The Higher Cause

Recently, a comment appeared in response to this article. Quoting: “… as McDonald’s had the law on its side, it was time for the protesters to turn their attention into lobbying for a greater cause, to get the law changed for the benefit of the greater hills community in the future.”

In fact, we ARE protesting for greater cause. This protest is NOT soley about having or not having a McDonalds here in Tecoma. It’s really about the way they trampled the Democratic Process to bully their way in. Their request for a permit was clearly and unambiguously turned down by our local council in a unanimous decision, following the submission of an unprecedented number of written objections to their application, having deemed it “unacceptable” and inappropriate. The planning laws in Victoria, specifically clause 65, constitutes the local council’s authority to make this determination.

McDonalds, not satisfied with the democratic outcome, took their case to VCAT, which is comprised of “members” who are appointed by the queen’s representative in Victoria. They are not elected. They need not be judges. They need not even be lawyers. In fact, VCAT, strictly-speaking, isn’t even a court. And yet, it has the power to override any local council decision, so long as it is “legal”. What constitutes a “legal” VCAT decision is so over-broad that they can do pretty much anything they like so long as it isn’t clearly criminal.

And, just to make sure you understand how undemocratic VCAT is, how little your voice, my voice, and the voice of all or friends and neighbours matter anymore, the recent VCAT decision against Stonnington confirmed their stance that community objection is “irrelevant”, regardless of how many object.

THIS is the larger issue: Our democracy in Australia is being replaced with unelected, unaccountable institutions that can decide the fate and composition of OUR communities, forcing us to bear the consequences of their bad decisions.

This may be “legal” in a strict sense, but it is by no means moral. Despots throughout history have always claimed to be acting within the law — that is fundamental to what a dictatorship is, law as dictated by one person. But, we live in a democracy, and our Law is meant to be a reflection of the norms and mores of the community who live by it. WE say what the law is, WE give the government power to author it and enforce it. When that reflection becomes distorted, it isn’t the community that must adapt; it is the Law which must be changed.

An Open Letter to Catriona Nobel, CEO, McDonalds Australia

Dear Ms. Nobel,

You have a golden opportunity to turn McDonalds Australia into a shining example of corporate responsibility and good citizenship by doing somethng very simple: Give up on building a store in Tecoma or anywhere in the Dandenongs. Now, I know, you’ve already bought the land there, made all these plans, and so forth. Let me point out that by donating that land to the town and buliding a park there — JUST a park, now — and using it as a sort of “rainbow” to tell all of Victoria — promise to all of Victoria — that you won’t build any stores in the Dandenongs, ever, you will score mega-tonnes of community love and appreciation that would otherwise cost BILLIONS. It’s cheap advertising, and a win-win for you and for us here in the Dandenongs (especially those of us in Tecoma.)

I’m writing this not because there’s Buckley’s chance of you ever reading it, let alone taking it to heart. But, I just wanted it to be out there, in writing, that you had your chance to make this all come out right. You had the power and the opportunity, and, so far, you’ve simply squandered it.

I’m sure your board of directors will be very, very impressed come the next shareholders meeting.

Warmest Regads,
Nick Seidenman
Tecoma VIC

In response to a question on McDonalds rubbish …

The following was posted on the No Maccas in the Hills facebook page today:

No matter how many signs you put on a product and all of them request that you dispose of your garbage responsibly. It is ultimately the person who choses to discard what is not wanted and the manner of its disposal. As is with alcohol companies that request you to drink responsibly, yet many people still chose to get blind drunk. Do they force people to that outcome and are they the ones to blame for countless of alcohol related incidences. It is inherently the choice of the individual to behave in a responsible manner and no one is to blame but themselves

Ps is it the fault of maccas or c.u.b. for the accompaniment of empty stubbies that often is discarded in the same place?

I offered the following response:

I think this is a strawman argument. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that McDonalds is somehow responsible for where and how their customers choose to dispose of their rubbish. The fact remains, however, that even without a McDonalds in Tecoma, we have McDonalds rubbish being discarded here, be it by customers carelessly or deliberately leaving it anywhere but a bin, by animals fossicking in bins where it has been discarded, or simply carried by the wind. In all cases, the proximity of a McDonalds is more or less directly proportional to the amount of McDonalds-branded rubbish that you’ll find within a given area.

Rubbish is but one of several (strong) reasons why we didn’t want a McDonalds in Tecoma, all of which were put forward to our council and to VCAT. The issues now go beyond these, and pertain to the strong-arm tactics used by large corporations such as McDonalds when they don’t get their way through democratic means. We’re not talking about not wanting, say, a home for indigent aboriginals, or a mosque, or some other basis that can be considered on philosophical or even legal (as in constitutional) grounds. This is about whether or not we as a community have a say in who or what does business here — WHATEVER the reason.

Were this a matter of, say, a couple hundred of us against it, but the rest of the community not caring or being in favor, and were this a matter of a council vote that was split, or even 5-4 or 6-3 in favor, we wouldn’t be having these discussions. There’d be some room for debate on the issues. This is not the case, clearly. The community turned out by the hundreds, sent in over 1,100 written objections to the proposed permit, and the council voted UNANIMOUSLY against issuing that permit. There was no ambiguity here. None. Those who truly wanted a McDonalds here had just as much access and opportunity to say so. To be sure, there were perhaps a dozen or so such proponents at the meeting where 600 of us watched proudly as our council voted it down.

The issue at this point is beyond the rubbish and the noise and the loss of amenity and the impact on well-being. The issue applies to all of us, regardless of where any individual or group may stand on McDonalds per se. This is about corporation showing utter disregard for the will of a community, clearly stated through democratically elected councillors voting unanimously, in accord with that community. Today it’s about McDonalds; tomorrow, it could be about gas drilling, or a scrap metal processing yard in your town. This isn’t just OUR issue; it’s everyone’s issue. We win this, we all win. If McDonalds wins; we all lose. All of us.

An open letter to the “Yes Maccas” proponents

To the Yes Maccas folks:

“If you don’t like Maccas, just don’t eat there.”

So say those who favor a McDonalds in Tecoma. But, is that really the issue? Do you suppoose that we’re afraid Ronald and his minions are going to come storming into our homes and force that McCrap down our throats? Or course not. It’s a correct answer, so it sounds reasonable. The un-asked question, however, makes it absurd.

The “why” of not wanting a Maccas isn’t really relevant, actually. The fact is, we, the residents of Tecoma — and more generally, the Dandenong Ranges — simply don’t want one here, for whatever reason. And we, being residents here, owning property here, having a real vested interest here, as a community have a right to determine the character and composition of OUR community. We have MORE of a right to that than ANY individual or business has to say otherwise. This is especially true of a business that doesn’t currently exist there. We have spoken, in a voice that is loud and clear. We don’t want a Maccas here. Period.

That voice was not only ignored, it was silenced not by reason, but by corporate money and greed. McDonalds is only the latest example of an ongoing effort on the part of large, monied interests to neutralize the obstacles that stand between them and making ever more money — at our expense.

Those who wanted a Maccas in Tecoma had just as much time and opportunity to respond in favor of it as the more than 1,100 of us who filed objections to it. The council meeting during which the permit was unanimously voted down was attended by over 600 of us who objected; I counted no more than a dozen — and I’m being generous — in favor of it.

The council vote should have been the end of the story. Instead, Maccas sued in VCAT, not JUST to build in Tecoma, but … and here’s the really important part, folks … to show that they could nullify the will of the people, that they could silence our voices, to show that they were indifferent to, even spiteful of the quality of life we want in the Hills. To show that Democracy itself is
irrelevant to them and to anyone, any corporation with enough money. Why, again, is irrelevant. It’s simply what corporations do: they make money, as much of it as they can.

The voice of the community — thousands of us — was clearly heard by the council, and they responded appropriately in denying Maccas the permt to build in Tecoma. You had a voice, too. It wasn’t nearlly so loud. But you threw in with the folks with the big money, and, as they say, money talks. It talks, it shouts, and, in this case, it drowned out the voice of the clear majority of people. You may think that this went in your favor. Ultimately, it will not. Today you, who favor a Maccas in Tecoma, think that you’re on the “winning” side of this issue. I suspect that, before long, You will see that we all lost on this one, all of us. The voice you thought was yours was simply the Money talking — you were just mouthing the words for it. One day, soon, you will find your rights trampled, your voice silenced.

You don’t like having your rights trampled, don’t like being told to shut up?

Just give up your rights, and don’t say a thing.

Tecoma, McDonalds and the Corporatocracy

The gist of what I’ve been saying is that this isn’t really about McDonalds per se, nor is it about the people who choose to consume their products. That comes down to a matter of making personal choices, and I’m all for that. This pertains to our fight in as much as we, as a community, were not allowed to choose whether or not McDonalds would be permitted to build here. The legal and regulartory (read: planning and environment scheme) framework to support that choice were obviated by TWO people — the VCAT members Megan Carew and Geoff Rundell — who heard our case. Our community solidly and unambiguously opposed the development for reasons that, honestly, did not include whether or not the food is objectively good or bad. The reasons DID include the impact the business would have on the local community, socially, environmentally, and economically. The strongest case McDonalds could make was in that latter category and even THERE it was at best specious (sounding plausible but, with closer scrutiny, found to be false.) McDonalds likes to tout the jobs and income it will bring to the community, yet it will not reveal any details about its supply chain (it will buy most of what it sells from outside Victoria), nor will it be candid about plans to replace counter workers with self-ordering stations, thereby reducing the number of actual humans it needs to run the joint.

In the larger scope, this is not something that is unique to McDonalds. Rather, they are behaving with the same sort of dearth of values and decency that is systemic to any corporation. Does this make corporations “bad” per se? I would argue, no, it does not, any more than not having such values makes a saw or lawn mower “bad”. What these all have in common are that they are TOOLS, the intent of which, ultimately, is to give us HUMANS a better quality of life. They do this by making tough jobs easier, or — and this applies to corporations — allowing us to accomplish things together in groups that would be highly difficult or even impossible as individuals.

Things go pear-shaped when we, individually or corporately, lose sight of this very simple truth: we all just want to live the best life possible. We forget that this requires a balance between what’s “good” for us individually and what’s good for us collectively. When that balance is lost, when those responsible for the vision and guidance (call it governance) of a corporation lose their way, when their moral compass deviates from the optimal path to simply the fastest (i.e. get-richest-quickest one, we have a TOOL operating without an artisan in control, a ship — perhaps even a massive one — assundering all in its path. The fate of all such rudderless vessels can be found in the shoals and reefs of history, succumbed to the tides that are the “business cycle”, and driven aground by the winds of fashion they themselves may have helped to create.

A socially responsible corporation is a very powerful tool for good in this world. if McDonalds were to actually adhere to their own high-sounding statements, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, there would be no McDonalds in Tecoma or the Dandenongs, and they wouldn’t be such a huge contributor to childhood (and adult) obesity and diabetes in ‘western” (and westernised) countries.

The sad truth is that McDonalds, like so many corporations today, is not socially responsible. Instead of being guided by people, the corporate mantra — make money for the shareholders, all else be damned — is the guiding principal. The only thing standing in the way of any corporation simply robbing us blind or even killing us for the sake of profit is the body of law by which we — people — form them and by which they are regulated. The aim of corporations, that is, making money above all else, being what it is, has of late become one of undermining and eliminating these regulatory structures. To put it simply, corporations want to BE the government, not be restrained by it.

In despotic regimes, they do this by simple bribery, whch their great (and growing) wealth facilitates. Democracies, however, present corporations with a vastly different problem: Money is worthless in that realm; the voice(s) of the governed are what count, for it is THEY who empower democratic government.

So, what to do? Get rid of democracy, that’s what. But … how? You could try the direct method: hire armies of mercenaries and overthrow the government by force. This has been tried, and even succeeded over the past few centuries, but it more often than not proves to be costlier in the end than the less direct method. Disempower the government by disempowering the GOVERNED.

If you can, little by little, replace various, key elements of democratic government with ostensibly legal, but otherwise undemocratic, unelected, unaccountable ones that seem functionally equivalent, you can gradually close off all the avenues of remedy when those replacement elements begin to favor the corporatocracy. You don’t eliminate the democratic process; you put a price on it, and a high one at that, in currency that corporations have, that we do not — money.

Which brings us back to our fight against McDonalds. VCAT was created to help “streamline” the court system in Victoria, which was drowning in small claims, tenant-landlord, falure-to-pay, and so forth cases. To be fair, it has greatly increased the speed and, arguably, the equity with which such cases are now dispensed. However, it can, and does, routinely overstep its bounds, as it did in our case. When this happens, the only recourse is to the Victorian Supreme Court. But this is, and always has been, a hugely expensive proposition for any litigant. It is made doubly so when such cases award costs to the “loser”.

We, of Tecoma and Shire of Yarra Ranges, used the tools of democracy — our elected, accountable council — to examine, debate, and finally turn down McDonalds permit. McDonalds lawyers were ready for this, knowing that it would go to VCAT and that there, they could put on a case that, for all its “legal” verbiage would come down to who could throw the more ostentatious party — who could spend the most. Clearly, that was McDonalds. They had literally NO case, legally; the VCAT members’ ruling never even questioned whether council had the right (and responsibility) to deny the permit. VCAT’s decision was all about finding a way to interpret planning law that would be favorable to McDonalds.

McDonalds, then, is merely the current battlefield on which a much, much larger fight is being fought: to bring corporations to heel, to do what they’re supposed to do, to be ruled by us, not be tools for the wealthy few to rule us.

What Our Protest Means to Me

Our protest isn’t about McDonalds per se. Our protest is mainly about protecting the democratic process by which we determine the character and composition of our community. Our local council spent months carefully studying the McDonalds application. They also received an unprecedented number of written objections from our community — over 1,100 of them — and carefully considered the application before finally, unanimously voting to deny it, as is their right and responsibility under planning scheme clause 65.

McDonalds took the game to a “court” where democracy is irrelevant, where the party who can put on the more expensive show stands the better chance of winning. McDonalds, having the bigger purse, won in that venue. Two people, who are not judges — they’re not even lawyers — who are not elected, but appointed by the governor general, overturned our council’s decision after just a few days of hearings and deliberation.

Our council considered an appeal to the Vic supreme court, but McDonalds had already threatened to sue for costs should that appeal fail. Afraid of the risk of having to pay perhaps as much as a million dollars or more in the event of such a loss, the council voted against pursuing it further. This was a matter of dollars winning out over democracy, plain and simple.

This isn’t just about McDonalds and why it may or may not be good for your health or for the community. This is about large corporations circumventing or altogether obviating the democratic process by using unelected, unaccountable decision-making entities such as VCAT. Today it’s about McDonalds in Tecoma. Tomorrow, it could well be about gas drilling or a landfill in YOUR town. THAT is what our fight is really about.