Why Occupy Australia?


Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a leaderless global movement protesting social inequality. The first protests broke out a little more than a month ago as the US and Europe faced further financial chaos.

With a currency derailed by economic debt and crippled by the cost of a lengthy war, the US government was facing default until it ‘lifted the ceiling’ and raised its national debt to $14.8 trillion. Global Economist Simon Johnson told the online journal Business Insiders that there was no company in the US that would be unaffected by a government default, and no bank or other financial institution that could provide a secure haven for savings. “There would be a massive run into cash, on an order not seen since the Great Depression, with long lines of people at ATMs and teller windows withdrawing as much as possible,” Johnson said. With US interest rates at 0.25 per cent and chaos looming, Barack Obama swiftly passed a bill through congress to inflate the economy. The result was a stronger currency, but middle- to lower-income wages slumped and the cost of living skyrocketed. The gap between rich and poor widened and wealth became concentrated in the top 1 per cent. Faced by socio economic inequality the movement embraced a Robin Hood mentality, claiming fervently “we are the 99%”.

The protesters’ slogan became a worldwide statement as they mobilised internationally. On the OWS website, organisers say: “We are the 99 per cent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 per cent is getting everything. We are the 99 per cent.”

‘Citizen journalism’ exploded onto Twitter, YouTube and blogs as global action mobilised. Wall Street protester Mark Gerrad tweeted: “Rise up and take the power back, it’s time the fat cats had a heart attack.”

People took to the streets enraged as economic instability loomed for some the globe’s strongest currencies. Occupy Wall Street became a global movement as hundreds of thousands of protestors in 1500 cities united to take a stand against “democratic injustice”. Americans, Europeans, and Australians showed support for the cause but there are fundamental differences in economic situations. For Hugo O’Connor, from Occupy Sydney Media a democratic injustice is a matter of corrupt self-governance. “Companies shouldn’t rely so heavily on unethical principals to drive their business,” he said. “We are creating an international dialogue which will create honesty in our democracy.”

The diverse economies in countries such as Britain, Greece and Italy face similar economic instability as the US, making people empathetic in their pursuit to ‘occupy’ their own cities. Protesters at Australia’s Occupy Sydney and Melbourne lacked direction and understanding of the US movement. Protesters in Martin Place blamed the international media for lack of coverage and analysis, but the essence of disillusionment is found in the fundamental differences between the US economic turbulence and Australia’s battling but steady dollar. With interest rates steady at 4.75 per cent, a booming resources industry, and 68 per cent of our $1.23 trillion GDP derived from a steady services industry, Australia’s economy is healthily positioned for growth.

Another difference between the US and Australia is legislative. Australia’s ‘big four’ banks (Commonwealth, NAB, ANZ, and Westpac) are regulated by federal government. This regulation allows the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to create monetary policy, which reduces the banks’ ability to be influenced by corporations. The situation in the US is very different: there, the Federal Reserve is governed by a board of 12 State Governors and is responsible for US debt. All profits are owned by treasury minus 6% for board trustees. In 2010 Federal Reserve made $82 billion in profits and transferred $76 billion to state treasury. But by the following year they needed to be rescued, receiving a massive government bailout in August 2011. This added to peoples’ frustration, and caused civil unrest. Many US protestors believe it is one rule for corporations, with no remuneration for them.

KPMG economist Benita McKay says: “The Australian market is in a strong position as interest rates remain steady and our service sector continues to boom.” With the 9th-strongest GDP in the world and the only national economy to remain steady through a Global Financial Crisis, Australians appear to be weathering the economic storm. So why the protests? Protester Hugo O’Connor says it’s about dialogue, creating communities of people who talk about grievances. “I’m pissed off the mining tax didn’t go through, I’m pissed off governments give handouts to corporations that run their business into the ground, I’m pissed off banks lie about customers incomes just to provide a loan that their customer can’t service,” he said.

In Australia, each of the two major protest cities – Sydney and Melbourne – saw approximately 1,000 protesters gather to make their point. But a common misunderstanding of economic wealth, US economy and direction saw their protests lose momentum within 48 hours. Ask the protestors to explain a free market and most stare blankly back. Ask them if they know our banks are strictly regulated and most stare blankly back. While protests continue to grow in Europe and US, Australia’s movement remains fractured by lack of direction and understanding.

Featured image: Protesters join the Occupy Sydney movement in Martin Place. Photo by Kate Ausburn/flickr

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