early supporters of the Occupy movement were there because they have an active interest in politics and activism and so a lot of what has been written about the Occupy movement is too intense and requires too much pre-existing knowledge to be truly useful to someone with a passing interest in politics and activism.
Through a series of articles, I am aiming to answer some (most) of the important questions people have about the movement and to make Occupy Melbourne and the Occupy movement more approachable and truly representative of the 99%. In answering these questions I will be addressing them more to the situation of Occupy Melbourne (which I have the most direct experience with) but I think this will be of use around Australia and the world.
The root of the global Occupy movement lies in the anger felt towards American executives in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The Wall Street occupation was initially organised by Canadian group AdBusters to garner support for a Robin Hood tax but the dynamic nature of the Occupy structure and the dialogue it fostered meant that the Occupy movement developed a much deeper and complex character.
Still, greed and corruption (in the public sector as much as the private sector) remain the central concerns of the Occupy Movement. The terms “99%” and “1%” that are used extensively in the movement describe the distribution of global wealth amongst the human population and are very useful for showing how skewed this distribution is.
It is estimated that the richest 1% of the world’s population controls about 40% of the world’s wealth and when this is expanded to account for the richest 10%, this grows to 85% of the world’s wealth. The poorest half (50%) of the world? They own less than 1%.
Why is this a problem?
The growth of wealth during the 20th century and in to the 21st century should have seen a great improvement in living conditions around the world. Instead poverty, inequality and the gap between rich and poor has grown nearly as fast as wealth.
In 1987, Bob Hawke gave the ultimatum that “by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty.” Not only was this statement proven wrong but changes introduced to Australian workplace relations, continued economic troubles and the expansion of inequality have moved this goal even further out of our hands.
“But,” asked one person I talked to, “we aren’t all starving. It’s not like we’re living in Africa. Are you really saying it’s that bad in Australia?”
Yes, and no. Poverty is a real and serious issue in Australia. There are differing views on how to measure poverty in Australia but in the discussion of a report into Australian poverty commissioned by the Smith Family in 2001-2 it was estimated that between 8 and 12 % of Australians lived in poverty. Indigenous, migrant and non-urban communities are much more likely to have higher levels of poverty.
In Australia there is a growing feeling that something is wrong. As we supposedly grow more affluent it is harder to keep ahead of the cost of living and the goals of home ownership and savings are becoming much harder to achieve. In Australia, several of our key and vital industries are led by monopolies or oligopolies and these companies place profit before people. For example, the Commonwealth Bank (CBA) was a leading voice when ATM fees were introduced a few years ago. The CBA was also a leader in raising interest rates above the Reserve Bank (RBA) recommendation and refusing to lower them when the RBA did. At the time it was claimed that this was to cover costs but for the last two financial years the CBA has posted record profits in excess of $6bn and has paid its executives multi-million dollar salaries (plus benefits and shares).
For average Australians, these actions mean that even something as simple as getting money from an ATM costs them up to $10 (in some indigenous communities) in service fees and, because of the big four banks’ cavalier attitude towards interest rates, mortgage rates are now loaned at nearly twice the interest rate set by the Reserve Bank. The most recent interest rate drop (Nov. 1, 2011) saw the official interest rate drop to 4.75%: the National Australia Bank, which maintains that it has the lowest mortgage rates of the big four, is lending at roughly 7.47%.
This just seems like a lot of numbers. What’s your point?
In Australia there is very little job security and the rate of pay is barely keeping up with inflation. Other than purely to say “We have a lot of money” there is no real reason for these companies to operate with such extravagant profits if they destroy the consumer’s buying power. For example, if the CBA reduced its profit by $1bn by removing ATM fees and/or lowering interest rates to something approaching the RBA rate, what would there be to lose?
Another example? If petrol companies cut their profit we might see a sustained and significant drop in petrol prices. A few years ago I used to drive a 2004 model Ford Falcon and in the space of 6 months between mid-2008 and the start of 2009 my petrol bill jumped from $45 – 50 a week to nearly $80. For people living in areas with little public transport access (or public transport that takes 3 hours to travel 20km), driving a car is not optional and they have to sink a huge chunk of their pay check (which has already been hit hard by mortgage payments or rent) into petrol.
And, while it is hardly an achievement to be proud of, Alan Joyce (Qantas CEO) gave us an excellent example of corporate greed when calling his lockout. Mr. Joyce called this extraordinary industrial action in response to low level industrial action taken by three unions representing part of the Qantas workforce. These unions were protesting Mr. Joyce’s plan to move a substantial part of the Qantas workforce offshore in an effort to maximise profit – even aside from the issue of the quality of work performed by overseas maintenance workers (which has been a problem for Qantas subsidiary, Jetstar), Qantas is a major employer in Australia and this would result in massive job losses around the country. Even at Avalon, near where I live, between 750 and 1,000 jobs would be lost.
As I’ve asked a few times during the last few weeks: what’s the point of reducing costs and making things cheaper if no one can afford to buy them?
So, by calling for a reduction or the abolition of corporate greed we hope to relieve Australians of the unnecessary burden being deposited on them by the major corporations.