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.  Rather, 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 regulatory (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 occasionally succeeds, 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 in seemingly endless supply, that we, as individuals generally do not — money.

Which brings us back to our fight against McDonalds. VCAT is a clear example of how a democratic process is replaced with one that is undemocratic and unaccountable.  VCAT was created to help “streamline” the lower court system in Victoria, which was, according to the MPs behind the legislation that created VCAT, “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.

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