Brisbane Social Forum

What does democracy look like?

By Alison Stewart

MORE THAN 250 people attended the third annual Brisbane Social Forum in an exciting event that energised participants to continue the fight for social justice and a better world.

The highlight was the opening address by Julian Burnside, QC, whose principled defence of refugee rights has been inspirational.

Julian spoke to a capacity audience, tearing strips off the Howard government and receiving a standing ovation.

While he focussed on the issue of the Liberal government’s barbaric policies towards refugees, he linked this to a general attack on our rights especially those of women and the unions, and made an unequivocal call to get rid of John Howard at the forthcoming federal election.

The following day Julian participated in a Refugee Action Collective panel discussion with refugee activist Jess Whyte and Labor for Refugees convenor Matt Collins on how to take the campaign forward in the lead-up to the federal election.

All the speakers stressed the importance of not relying on Labor and of continuing to strengthen the grassroots campaign.

Towfiq Al Quaedy, an Iraqi refugee living in Brisbane, provided the perfect introduction to Julian’s speech.

His story summed up the hypocrisy of the Howard government which claims it went to war to get rid of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

Towfiq was jailed by the Iraqi government for refusing to paint a portrait of Saddam and fight in the Iraqi army.

He made his way to Australia by boat and was detained for nine months in the Curtin Detention Centre in remote northern WA. He was released and has now spent three and a half years on a temporary protection visa.

Towfiq addressed the massive peace rally on 16 February in Brisbane in 2003 when more than 50,000 people took to the streets to try to stop the war.

His family in Iraq initially welcomed the fall of Saddam at the hands of US troops. But now they have turned against the US occupation of their country which has delivered them nothing.

There were many other workshops and plenaries which galvanised activists and stimulated discussion and debate including ones on music and activism, “environmental” refugees, the Stolen Wages campaign, creating sustainability, and democracy in the workplace and the classroom.

Overcoming corporate power

AN IMPORTANT debate took place in the on the couch discussion What does democracy look like?

The Brisbane Social Forum organisers wanted to address the lack of democracy in our society and the possible alternatives.

Judy Rebick, a prominent Canadian author and activist, argued that the participatory budget process implemented by the Workers Party of Brazil showed the way forward.

The process which had started in Porto Alegre, with some ten thousand people deciding 8 per cent of the municipal budget, had now spread to involve 150,000 (out of a population of two million) deciding the priorities of 15 per cent of the budget.

The process of ordinary people involving themselves in the participatory budget had led to a general empowerment, Judy argued.

Workers had become more confident to address issues of democracy in the workplace and women had become less submissive in the home.

However, Brazil’s example also raised some important questions.

Professor Ian Lowe spoke of the power of global capitalism, especially its representatives in bodies such as the IMF and World Bank.

There could be no real democracy at the level of the nation state unless there was global democracy.

Lula, the leader of the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, has succumbed to the demands of the International Monetary Fund and agreed to cuts to repay debt.

Another central question posed was that while the participatory budget experience in Brazil may have shown us a glimpse of ordinary people deciding economic priorities, how can that be extended to the whole of society without confronting the question of power wielded by the capitalists.

There was also discussion about how alternatives needed to be grounded in actual experience with a number of the participants critical of utopian proposals put forward by Michael Albert with his model of participatory economics.

Revolutionary strategy needed

NNIMMO BASSEY, a Nigerian activist campaigning against oil multinationals, gave an inspiring keynote address.

Alongside the war on Iraq, his graphic description of the destruction of the environment through oil exploitation showed the lengths capitalists will go to make profits.

Shell has been the worst offender but the other oil TNCs were just as culpable.

Gas from the oil wells is burnt off even though it could be harnessed to create more energy. Some gas fires have been burning for 40 years, creating acid rain.

Children have never known a quiet night with stars in the sky because of the roar and the smoke from the burning gas. People have to travel miles to get water because the local water is polluted.

The government has terrorised and killed people who oppose the presence of the oil companies and the environmental destruction. The oil companies employ private armies from the young men in the villages.

Global warming is often seen as the result of deforestation and cars. But this is only part of the problem. The oil industry contributes massively towards the production of greenhouse gases.

In his conclusion, Nnimmo said that the objective circumstances meant that revolution was the only viable strategy.

Military face of globalisation

ANOTHER THEME running through the forum was imperialism in the Middle East.

NSW Greens senator Kerry Nettle presented a workshop on the current situation in Iraq. She spoke of the massive resistance by the Iraqi population.

Contrary to the impression created by the media, Sunni and Shia Muslims were fighting together against the US occupation.

Kerry argued that it was not up to the West to tell the Iraqi people how to run their country and that US and Australian troops should get out now.

An issue that will continue to be debated is whether the UN should step in to organise the transition to elections.

In another workshop Ruth Russell, a human shield during the Iraq War outlined the UN proposals as being worse than the US plans in terms of delaying democracy in Iraq.

She said people overwhelmingly wanted to vote for their own government now, not have an interim government handpicked by the US or the UN. Ruth also participated in a reportback from the World Social Forum with Socialist Worker supporter Adrian Skerritt.

Ruth reported on the breadth of debate at the WSF and how it was a truly inspiring event.

Adrian described how the theme revolved around how the challenge to corporate rule now included a critique of imperialism. War was seen as another means by which the US and other elites can pursue the neo-liberal agenda.

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