Monday, 17 November 2014

Land of the G20

So here we are, in sunny Brisbane, Awestralia, on the day after the G20.


For most of the world the event lasted two days, but for us here in Brisbane it seems to have been going on for months.  We have been peppered with mixed messages all year.  At one moment we were being warned of potential terrorist attacks and violent and disruptive protesters.  The next we were hearing the benefits of democracy extolled.  One moment we were being told about road closures, traffic chaos, public transport disruptions and heavy security around a rather large exclusion zone.  The next were being begged to come into town and join in the fun of the expensive G20 Cultural Celebration.

In the event the terrorists stayed away altogether along with the large proportion of Brisbane residents who took advantage of the long weekend to go elsewhere.  The protests were peaceful and creative, with people dressing up, creating events and generally performing for the huge international media contingent.  This was pretty much all that was open to them, since rules not only excluded them from a wide area around where the actual world leaders were gathering, but placed strict limits on the size of any banners to ensure visiting dignitaries would not have to read any disturbing messages from afar.

These things were strictly enforced, too, in fact some could say over-zealously so.  Yesterday evening I had a chat to someone at church who had been told his sign was too large.  When he was a little slow to pack it up and leave the area he was informed that he was now banned for the duration of the G20, which still had a few hours to run.  His dreadlocks probably didn't help his cause.  Other well-known non-violent activists were preemptively banned before the event, and another woman was banned after she was found carrying a "weapon" which turned out to be a multi-tool. Despite these examples of over-enthusiasm there were only 14 arrests and the specially-established temporary magistrate's court and watch-house only had to deal with one offender during the event.  The thousands of police mainly had to stand around looking impressive and ride their bicycles and motorbikes around the inner city.

There was not really a whole lot to be offended about in the protests in any case.  Many of the main concerns of the protesters ended up being covered in the official G20 communique - international tax reform, combating ebola and global poverty, even (despite our own government's attempt to keep it off the agenda) climate change.  Of course Vladimir Putin may have been a little miffed at some of the things protesters said about him (miffed enough, at least, for his local emissaries to organise a rival cheer squad) but they were only following the lead of our Prime Minister.

Channel 9 vainly attempted to whip up some outrage about the group of Aboriginal protesters who burnt some Australian flags in protest at Tony Abbot's latest attempt to write them out of our history.  "Why did the large police contingent do nothing to prevent it?" asked the reporter in shocked rhetorical tones.  Later at his press conference the Police Commissioner provided the obvious and non-shocking answer that it is not illegal to burn an Australian flag and that the police knew beforehand that it was going to happen thanks to the months of work they have put into building good relations with this and other protest groups.

Oh yes and while we're on the subject, somewhere amidst all this there was a meeting of the leaders of the world's 20 richest countries.  Solemn speeches were made and interpreted and at the end a relatively vague but non-trivial communique was signed, promising actions (not totally clearly specified) to promote global growth, share information and practice on infrastructure development, work towards a legally binding agreement to combat climate change, make better (or at least not worse) attempts to address global poverty and tackle the ebola crisis, continue working towards a system to reduce international tax avoidance, and to combat corruption.

All this came at a cost of something like $100m.  Which makes me wonder (and I know I'm not the only one) why bother?  In this time of international budget emergencies and so forth, was it all worth it?

Of course, international cooperation is better than the alternative, but we need to understand how these things really work.  For a start, the four-page communique was not worked up over the course of the past two days.  It, and the background documents that flesh it out, have been painstakingly negotiated by armies of diplomats and officials from the 20 countries over the 14 months since the last meeting in St Petersburgh, if not longer.  They have been the subject of endless consultation and scrutiny, referred to experts and committees of the 20 participating governments and other international agencies, redrafted scores of times before finally being presented at yesterday's conference and given the formal rubber stamp.  Very little of any value was added at the meeting itself - any last minute alterations were sorted out in the back rooms.

So the whole thing could technically have been done without any kind of meeting at all.  If an actual personal meeting of leaders was required, rumour has it that electronic communications technology is now in an advanced stage of development and it is a relatively trivial technical problem to link 20 leaders together via video from the safety and comfort of their own offices.  It certainly would cost a lot less that $100m.  So why all the trouble?

I think the answer is that it is a powerful piece of symbolism.  Just as the protesters outside the venues used various theatrical techniques to make their points, the leaders inside were engaging in their own form of theatrics.  Even the heavy handed security and police presence was its own form of theatre.  The point was not that the police or the soldiers should do anything, merely that they should be seen.  Indeed, the less they did, the happier everyone was.  Their massed uniforms were enough to create the aura of power.  Much better if the dark underbelly of such power - its brutality and ruthlessness - could be kept carefully under wraps.

The politicians themselves, of course, are mostly past masters at playing for an audience.  The pleasant speeches, handshakes and photo opportunities are what they were all here for, a show of unity, peace and cooperation carefully calculated to assure their various constituencies that things are heading in the right direction, that there will be peace in our time.

I say "mostly past masters" because our own Prime Minister seems to be still struggling with the idea.  His firm handshake with Putin was close enough to a "shirtfront" to satisfy his backers and the aggrieved demonstrators outside, but he did rather spoil it by joining his Russian counterpart in a bout of koala-hugging.


When he opened his mouth, on the other hand, Australians could only cringe at his insistence on trying to interest his global audience in the administrative minutiae of domestic politics.  The Shovel's wry headline about car-parking issues in Warringah is not so wide of the mark, really.

He could have learnt a thing or two from Barack Obama, whose side engagement at the University of Queensland involved the flights of visionary rhetoric we have come to expect, a sweeping humanitarian vision of the US role in world affairs which remains seductive despite the dismal outcomes of the past decade or so of US military intervention in the Middle East.  Still, any keen observer will wonder who exactly Obama was speaking to in this address.  When the head of the host department is unable to snaffle a seat in his own lecture hall it hardly seems likely that any other faculty staff would be allowed in, never mind those pesky students.  The risk of random departures from the script would have been too great.  The theatrics, and the international media, was everything.  Obama's carefully crafted message was designed for the world at large, conveyed via the international journalists who made up a large proportion of his audience.  Really, he could have been anywhere.

Of course all of this took place on a weekend of record November temperatures, as if to dramatise the urgency of the global warming task Abbot and co were trying to pretend wasn't important.  The gathered world leaders would hardly know it.  They only stepped out of their air-conditioned meeting rooms to climb into their air-conditioned limousines (or in Obama's case, helicopter) and get driven to their air-conditioned and security-cleansed hotel rooms.  And anyway, how hot is it supposed to be in...um...what city is this again?

1 comment:

Karen Drimer said...

Skype, dammit, haven't they heard of skype????