The Guardian 2 February, 2005


Sound and fury signify nothing

Meetings at the Swiss tourist resort of Davos are gatherings of the "great and powerful" and this years' meeting is not the first time that the needs of the more than one billion people living in poverty have been discussed.

Despite the fine words from the industrialised countries, mass poverty remains in most of the third world countries of South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia.

As with the tsunami tragedy, there is more talk of debt "relief" but such talk in the past has led no where for the poverty-stricken millions. Unless the billions of dollars in loans and the huge interest payments owed by the third world countries are cancelled and not merely rescheduled, little will come of it. Rescheduling means that the repayment of principal and interest is merely delayed.

Fearful of the talk of debt relief and rejecting the campaign by many for the cancellation of debt, Prime Minister Howard leapt in to denounce debt relief. In its place he put forward a diversionary proposal for "free" trade, saying developed countries should lower barriers to imports of products from the poorer countries.

Sounds good, but the reality is different and Australia's trading practices do not bear out any serious contribution by Australia. Australia's major trading partners are the developed countries of the US, Japan, the European Union, Canada and New Zealand. Only China, as a developing country, is catching up in trade terms with the developed industrial countries. Australia's imports from the under-developed countries and even our near neighbours in the South Pacific region are negligible.

The reality is that capitalist traders look for the cheapest and highest quality goods and these are provided by the countries with the most developed technology, with the most skilled labour force and which can present their products in attractive packaging. The strength of the economies of the developed countries also allows them to cut prices if they have to compete with other countries and to offer bribes in the course of trade deals. Is the Australian government about to tell traders where they should buy their imports? Of course not!

The only way to start alleviating the mass poverty in so many countries is by the cancellation of debts and positive assistance that helps poverty-stricken countries to develop their economies, lift living standards, educate their populations, provide health care, build infrastructure and exercise preference in trade relations. Otherwise, the present dramatic inequalities between countries, even if trade barriers were to be completely removed, would remain.

Howard's populist and hypocritical attacks on the European Union will, in practice, only cement the advantages of the industrialised countries over the rest of the world and that is what Howard's policy is intended to do. They would also help Australian agricultural exporters.

While in Davos, Howard also leapt to the defence of the Bush administration when it came under criticism from some European leaders who reject Bush's policies of pre-emptive strikes and war, in particular the US invasion of Iraq in disregard of the United Nations.

Howard claimed that he does not relegate the United Nations. The fact is that Howard only sees a role for the United Nations when it goes along with the demands of the US and Australian governments. Otherwise they should be free to implement whatever invasions and interventions they decide.

Anyone who expected that the election of Beazley to the leadership of the ALP would lead to some more progressive policy statements will be confounded by his remarks on the Iraq war which were limited to attacking the Howard government for its tardiness in protecting Australian diplomats in Iraq and a claim that Howard had "let the Americans down". Obviously he intends to present himself as an even more reliable lackey than Howard.

His response to the return of Mamdouh Habib to Australia from Guantanamo was limited to a proposal that the Australian government should issue a statement. He made no call for an investigation, no criticism of the government's despicable role in which it abandoned Mr Habib and another Australian citizen David Hicks. And of course, not a word of criticism of the equally despicable imprisonment and torture of prisoners by the US Bush administration.

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