Students and the anti-war movement

March 2, 2005

Paddy Gibson, Sydney

The "elections" in Iraq on January 30 were hailed by "coalition of the willing" chiefs and the corporate media as the beginning of a glorious chapter in the country's history. While images of US President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi proclaiming the birth of democracy were beamed around the world, most homes in Iraq went without electricity, water, medicine and enough food.

The infant mortality rate continued to rise and more Iraqis were shot, bombed and detained in torture camps. More than 100,000 have been killed by attacks or poverty since the occupation began and the conflict continues to intensify. An overwhelming majority of people there want the occupying forces to leave immediately. Some surveys conducted for the US have put the number at 70%. Independent journalists who actually spend time talking with people struggling on the street, such as Dhar Jamail, claim the figure is over 90%.

Those Iraqis who went to vote did so as an act of resistance to the occupation, trying to put pressure on the coalition to pull out. Yet Bush and PM John Howard both refuse to talk about withdrawal. They are preparing their governments for major increases in spending on the military and Howard has just committed hundreds more troops. This is their "democracy".

Changes that the US-led coalition has made to the system of government in Iraq clearly illustrate that they are not concerned with empowering ordinary people, but with creating conditions in which Western corporations can rip mega profits out of the country. Foreign companies can now take their pick of previously state-run businesses and then send the profits home without restriction. Trade unions have been repressed and the minimum wage cut in half. There has been a rapid privatisation of state-run enterprises. This includes everything from water and electricity to schools and prisons.

US corporation Bechtel has been given control of the water supply. Reports from on the ground indicate that the company has pocketed the hundreds of millions of dollars from its contract and done no work repairing infrastructure used by ordinary Iraqis, leading to a widespread lack of clean drinking water and an alarming growth in deaths from preventable diseases.

The ANZ bank is one example of an Australian company that is making millions in the "new Iraq". It is part of an international consortium called the Iraq Trade Bank, set up by the US occupation. Trade bank bureaucrats tour around the world, encouraging big multinationals to take advantage of the "corporate-friendly" environment and start doing business in Iraq.

Waves of imported products are flooding into the country. Local industries have simply not been able to compete and most have been forced to shut down. This phenomenon has left over 70% of Iraqis unemployed and is pushing the population into worsening poverty. These disastrous economic reforms are not up for negotiation, regardless of the demands of the newly "elected" councillors. Over the past few months, anti-war activists in all major cities, including the Sydney cross-campus group Students Against War, have begun targeting ANZ and other Australian corporations involved in Iraq with picket lines and office occupations. These direct actions are being mirrored around the world as a reemerging anti-war movement begins to realise the importance of disrupting the business of those profiting from carnage.

The drive to war should not be seen as a distant phenomenon affecting only people in the Middle East. Committing troops in Iraq is part of a broader push by Howard to legitimise increases in the repressive capacity of the Australian Coalition government, strengthening its ability to forcefully assert corporate power domestically and in our region. The Coalition's defence policy promises a massive transfer of resources into military hands, boasting that "the defence forces will be more hardened, networked, mobile and lethal than ever before". Intelligence and police services are being given significant increases in funding and power, leading to a crackdown on people who are of the wrong race, class or political persuasion. It is not a democratic "Australian people" that is being protected, but corporate/government bureaucrats in Sydney, Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Indonesia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanisatan.

This resource transfer will affect standards of living in every working-class community, as social services such as schools and health-care centres are cut or further privatised. On campus, cash-starved universities have jacked-up fees, dramatically increasing the debt burden on students. Universities are also forced integrate themselves more closely with the private sector to remain adequately funded, leaving unprofitable "public need" courses, such as nursing, teaching and the humanities, very insecure.

This year, the federal government is planning to kick us out of the spaces students use to organise against government policies and to protect our interests. The attempt to take control of the student union facilities is called "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) and is couched in noise about student poverty and the right to "choose". But anyone who has had to hungrily wade through nerve crushing bureaucracy just to get a scraping of Centrelink or scholarship money knows the kind of "choices" the government likes student to face.

On the corporatised campus, democracy is being slammed. The opinions of staff and students, who actually make up our universities, are being forcefully excluded from decisions about their future. At protests across the country against fee increases last year, riot police were used to disperse us. Decisions of the corporate-dominated Sydney University Senate piss off so many people that their meetings are now routinely guarded by scores of cops, who use violent arrests to break up the demonstrations of staff and students.

The campaign against Australian involvement in the Iraq war should not be seen as a "good deed" for poor people over "there". Demanding an end to the occupation is an essential part of challenging the increasingly militant imposition of free-market policies that are causing pain here and in our region. We should take up the question of the Iraq war on our campuses to deepen our understanding, as a student movement, of Howard's agenda. Our ability to push back the government's attacks on our courses, our welfare and our student unions will be far stronger. The Coalition wants the university to be a factory designed to discipline us and train us to be "productive" corporate workers. We must continue to fight for spaces where we gain a critical understanding of the world around us and transform these ideas into action.

[Paddy Gibson is an activist in Students Against War at Sydney University.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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