GM-free and the Pretense of Democracy
Protesting at the Rudd Community Cabinet
Corio College, Corio, Victoria 7 December 2008
The moment had come: sneaking in by a back gate, Prime Minister Rudd had arrived for the Community Cabinet meeting at the Corio College, Geelong, Victoria. All the registered participants had already been ushered inside and the show was about to begin.
Except for a couple of blue-shirted gate-minding crew from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and a couple of local cops, only the protesters on the far side of the school fence were left outside and an expectant hush fell over them too.
The protesters had been gathered by email from the Gene Ethics networks and they were there to let Rudd and Cabinet know of their sense of betrayal in regard to the distribution of unlabeled genetically modified foods. Contrary to ALP Party policy, the Rudd regime, I learned, had lined up with monster multi-national grains patent holder, Monsanto.
Peacebus.com was there to support the GM-free rally and Peacebus.com flags and an array of placards tied to the school fence gave us presence as the participants arrived. It was also there to seize the opportunity to let Rudd and his cabinet know that his maintenance of the Howard Terror War agenda was also not going unnoticed.
Peacebus.com was parked across the road from the registration gate with its "End the Terror/SackKeelty/Cuff the AFP" signage and its speaker horns directed towards the College hall where the Community Cabinet would take place.
I hurried to crank up the PA, praying to the ancestors for voice.
My aim was not to disrupt the Community Cabinet but to seize those first few moments to be a voice from the margins, loud and short. I wanted our protests to be noticed and I also wanted to be respectful of this praiseworthy gesture by the PM towards participatory democracy.
"Citizens of Corio. This Peacebus.com on Rudd Watch," I began.
The sound bounced back off the College buildings opposite and it was offensively loud. Too loud, I thought, but too late now.
I welcomed Rudd and gave notice that the post election honeymoon was over and that from this point on he could expect protests at every public appearance. After 12 months in office his alignment with Big Money and Big Coal and his pursuit of the Bush/Howard Terror War had become plain.
"After the retrograde Howard years, people want reforms," I told him. "There is no where to hide. If you don't deliver, you must expect opposition to dog your steps in public place."
I urged him therefore listen well that day and not make the Corio Community Cabinet as disappointing as the 20-20 Summit for its engineered consensus.
While I was speaking I became aware of angry shouting to my left. It threw me off a little but i continued, wound up and handed the mike to my GM-free/Eureka friend Jessica Harrison to say a few words about GM.
At dawn the Wednesday before, I had met Jessica at the Eureka memorial celebration the 154th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade and it was she who made me aware of the Rudd visit to Corio and it was she who had invited me to support the GM action.
Leaving Jessica with the mike I followed my ears to the contention. It was coming from a middle aged man who was standing on the pavement outside his house two doors up the road. He was dressed in an aqua blue bathrobe, he was bare footed and bare legged, his face was crimson and contorted with rage like a wrathful deity and he was bellowing his outrage like a regimental sergeant major.
"Oh, dear. Are you a shift worker?" I asked as I approached.
He now switched his bellow from a general street broadcast to me with no change in volume. He had ginger-gray hair and mustache and together with his pommy accent and outraged dignity, there was something magnificently John Cleese about his performance.
My political rant had awoken from slumber and into instant rage. "You don't have a permit," he shouted. True.
I shrugged and suggested it was a special day; not everyday Rudd comes to town. But this sent him off into another shouted spiel; there was no reasoning to be had with such wrath.
Lowering my voice and I asked in innocent curiosity: "What are you going to do about it?"
This gave him pause: "What?" he said. I repeated my quiet provocation.
Then he worked up his rage again: "I'm, I'm going to close it down." and with that he began striding towards Jessica and the mike. I skipped past, took the mike from Jessica and faced him before Peacebus.com like a talk show host.
He began his bellow again and locking his gaze with mine, I held out the mike to catch his words for all to hear. Hearing his own words amplified, he entered a new awareness and mustered dignity as he went along.
Having voiced his complaint I urged him on: "What do you want to say to Prime Minister Rudd?" I asked and held out the mike for his response.
The man in the blue bathrobe was of the opinion that politics happened every three years on election day and once the vote had been counted, everyone should accept the umpire's decision and support the elected government to get on with job.
Not the most interesting vox pop response but maybe typical of the passivity in the flat plains of the welfare suburbs by Corio Bay.
But he had spoken well and when he finished said so; complimented him on his street oratory.
Then I became aware of the two local uniformed cops, Lauren and George(?), who had joined us. It was with these two that I negotiated the protest and they were such sweeties; pleasant, amenable and cooperative community police.
Lauren was small, slender, blonde and suntanned and looked as if she had come from organising surf training for nippers. Her companion George was also small of build and he had gentle manner, a kind of a side ways looking humility combined with quiet voiced strength and determination.
We had quickly established rapport and an agreement about putting the flags out and tying them to the fence. But I had not mentioned the PA but nor had I hidden it.
Now Lauren and George were beside me and the bellowing man in the blue bath robe had gone quiet. Lauren's blue eyes were shining and she was laughing as if she too had seen John Cleese in Corio incarnate.
Respectfully she followed up my affirmation of the outraged citizen with more of her own. "Yes, you spoke very well," she said. "You put your case very well."
Defused, he made self deprecating remarks about it being off the top of his head, tightened his bathrobe and wandered bedward again, honour satisfied.
The Peacebus.com protest had made its point. "That's it for the PA," I said. "Good on you, Lauren."
"Thank you, Graeme," said George sincerely and quietly.
The GM-free protest rally had been organised at short notice. I got the email on Friday 5 December while in a bush camp 60 km west of Ballarat resting after the effort of the Keelty Burning.
At first I was ambivalent about participating. But 24 hours rest and a good talk with the trees convinced me it was worth a tank of petrol, and the effort, to support my activist friends and for the opportunity to see a Community Cabinet meeting; see from the outside that is.
My sympathies are GM-free and away from the corportisation of food production and distribution; deep, deep is my distrust of agribusiness. But i had never been moved to activism on GM-free before. And I am glad i went.
No other activist movement - climate change, anti-war, forests, anti-nuke or indigenous - was present that day. Just GM-free, Peacebus.com and a couple of anti-flouride activists in mufti. The latter had registered for the Forum and planned to participate and ask questions. Before they entered the school hall, they introduced themselves to us visible-in-the-streets activists but otherwise kept their message hidden and their powder dry.
With the flags lining the school fence, the patch work of GM-free placards, the busy-ness of the blue shirts in the forecourt, the gathering crowd and the GM-folk proffering pamphlets, Corio College, a non-descript scatter of single story prefabs that passes for a high school in the suburbs of the poor, took on the festive air of a polling day: democracy at work.
And admirably, compared to the Terror War over policing we had become accustomed to in the Howar years, the event was relatively cop free, never more than one or two visible from the gate.
This was the people's gate. Here registration was checked.
To participate in the Community Cabinet one was required to have web registered for the event a week before. But it soon became apparent that the Rudd & Cabinet visit, important as it was to business and civic leaders (the Geelong Advertiser had produced a 24 page ad free supplement for the occasion) and to the ALP Kevin07 faithful, was somewhat undersubscribed.
We learned that the registration process was open or closed depending on the cut of the cloth and signs of dissent on the applicant. A couple of GM-free folk decided to opt for the decorous democracy inside the College Hall as against the interactive anarchism of the street. They passed muster. But i was told firmly by the chief of the blue shirts the boundaries of the "Declared Area" upon which I must not trespass.
Separated from the people's gate was the VIP gate into the teachers car park and it was here that the media buses and the ministerial cars arrived.
Thus was the focus of our protest split between the people and the pollies. The GM-free folk walked back and forward between the two. Ministers were to be seen (Peter Garratt, Julia Gillard et al) emerging from cars and crossing the carpark to the school entrance glowing with celebrity status. But from behind a fence.
Here is what the GM-free folk wanted the pollies to heed. This is their media release:
GM-free Protest Rally
Sunday, December 7 2008, Geelong, Victoria
Rudd government promotes GM crops and foods
The Rudd Government's Community Cabinet meets in the Corio Bay College, Goldsworthy Rd, Corio, Geelong, this Sunday, December 7 2008 (Melways Reference: Map 432 A9: Goldsworthy Road, Corio 3214)
Please join the GM-free Rally outside the College from 12 Noon to greet government Ministers and invited guests (starts at 1pm). Please bring banners, signs and your friends, and forward this email to your lists.
Commonwealth Agriculture Minister Tony Burke spins Genetically Manipulated crops and foods as solutions to global climate change and feeding the world. He brands us as superstitious and anti-science. Burke refuses to meet his critics, so we will greet him!!
His colleagues Nicola Roxon and Jan McLucas have failed to deliver on their pre-election promises to toughen the laws on GM food safety assessments and to review GM food labeling. Also rally to send them a message that we want change.
GM Cropwatch 0407 307 231
Gene Ethics 1300 133 868
And here is the ALP federal policy on Genetically Modified crops:
Labor recognises ongoing community concern about genetically modified crops being grown in Australia. We believe that genetically modified (GM) crops should not be approved for commercial release unless they are safe to health and the environment, and beneficial to the economy. Labor supports the existing national framework for management and regulation of gene technology.
A Rudd Labor Government will ensure that the assessment process for GM licence applications is based on rigorous science, and that any evidence presented to support claims is subject to peer review and thorough public consultation.
Labor will also ensure that the process for assessment of GM crops includes careful consideration of health and environmental risks.
Safe and beneficial standards must be established beyond reasonable doubt and standards must be met to the satisfaction of the government, the scientific community, the consumer community and the farming community.
The GM-free protesters were mostly women, young mothers and grandmothers and they had come from wide and far; Warnambool (250 km west), Wonthaggi (300 km east), Melbourne and Geelong. They had been gathered by an email call that went out three days previously and had been forwarded about. One woman said she had got the notice via an email from her local health food store.
I helped their set up best I could with tools and techniques and set up Peacebus.com camp by the registration gate unfolding the chairs and table and offering cups of sweet ginger tea, humming to myself "What's the use of a revolution without general, general copulation, copulation, copulation ..." trying to substitute conviviality for copulation. Difficult.
But truly it is Peacebus.com doctrine that the value of any street rally is the quality of the interaction between activists, the meetings, the sharings, the sense of community building through shared resistance.
Build community, I say. Build resistance, sustainable resistance for the Earth!
Sitting at the table I got to meet Bob Phelps, the voice and the intellect behind Gene Ethics. I had heard his voice on Radio National and ABC Regional radio; he had won a lot of air time this season speaking out about the government complicity in the lack of locality identification for GM canola this season; he handles himself well.
But this day in the flesh he was tired and grey and said that he was in recovery from an recent illness.
Seemed to me he was not too comfortable in street protest, rallies not his favoured modality for action. Not 100% present, he sat beside me at the table head down scanning The Monthly magazine I had brought along.
I asked how the campaign was going and he spoke of the Rudd government betrayal as if it was a major set back if not a personal defeat. Seems that before the election, the ALP Shadow Minister for Primary Industries had been sympathetic but when Rudd appointed his Ministry, he had been passed over for a Monsanto man.
Best energy for the day came from two women whom i had met at the Eureka dawn observance, Jessica and Margaret(?). They were full of enthusiasm, engaging participants as they arrived and later as they departed, raising their voices sometimes to speak up and speak out across the fence.
The feistiness of the women was admirable and there was good cheer in our little congregation of dissent such that be the end of the day Bob was on his feet at the gate wearing a big smile too; energised by street activism.
What was remarkable about the event was how conscientiously we were ignored by the pollies and crew on the other side of the school fence. Like brahmins in India who, conditioned by cast consciousness, sweep through the world and simply do not see the untouchables on their knees scrubbing the floor as they pass, so the Rudd show passed us by.
The chief blue shirt, a tall man with ginger hair and moustache (it must be the military look currently favored by the pompous) had to notice us of course so that he could draw the line of exclusion and restraint. He attempted to limit my flourish of flags on the school fence.
"How many are going to put out?" he asked as I tied on the sixth flag.
"Another four. They look good, hey?"
Seems he did not agree and having failed to get the cops to move on the issue, appealed to the College Principal who sent the Deputy Principal to speak to us. This was shaved headed man of intelligence and decorum who was all dressed up and looking shiny to meet the PM.
Deputy principals are usually good at settling disputes - that's their job in the school ground and the staff room. This guy was smart enough to see at once there was no offense and having introduced himself didn't even mention the flags.
But the chief blue shirt got his revenge at the end of the day when I asked to use the school toilet. The audience was dispersing and maybe some pollies were still hanging about but "No way am I going to let you into the Declared Area," he said.
"Where's the nearest loo i can use?" I asked.
In problem solving mode he screwed up his face and gazed past my shoulder. Here was a detail his production planning had not covered: protesters wanting to piss. Protesters he could ignore, but pissing protesters?
"No worries. I'll piss around the corner," I said and as I walked away he hissed: "You risk getting arrested". What a punce!
My walk took me around the school buildings till I came to a discrete and welcoming shrub. From there I could see the parked fleet of coaches and other vehicles that transported the production crew and security for this exercise in democracy. Big show!
I am pleased to report that the GM-free women subsequently experienced no such rebuff approaching the school toilets, Declared Area or no. They just stated their business and walked on by ... and caused no mayhem what so ever.
But that's as close as we got to interaction with Community Cabinet roadshow. No ministers or media who broke rank and displayed enough curiosity or democratic panache to come to the fence and ask why we had travelled so far to be there.
Not a shred of interest was displayed by the corporate news cameras either.
Well there was one brief glimmer. I hailed a young woman who stood inside the fence wearing ID tags and camera around her neck and was looking our way. She told us she was from the Geelong Advertiser. She seemed to be looking for a human interest story and, at our invitation, came to the fence and spoke with us.
She took some photos but was soon ushered away into the College Hall by the chief of the blue shirts.
As Community Cabinet came to an end we watched the news crew set up by the school entrance to do their location shots of talking heads. They certainly didn't want our flags, placards or faces in the background.
I witnessed one of those plastic-faced Network news presenters, her head full of anxiety and conviction, strut past our signage with her camera crew in search of a better backdrop. We might as well have been shrubbery for all she cared or could discern, but as shrubbery our signs of dissent made us both inappropriate and unseemly.
"To be ignored is to be noticed," I explained to my GM-free friends. "At some level one must be noticed to be ignored with such effort."
The important thing is that we, as change agents, bear witness to the truth and notice each other standing beside and bearing witness too. Supportive and sustained witness is what breaks through denial. This in essence is the power of solidarity.
The good news is that we had our own media that day in the form of Nick McGrath, a photojournalist and resident of Geelong whom I had met at Sydney APEC. He responded to my call, came with a professional camera and a professional eye, took some excellent shots and emailed them on, some you will see on this web page. Good on you, Nick. In solidarity.
The Corio Community Cabinet began taking registrations at 11.30 am and wanted people seated by noon. Rudd and Cabinet arrived about 12.30 pm, the event started about 1 pm and was over by 2.30 pm.
Watching people depart the College afterwards I noticed it was not a big crowd; maybe 100 people max had participated; not a lot for the big expense in setting it up and difficulty getting all those Ministers together on a Sunday.
Was it worth it? The Geelong Advertiser thought so - see report and photogallery. We protesters canvassed participants as they came out of the Corio College grounds with that question.
Except for a couple of Kevin07 Ruddites who claimed the Rudd ALP was the best government ever, none we interviewed spoke with any inspired enthusiasm. "Interesting" was as much as they would venture on the process.
The two anti fluoride activists said there had been no discussion and that questions from participants had been dodged or left unanswered. Their fluoride concerns, they were told, were a matter state not federal. They were not impressed.
The man who had parked his car behind Peacebus.com was more reflective. We had spoken when he arrived. Besuited and confident he looked like some local business or professional identity and he told me he was on the parents and citizens association of the College. He noticed and admired my End the Terror/Sack Keelty signage and indicated he was not unsympathetic.
With elbow against the roof of his car he puffed on a cigarette, considered the experience and found it unsatisfactory: interesting to observe but in the end a waste of time, too controlled to be productive.
"Pretend democracy," he concluded.
And i agree. Something flaky about Rudd. He would like to be seen as the peoples' man by pretending to listen to the people while in fact taking his policy from the corporations and his US Alliance mentors.
A couple of days after Rudd announced his government's $4.7 billion infrastructure funding package which aimed to ameliorate the descent into recession. What might have been an opportunity to kick start a post carbon economy is to be squandered on the likes of rail lines for the coal mines in the Hunter Valley to speed up the theft of coal and subsidies for the car industry (of which a significant part is in Corio) to do business as usual.
What a waste of tax payers dollars! What a wasted opportunity! What a failure of imagination.
9 - 14 December 2008