There is an important summit being held in Brisbane this week.
At this summit, some of the most important issues facing humanity will be discussed: economic issues of growth and sustainability; the environment and climate; the rights of indigenous peoples and first nations; human rights; and war and peace.
Leaders from all around the world will come to this summit to discuss these issues. Events will be held on austerity and growth; transnational corporations; international trade and investment policy; democratic rights; political vision; food and agriculture; Latin American integration; land ownership and tenure; labour rights; gender equality; and of course climate change.
There is also a G20 summit.
It’s trite to say that the world faces an enormous range of increasingly urgent challenges. There is good reason, then, for a summit of world leaders — or indeed, for many summits of many groupings of world leaders. Even if the G20, as a grouping of nations, is woefully unrepresentative of the world’s poorest nations — with Africa in particular represented only by one nation with a rather inglorious history — one could still argue that there is a place for it, as one grouping among many.
Such legitimacy comes on the assumption, of course, that their meeting discusses the enormous range of urgent challenges the world is facing.
Climate change; renewable energy; food and agriculture; and global inequality. These, among many others, must be top of the list. How many of them are on the agenda of the G20 summit in Brisbane?
Nothing so potently reveals the political insanity of our planet as much as international meetings of powerful leaders.
What then, is on the agenda a the G20 summit in Brisbane?
The G20 meeting in Brisbane describes its mission as a “Growth Challenge”. By its own advertising, its aim is to promote economic growth and “break the cycle of low growth and diminished consumer confidence”.
There may be a serious debate about whether economic growth can be “decoupled” from dependence on non-renewable resources; but such subtleties are off the G20 agenda. As an exponentially growing consumer economy’s use of non-renewable resources comes up against hard limits, the enlightened rulers of the world set as their top priority the simple encouragement to produce more stuff, making sure people are confident to continue spending money shopping.
The key themes, according to the G20 itself, will be promoting growth and employment, and making the global economy more resilient against future shocks. Making the global economy resilient against future climate shocks would, of course, be a useful theme; but climate shocks are not what they have in mind. Rather, the G20’s version of “economic resilience” is focused purely on finance capital. Important as it may be to avoid future financial crises, the most well-oiled fiscal, monetary and financial engines will be the ones most likely to drive the economy off the carbon cliff.
(The US and China may have signed a bilateral climate deal; but that is just 2 nations, not the G20; and the deal has its own problems.)
We might suspect that the G20 is an unaccountable and elite forum, what with the world’s poor having no voice there. But thankfully, one of the top priorities on the G20 agenda is “strengthening global institutions”.
And indeed, it would be a useful policy goal to strengthen the voice and influence of the world’s people in their global institutions, from the UN, to the International Court of Justice, to UNESCO, aid agencies, global charities — or even, god forbid, to make the world’s governance more democratic.
Lest we be under any illusions about what “strengthening global institutions” means, charities and aid agencies are locked out of the summit. Strengthening the international rule of law — even though the international financial institutions are forever requiring respect for the rule of law as a precondition to providing funds — is certainly not on the agenda. There is no proposal to strengthen the rule of law in international relations by increasing the enforceability and jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice; no suggestion of granting the International Criminal Court powers to investigate the war crimes of all nations, large and small.
Minimally sane ideas to “strengthen global institutions”, such as removing the anti-democratic veto power of Great Powers in the UN Security Council, or dismantling the private “investor-state dispute settlement” mechanisms in many international agreements, by which corporations can subvert democratically-passed laws impeding their profits, are far off the agenda.
As it turns out, the G20’s agenda to “reform global institutions” refers to precisely one institution: the International Monetary Fund.
Nonetheless, it would still be a good idea to bring the IMF under more democratic control. For the IMF has never had a principle of “one person one vote”, or even “one nation one vote”. Rather, the IMF is built upon the sterling principle (literally) of “one dollar one vote”.
So, is the G20’s proposal to bring democratic principles to the IMF, thereby strengthening it — and potentially giving the world’s people some say in its decisions?
Of course not: the G20’s policy is simply to have a relatively few more dollars from developing nations in its voting base. The goal, in the G20’s own words, is to make sure the “IMF has enough resources and is a credible and legitimate institution to fulfil this role”. More specifically, the G20 proposes to tweak the IMF voting share formula so as to marginally increase the voice of central bankers from Brasilia and New Delhi, as against those from Frankfurt and Washington DC. This is their version of “institutional reform”.
But the G20 does at least correctly identify that the IMF has a credibility problem. The IMF has almost has no role left to play in south America, since those nations threw off its yoke and sought monetary and fiscal solutions elsewhere.
It is difficult, even reading their own stated purposes, goals and agendas with the most charitable of inclinations, to find anything worth defending in the G20 agenda. The plan is to accelerate economic growth and pursue this goal ahead of all others. There may be a token mention of such growth paying attention to climate change, but most likely there will not be any at all.
Putting aside the question of whether an organisation dominated by central bankers is likely to pursue an aggressive pro-equality agenda providing a dignified livelihood for all, we can simply ask: at this crucial point in history, if the G20 promotes economic growth without any heed of environmental limits, how quickly will we burn through our remaining carbon budget — before we have locked in levels of global temperature rise which endanger the entire planet?
Those seeking solutions to the world’s pressing problems in Brisbane are more likely to find them at the People’s Summit. After all, one cannot find any solutions at all, when the questions are off the agenda.
Such questions, in addition to being obvious, are important to Australians. Despite a decade of propaganda, 63% think the Australian government should be taking a leadership role in international policy on global warming and carbon emissions, and 81% think climate change is an important threat to Australia. But this is only what the general public thinks, and so is irrelevant.
Australians have many other thoughts on policies relevant to the G20 too: some progressive, and some conservative. Fully 82% who think US foreign policies are an important threat; 75% think that Australian foreign aid programs should be used to help reduce poverty in poor countries; 76% think the gap between high and low incomes is too large; all irrelevant again. Rather more xenophobically, the Australian population is strongly against foreign involvement in the Australian economy (86%), and worried about competition from low-wage countries (81%). The G20’s agenda is studiously against every single one of these policy preferences of the Australian population. Public opinion, whether left or right, progressive or conservative, simply does not matter.
Then again, Australians do appear also to have some insight into about the value of democracy in its present form. Nearly half the Australian population does not believe in democracy — presumably, understanding “democracy” to mean as it appears in the current “representative” institutions which make a mockery of it. More precisely, 40% of Australians believe that “democracy” is not preferable to other forms of government. These Australians believe overwhelmingly that there is no real political choice available to them, and that our “democracy” only serves the interests of a few.
Those who want to understand where this sentiment comes from need look no further than the parade of world leaders coming to Brisbane under military lockdown.
The G20 exemplifies a tragic and radical disconnect in the world today: between who is excluded and who is not; between whose voice is heard and whose is not; between human activities, and the environmental limits imposed upon them by physics; between what people want, and what their leaders do; between societies containing awesome levels of technology and scientific knowledge, and awesome levels of ignorance and inhumanity among those who govern them; between what needs to be done, and what is being done; between sanity, and the national and international political-economic elite.
There has long been a notion of a “democratic deficit” in international institutions — their distance from the people, the layers of representation in which lobbies, powerful institutions and elite interests exert their influence; their rarefied lifestyle far from those on the receiving end of their policies.
That is all well and good, but we are well past that now. It is by now a sanity deficit, and the only corrective is the other world superpower: the world’s people. Some of their work will be proceeding at the People’s Summit — the main show in town in Brisbane this weekend.