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Speech: Occupy movement

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 22 Nov 2011

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 22 November 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (01:02): by leave—I pay tribute to the world-wide Occupy Movement. The courageous participants in New York, where the Occupy Movement was born, and those in Sydney and Melbourne have acted on the concerns of many. These protests have focused on social and economic inequality, high unemployment, greed and the undue influence of corporations. Occupy Wall Street has inspired more than 750 events around the world, involving hundreds of encampments.

The Occupy Movement has been criticised for not having a set of demands. Maybe that is in fact a strength as their message has well and truly penetrated public discourse. Many of their terms, such as 'We are the 99 per cent' and 'Occupy', have gained wide recognition and built understanding of what this movement stands for. They have taken their message to the world stage in a way that many advertising agencies that cater for the one per cent can only dream of. The web site Politico has found that mentions of the phrase 'income inequity' in print publications, web stories and broadcast transcripts spiked from 91 times in early September to nearly 500 in late October, an increase of nearly 450 per cent. This shift is a tribute to the world-wide Occupy Movement.

The respective incomes of the 99 per cent and the one per cent in Australia demonstrate the degree of inequity. The heads of Australia's largest companies have picked up pay rises almost three times the rate of inflation and equivalent to more than twice the average annual wage in the past year. This analysis of from the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 October this year. The Sydney Morning Herald report also found that the median increase in base pay for chief executives for the latest financial year was about nine per cent, rising from $1.47 million to $1.61 million. Short-term cash bonuses for the same group of Australians, the one-percenters, rose to $2.61 million, up five per cent. In cash, that is a gain of about $130,000 per year. How the 99-percenters are faring in Australia stands in sharp comparison. The average wage is about $53,000 a year. A single unemployed person has to survive on $228 per week. Old-age pensioners receive $345 a week. Working and middle-class people—particularly those caring for children, elderly parents or family members with disabilities—often struggle with a lack of job security, affordable housing and reasonably priced public transport.

When the Occupy movement took this message of inequity to the world stage, those who were used to dominating that world stage quickly clamped down. It was interesting to note that the eviction of Occupy Denver, Occupy Salt Lake City, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland, Occupy Seattle, Occupy Melbourne and Occupy Sydney—and probably many other Occupy sites—occurred within about a five-day period. I visited Occupy Sydney, as did some of my Greens colleagues from the New South Wales parliament. It was at all times a peaceful movement. Occupy Sydney functioned through an open democratic process. Early on, they committed to non-violent protests and were open to negotiation with the police about how to maintain a peaceful protest.

It was quite concerning that this action as well as Occupy Melbourne were broken up by the police using rough tactics. The decision to break up these protests was a political decision and was not made by frontline police. Occupy Wall Street was also broken up with violence. According to a number of reports, this has been noted in Egypt. An Egyptian state television anchor, commenting on how the security forces responded to protests in his country, stated that Egypt 'saw the firm stance the US took against OSW people … to secure the state'.

Our Australian Occupy movement brought together people of diverse backgrounds and ages who wished to voice their concern about the increasing global concentration of corporate wealth in the hands of a small minority. Occupy Sydney gave particular emphasis to the lack of housing. Rented accommodation and housing affordability are inaccessible for so many. Meanwhile, there are more than 100,000 unoccupied residential buildings in Sydney.

From my experience in politics, corruption-free politics and economic justice motivate the majority of people. The 99 per cent know from their own experience that life is deeply unfair. Some critics attempt to dismiss the Occupy movement by arguing that it has not achieved anything. I would dispute that, as it has injected the subject of economic and social inequality into mainstream media into the wider public debate. The movement also has had solid wins.

Occupy Ohio and the momentum from the whole Occupy movement has been recognised in the US as playing a key role in the defeat of an anti-union law passed by the Republican-controlled Ohio state legislature in March this year. This law, if enacted, would have curbed the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police and other public sector workers. It also aimed to limit union activity by making it harder to collect dues and fund political work. Earlier this month this law was overturned by Ohio voters, with 61 per cent against and 39 per cent for. Polls conducted in the run-up to this vote on 8 November showed that a large majority of Ohio voters identified income inequality as a problem and thought that the federal government should take action. Many unions are supporting the Occupy movement.

This is how social change movements are built—allies coming together to support progressive campaigns. As another round of the global financial crisis hits more and more countries, the role of Occupy will become important in highlighting the need for social change and highlighting why we should oppose austerity measures that target the 99 per cent. The 99 per cent are not responsible for the economic crisis. The message I heard when I visited Occupy Sydney was that the public debate needs to shift away from debt, deficit and job cuts. As I stood in Martin Place with hundreds of others, I heard people discussing the need for a financial transaction fee, often known as the Tobin tax, a millionaire's tax, how to create sustainable jobs, and free education and health care for all. Dictatorship of markets was rejected time and time again. The eviction of Occupy Wall Street has shut down some actions but the struggle with all its zest and creativity goes on. At Occupy Wall Street, by the afternoon of the big eviction from Zucotti Park in New York, people were back carrying signs that read: 'You cannot evict an idea whose time has come'. The time has certainly come to end such extreme inequality that exists in our world today.

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