Friends of the Earth at the G20: a grassroots human response

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

Friends of the Earth (FoE) defend the rights of people and the environment. We do this by grassroots organising with people affected by threats in their communities: rural farming communities fighting Coal Seam Gas (CSG) and coal mining, indigenous people opposed to the destruction of their traditional homelands for nuclear waste dumps or mines, urban communities concerned about pollution and new technologies (such as food irradiation and nanotechnologies), and where voracious development and economic priorities are allowed to override the basic rights of communities to clean, safe environments and protected areas.

Our activities include on-the ground protests and civil disobedience, community organising and training, lobbying and research. We also start alternative projects to demonstrate better ways of producing the goods and services that communities need, which are not socially and environmentally damaging. In Brisbane we have been behind the now self-sufficient businesses Bicycle Revolution (who repair and renew old bikes and offer a bike workshop); Food Connect (out of our Community supported Agriculture Project, Food Connect has now expanded to Sydney as a model); and Reverse Garbage (reclaiming clean industrial waste for reuse) who FoE Brisbane live with at 20 Burke St, Woolloongabba. We try to lobby for change while creating that change through practical initiatives based on sound evidence.

Globally, FoE has been at the forefront of protests organising against corporate neo-liberalism. As the G20 addresses economic issues that need global cooperation. One of FoE International's enduring lobby issues has been the "Robin Hood Tax": the implementation of a financial transaction tax which favours the poor, a tax on banks and other financial institutions which would bring millions of dollars to fight poverty and climate change. They did this under the banners "Put People First" and "We won't pay for your crisis". (

In London, FoE UK prioritised the need to take action on climate change. FoE UK's recommendations to the 2009 G20 meeting included a demand to, "Fundamentally change the way the global economy works, lay the foundations for a cleaner, greener future, and stop propping up an economic system addicted to unsustainable growth and dirty fossil fuels".

Similarly, FoE in Australia will participate in G20 protest in Brisbane in November 2014. Our priorities will include the recognition of people displaced by climate change and more funding for action on climate change prevention and mitigation, increased investment in renewable technology, an end to fossil fuel subsidies and the dismantling of the economic system that prevents real progress towards a clean, green economy. We are opposed to the Australian government committing to any free trade agreements where trade and the needs of corporations will be prioritised over environmental justice.

The influence of the corporate lobby and the lack of social justice concern within the current government can be felt keenly in Australia with the rise in approvals for environmentally and social destructive industrial projects that provide little benefit to local populations, but lasting environmental damage and the infringement of basic human rights to many social groups. This is not a new thing, but is more blatant under the Coalition government. The Abbott government brings its own brand of economic and religious ideology to the business of environmental exploitation and the erosion of human rights:

  • Approval of dredging of the iconic Great Barrier Reef to benefit the coal export industry via the Abbot Point port (December 2013). Breeding site for hump-back whales, nesting site for turtles, sea floor will be dredged to deepen water for ships;
  • Expanding the uranium mining industry with no regard to the concerns of Traditional Owners, the legacy of contaminated former mine sites, inadequate safeguards and unacceptable WMD proliferation risks, etc.
  • Expanding the CSG industry, by approving the Arrow Liquefied Natural Gas Facility on Curtis Island and the Arrow Gas Transmission Pipeline to Curtis Island and with Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane opposing the NSW CSG "no go zones" legislation;
  • Continuing fossil fuel subsidies to the tune of $10 billion per year, despite agreement at the G20 Pittsburgh to phase them out;
  • Removing legislation which declared parts of the Murray-Darling Basin as critically endangered, moves to weaken or delist marine protection zones;
  • Allowing employment practices in the mining industry to undermine social justice on housing, where the poor are excluded from the rental market in rural areas because of demand driven inflated prices. In the past mining companies provided housing for staff, and the government could levy them to do so;
  • Discrediting the gains made by the indigenous movement and women's movement by allowing the Prime Minster (who's politics on race and gender have been found questionable by many) to install himself as minister for those portfolios, effectively stemming real progress there;
  • Demonisation and punishment of refugees fleeing violence by compounding their suffering in offshore detention, including newborns and unaccompanied minors and insisting all public servants refer to them as 'illegals';
  • Overriding state legislation by a High Court challenge to LBGT marriage laws;
  • The Gonski triple backflip on equity in education funding and the conservative revision of the national curriculum now in development just one year after it was introduced;
  • ... and the list goes on.

In concert with the neoliberal agenda that embraces the G20 and corporate hegemony are local moves to suppress dissent to it. Queensland, where the 2014 G20 will be held, has been at the forefront of introducing laws to target dissent:

  • The Vicious Lawless Associates Disestablishment Act (2013) that prohibits the public gathering of three or more people alleged to be in a group the government declares a risk. This is being tested on bikies, however this not specific in the legislation and it can be used on unions, striking workers and environmental or other protesters;
  • Party laws, under the Police Powers and Responsibilities and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 that will make it a punishable offence to hold a gathering of more than 12 people where someone nearby (it maybe an attendee of a function, or even someone refused entry) causes a "an uncontrolled event". Fines up to $12,000 and jail terms apply.
  • The G20 (Safety and Security) Act (2013) which disallows having banners more than 2m in length, and prohibits the carrying of many items besides the obvious weapons: eggs, reptiles, and other items;
  • This new legislation is in addition to the Queensland police's Move On powers that enable them to move anyone at an time for any reason and arrest them if they do not comply.

Some of the more 'out there' reforms proposed by Coalition nationally include:

  • Boycott reforms in the Competition and Consumer Act to outlaw secondary boycotts. For instance when we ask you not to buy timber from Gunns Ltd because of their real and proven destructive forestry practices.
  • Mandatory prison sentences and $10,000 fines for environmental protestors who disrupt the access to and profitability of corporations, advocated by Tasmanian Liberal leader Will Hodgman. Unions also recognise the capacity of such legislation to be used against workers taking industrial action against exploitative and unfair work practices;
  • Member for Mermaid Beach (Qld) Ray Stevens' suggestion that the state should force people with tattoos to register them, as part of the reading of the Criminal Proceeds Confiscation (Unexplained Wealth and Serious Drug Offender Confiscation Order) Amendment Bill 2013.

Democracy thrives only on the capacity for people affected by unjust laws to be able to oppose them to enact change. These attacks on civil liberties compromise democracy and are not justifiable, except by their capacity to protect the profits of corporations and ensconce the power of the wealthy elite to control and constrain the lives of the rest of us.

What are the issues for Australia with the G20?

The role of the G20 has been an opportunity for the political leaders and finance ministers of the 20 richest countries (representing 85% of the world economy) and invited representatives from the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, and the OECD to get together to further their agendas. It came about largely because of the failure of previous (WTO Doha Round) attempts to manage the global economy that resulted in the Global Financial Crisis (2007−08).

Not only does the G20 Major Economies Summit exclude the rest of the world not party to these negotiations, it represents an opportunity for representatives of the more powerful economies, including the US and its close allies, to dictate terms and bully developing economies. Indeed Norway, which declined to join the G20 sees it as a "setback" to truly international and representative bodies like the UN, saying, "We no longer live in the 19th century, a time when the major powers met and redrew the map of the world." (Norwegian Foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre, 2010).

We cannot expect that the views that our national government take to this international meeting will speak for the majority or the environment. The spin emanating from Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop on the G20 agenda to date has been parochial. But how does the federal Coalition's record so far measure up against the rhetoric of the G20 agenda for Brisbane? We only need to the look at the nebulous collection of buzzwords currently featuring as "agenda items" on the website (

These are the priorities of the G20 meeting − and our thoughts on Australia's record:

  • Strong, sustainable and balanced growth: While the strength of coal and iron ore exports have insulated Australia from the GFC, the mining sector's dominance has undermined other areas of economic activity such as manufacturing and agriculture. Increasingly, coal and CSG have moved into environmentally sensitive areas and populated areas, disrupting people's lives and health. Growth at any cost seems to be the agenda of Abbott government who have just approved dredging of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef to facilitate coal exports that will destroy a national icon;
  • Anti-corruption: questions about politicians' travel expenditure have haunted the Liberal government in its first few months, while recent spying revelations have exposed the underhanded and corrupt tactics successive Australian governments have used to protect the profits of corporations active in our region;
  • Energy: Denying the reality of climate change, dismantling any effort to alleviate climate change made by the previous government, the Coalition government is committed to a fossil fuel future, despite the fact that Australia and its neighbours are already affected by extreme weather events
  • Trade: One thing the Coalition government has in common with other rich economies is the desire to free trade from rules and regulations. But where does the cutting of 'red tape' and 'green tape' leave the rights of workers, human rights, and the environment?;
  • Employment: The Queensland LNP government began a campaign of sacking tens of thousands of public servants as soon as it was elected. Similarly, the federal Coalition government sacked thousands of civil servants via the abolition of departments dedicated to human rights and environmental protection like AusAid and the Climate Change Authority in an effort to flush out all the public servants who might contradict policy. While the G20 have an aim of boosting job participation, we have a government that makes it very hard for the young and vulnerable (like single mothers) to get jobs, demoralised as they are by living hand-to-mouth on inadequate emergency welfare;
  • Development: The government disbanded AusAID and severely reduced Australian aid to developed nations while at the same time vilifying and punishing refugees fleeing nations experiencing unrest. Also on our doorstep, communities are anxious to see that the Torres Strait Coastal Protection Works (Seawalls) Project funding commitments made by the previous government are honoured by the Abbott Government;
  • Investment and infrastructure: Are we talking about federal support for public housing and mass transit for the poor? Not likely, as well have a national crisis in housing. Infrastructure investment in Australia is targeted at propping up big business and subsidising fossil fuel industries and mining;
  • Tax: While the G20 want to fight tax evasion, the Tax Justice Network's latest financial secrecy index, released every two years, which rates countries based on criteria in relation to their ability to promote financial transparency rates Australia 47 out of 100, meaning it must still make ''major progress'' in offering satisfactory financial transparency. According the Tax Justice Network of Australia, ''The ATO has already identified over 100 Australians involved in suspected tax evasion of tens of millions of dollars through the use of 'shell companies' and 'trusts', largely through secrecy jurisdictions''. The business alliance pushing a corporate wish list at the G20 want to see less "corporate tax, social contribution and personal income tax hikes", very much in line with the Coalition agenda and an admission that corporations don't want to be socially responsible if they don't have to be (B20 'White Book',;
  • Reforming global institutions: Rather than strengthening global institutions like the United Nations, the Coalition government will undermine global cooperation by involvement in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, which effectively sets up a trading bloc where corporations call the shots. It also undermines the democratic rights of citizens everywhere, with its deals done in secret that will turn laws to protect human rights and the environment into trade barriers;
  • Building Global Economic Resilience: The triple bottom line in the global economy is the Earth itself – it's resources, clean air and water. The federal and state Coalition governments' pro-mining stances are eroding sustainability nationwide, while threatening food security and water resources by opening up farmland, surface water, and groundwater for CSG and coal exploitation and marine ecosystems to LNG and coal export. While Australian corporations may well benefit from the G20, the majority of people in Australia and elsewhere will not. Only a few token organisations will have a say in what happens, through the Civil Society 20 (C20) forum. The C20 is a social and environmental credibility exercise unlikely to deliver real change.

We say NO!

In 2010 FoE released this statement of opposition to the G20 and what it represents.

  • We say NO to the G20 and policies that continue to threaten jobs and peoples livelihoods, and erode workers' rights and welfare; 
  • We say NO to the G20 and policies that cause the expulsion and repatriation of migrants in the name of restrictive and draconian migration policies and rules;
  • We say NO to the G20 and policies that use women as safety nets in crisis, and are blind to the differential decision-making powers in the household and economy in general;
  • We speak out against the free trade agenda and the push of the G20 governments for more ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreements disguised as economic partnerships but are really instruments of economic domination and control by the rich over the poor within and across countries and regions;
  • We speak out against the development agenda of the G20 which threatens peoples' right to food, destroys the environment, and perpetuates unequal access and control over natural resources in support of the profit-driven motives of corporations;
  • We say NO to the G20. It does not represent the interests of the peoples of the world and it cannot speak on our behalf.

We call on the peoples of the world to come together against the G20 and to intensify the struggle for a better and more just and peaceful world.

At the end of the September 2013 round of the G20 in St Petersburg, NGOs released a statement calling for "system change" and declaring the G20 unworkable saying: "the G20 … is the expression of the corporate capture of our governments, a process that has been deepened in the last forty years". (

The 2014 G20 Leaders summit will be held on November 15 and 16 in Brisbane, Queensland. We hope you can be there with us.