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APEC at Auckland

Jim Delahunty lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is the name for a series of meetings that has taken place in various Asian and Pacific capitals since 1989. For September of this year, the venue was Auckland, a city of a million people in the North Island of New Zealand. According to Joan Spero, U.S. Undersecretary for Economic Affairs, “APEC is about business not about governments;” however, the role of governments has been crucial. In the past, laws and regulations used to protect economies had to be revoked by governments, if untrammelled entry of trade and investment was to take place. And getting rid of barriers erected by governments is what APEC is all about. It is part of the attack—by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—on those economies that try to maintain some degree of autonomy in the face of capital’s demand for open entry everywhere. Governments also make their contribution by paying for the events; this one cost New Zealand taxpayers sixty million dollars. No doubt New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley hoped that there would be a good return, not only for New Zealand capital, but also for the prospects of her conservative, National-led government in the general election taking place this November. Being seen with the great and infamous could be a vote-winner. Local tourist interests also hoped that the presence of presidents, prime ministers and their entourages, and international media would put the assets of this somewhat distant country on the tourist agenda, and encourage (if further encouragement was needed) overseas buyers, speculators, and takeover specialists to continue the process of devouring the New Zealand economy and New Zealand assets, as they have done since 1985. So APEC was about business, even if governments picked up the bill and state leaders provided the public faces. The New Zealand economy should be given credit as a leader in the race to dismantle the walls of its chicken coop at the request of the foxes.

Little Glitches

The desire to make this a profitable and publicity-rich event was not fulfilled, even in the beginning. The technology of U.S. secret service agents, who arrived to monitor the event and protect the President, was somewhat fallible. A week before the President arrived, Saji Phillips, a chicken farmer from South Auckland, found his fax machine loaded with messages from the U.S. APEC Support Office. They informed him about security arrangements, such as the installation of White House communications equipment at Auckland airport and the code name and security number of a military officer. Phillips rang the Support Office and told them about the error, but still received messages for many days, finally going to the press to try to get some relief from faxes that weren’t about chickens. Then there was the APEC-related trade fair, which flopped. The few overseas exhibitors bitterly complained of the failure of the New Zealand government to put money into the project, which fell down under the weight of the ongoing stagnation in business circles in this part of the globe. And then there was the failure of an APEC-sponsored trade union conference that was scheduled for three weeks before the main meeting. Entitled “Anticipating APEC,” this gathering was supported by the right-wing union federation, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, and the right-wing Public Service Association, both of which have made cooperation with employers the central feature of their policies. Keynote speakers were to come from the World Bank and the International Labor Organization. Unfortunately, only fifteen people enrolled and the conference, claimed by organizers to be “one of the important events of APEC,” was quietly abandoned. Outside the main events, there were continual frustrations for visitors. Some U.S. citizens in town complained that they could not see President Clinton through the tinted glass of his automobile, and others who had come to bury rather than to praise were vexed at the New Zealand Police’s removal of their banners, which read “Clinton—Sex Offender.” The greatest disruption to cozy trade talks was East Timor. The vicious attacks by Indonesian-backed militias hit world headlines a few days before the APEC opening. New Zealand premier Shipley and foreign minister McKinnon continued the twenty-four-year policy of appeasing Indonesia, and both rejected proposals such as cutting off military assistance to Indonesia or even allowing the Timorese situation to be placed on the APEC agenda. This attitude changed in a matter of hours, not so much because of guilt at New Zealand’s past inaction, nor because of the slaughter of civilians, but because President Clinton indicated he was prepared to discipline the Indonesian government and to approve peacekeepers whether Indonesia asked for them or not. True to its policy of following the United States—right or wrong—in international affairs, the Shipley government changed its tune almost immediately. The APEC show had to give some space to the realities of East Timor. In a day or two, Shipley began to speak as though the use of New Zealand and Australian troops as part of a multinational peacekeeping force had been her own idea. Only people with acute attacks of amnesia would have been fooled.

The Real Business

The distinguished visitors then got down to two days of discussion on papers already prepared by several meetings of officials and trade ministers earlier in the year. Nothing much of the detailed discussion was made known. Handouts to the media gave the official stories and what was done appeared in the final communiqué. This long, wordy document did not indicate that anything was to be done on trade, nor that any national practices were to be altered. This would have been disappointing to New Zealand sheep farmers who, just before APEC, were hit by severe tariffs on lamb exported from New Zealand and Australia (imposed by the United States). One story from the meeting of Chief Executive Officers was revealing. The Sunday Star reported that this meeting of 250 Chief Executives from leading companies in the Asia-Pacific region was a “lacklustre affair.” After an address by William Daley, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the audience was invited to ask questions. “An embarrassing silence followed,” said the Star, “when no one took up the invitation.” A similar silence followed the speech by Japan’s Minister of International Trade. Prime Minister Shipley tried to rally the ranks of silent business executives. “Don’t hang back. Give us your best advice, give us your best shot, so that together we can develop a community of Asia Pacific nations bound together by success and prosperity.”

The final communiqué was about as inspiring. After ten years of APEC talks, the governments were still being asked to respond better. Prime Minister Shipley’s summary called for the action plans of member countries to be “more specific, transparent and comprehensive.” Ministers of Trade were called upon to “intensify efforts to eliminate associated non-tariff impediments to trade.” In plain words, agreement “in principle” had so far brought little action for many APEC countries. The most positive gain that could be claimed was agreement on the freeing-up of trade in principle, and a common approach on this at the meeting of the WTO in November of this year in Seattle. This was no more than was stated by many of the participating countries at WTO meetings and GATT discussions over the past several years. Nothing much moved at Auckland APEC. The picture was of a collection of suspicious governments, pressured by the contradictory aims of their own capital formations and hesitant about any real commitments that might damage their sectional interests. The final communiqué highlighted one source of alarm to the governments attending—the “communication gap” between these governments and their peoples on the issue of APEC and its aims. Conference documents supplied by advertising consultants told leaders, “The gains from trade and investment liberalisation are not well understood in APEC communities …. Information must be made relevant to people if they are to accept and take advantage of the changes brought about by liberalisation.” The message, they said, “must be pitched at both rational and emotional levels.” The leaders seemed to accept that while they might have qualified enthusiasm, large sectors of their own populations were opposed to or ignorant of the great benefits free trade and investment would bring to them. This in itself showed that APEC was working from bureaucratic decisions rather than popular demand. “We challenge the world to move to free trade,” said Shipley in her closing remarks. “And we challenge ourselves as Leaders to bring our people with us to broaden support for the work of APEC.” Such a long time talking, and so little to show for it.

The Alternative Conference

While this was happening, an alternative conference was being held at Auckland University. At all previous APEC meetings, there had been a gathering of group representatives and individuals who were opposed to APEC and similar international institutions, which were trying to aid capital to extend its field of activity and break down national barriers and protections. This year’s alternative conference was attended by just over one hundred people, most of them from New Zealand. An important aspect was the representation from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Bougainville, Japan, Korea, Canada and the United States. The conference was given a wide perspective on the various ways that people in the region have been subject to exploitation. The New Zealand representatives came from groups that had been active in opposing APEC-style policies in the country—Maori groups, the Trade Union Congress, the Campaign Against Foreign Control in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand), the APEC Monitoring Group, and student organizations. Some of the individuals present had a long history of action against racial discrimination, local and state asset privatization, and the attacks on trade union rights. A leading speaker was Professor Jane Kelsey of Auckland University, author of several books on the economic and social attacks on New Zealand’s people (including Rolling Back the State and The New Zealand Experiment). The strong group of Maori activists reminded the conference that they had been suffering from the invasion of capital for the past 150 years. The form has changed but the results are very similar. The conference heard about U.S. domination of the Philippines, the negative effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Canada and Mexico (and possibly the whole of the Americas in the near future), the exploitation of Bougainville (where a foreign company, in the process of mining copper, made the largest hole in the southern hemisphere), the plight of migrant workers, Mexican workers, New Zealand unions, Korean workers—all these stories added up to a picture of a region in trouble as a result of APEC-type policies, which certainly do not deliver the benefits so often promised in APEC handouts. The second day of the alternative conference was notable for the spirit of optimism and the determination to continue the fight against APEC and similar groupings of capital, and to seek economies that respond to the needs of people, not the needs of capital. The discussion throughout the two days was friendly and responsive—somewhat different from the meeting of the silent Chief Executives at APEC. One very important fact for New Zealanders was the unity of activists, whether Maori or non-Maori, against the APEC agenda. In the past, progressive Pakeha (non-Maori) often dismissed the claims of Maori people, who wanted not only improvement in their own lives but the return of a sovereignty that would give them the means to run their own lives. Pakeha often saw the trade union struggle or conventional political activities as the main means Maori should employ to improve their conditions. The last fifteen years have taught progressive Pakeha that the struggles based on parliament and the worker-boss relationship left out the important issue of power—capital’s or the people’s. In his closing address, Robert Reid, from the New Zealand Trade Union Federation, summed up in this way: “The APEC Monitoring Group can be justifiably proud of its work over the last five years. Ever since we ‘discovered’ APEC in 1992 and then learned in 1995 that New Zealand would host APEC in 1999, we have been working hard to educate the New Zealand public to the danger of APEC and ‘free’ trade and investment. This year we produced tens of thousands of leaflets and fact sheets, we organised six anti-APEC meetings to counter the six official APEC meetings, we organised pickets and protests. This climaxed at Auckland when over 400 people attended our anti-APEC public meeting. This Conference saw APEC as a new form of the colonialism that this country and its indigenous people have been suffering for 200 years. We identified the struggle against APEC as a continuation of the struggle against colonialism. Within the anti-colonial struggle we committed ourselves to building alternatives to the pro-corporate, anti-people agenda of APEC and the WTO.”

The Education of New Zealand

Events since 1984, when a Labour government took office, have resulted in a decided change in New Zealand society and the position of working people. The remedies imposed by two Labour governments and followed by two National (conservative) governments have gained the approval of monetarists the world over but they have made the situation of most New Zealanders worse. These remedies have a direct relevance to APEC and its philosophy. Since 1985, the New Zealand government has given open access to most overseas takeovers and investment, sold off the majority of state enterprises, sponsored the sale of local authority assets, run down the public health system (leading to the growth of private health services), introduced a massive amount of user pay into the schools and universities, cut back on unemployment benefits, and attacked trade unions’ rights to organize, bargain, and strike. Though a majority of people have fears about one or more of these developments, the constant media effort (from a media owned largely by overseas owners like Rupert Murdoch) has prevented many people from drawing general conclusions about the attack by capital on public property and public facilities (like health and education), and the decimation of trade unions. APEC-style policy has had widespread effects. A brief comparison of the situation before the Labour government of 1984 and the present shows the following changes: unemployment is up from 106,000 in 1983 to 220,000 this year; lower and middle incomes have fallen in purchasing power while the top 20 percent have risen; total national debt has increased from sixteen billion dollars in 1984 to 102 billion dollars this year; the annual balance of payments deficit has increased from 3358 million dollars in 1985 to 6374 million dollars in 1999, mainly because of income going to overseas owners; cuts in finances for public hospitals have cut services and driven surgical waiting lists from forty thousand in 1983 to ninety-one thousand in 1997, when the government instructed hospitalto abolish the waiting list system; student debt to the government, due to user-pay education, was nonexistent in the 1980s, and is now 3.8 billion dollars; foreign ownership of shares in New Zealand-listed companies has increased from 19 percent in 1985 to 60 percent in 1999; foreign investors gamble with thirteen billion dollars in currency and derivatives every day—this is far and away the largest daily financial movement in the economy.

Transformation and Beyond

Fifteen years of the open-door policies advocated by APEC have transformed a capitalist economy with some autonomy and a state with reasonable health education and welfare provisions into a country on a downward slope. This is reflected not only in ownership of the economy or the drop in health, education, and living standards, but in the stagnation of the local economy as well, which has seen producers for the local market facing low profit margins for the last several years. Despite optimistic statements in the media about the “upturn,” it never seems to arrive. Economic growth is negative once again. Since worldwide capital appears to be in the same stagnation, some Marxists here wonder if the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall is indeed with us permanently. That possibility aside, there is some interesting significance in our small and therefore transparent situation. Many establishment speakers have stated that what has happened is simply the real world in action and what has been done is irreversible. So it may be under the rules of capitalism and its laws of property. Does this mean that the reversal of the things that bind us can only be through the overthrow of the system? The logic of capitalism in its terminal state may make that a necessity for a new order.

Meanwhile, as a small dependent economy, New Zealand can hardly dictate the course of international events. At best, it puts up with the booms and busts and the current long-term stagnation of the total system as well as it can. The cultivated naïveté of the public has so far prevented anything but sporadic responses to particular issues. Some sectors of the voting public turn to populist saviors among the political parties, offering themselves under the proportional representation voting system. They get little in return. For the future, people at the alternative APEC conference will continue the struggle both to enlighten their fellow citizens and fight what capital is trying to do. But, as things are, it seems it will take some more long, hard lessons before the majority of New Zealanders fully realize what has hit them. The public indifference to and suspicion of APEC is thus a heartening sign for the activists who struggle for an alternative.

1999, Volume 51, Issue 07 (December)
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