Taking the risk for a world without internment camps

As discussions about the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale quickly turned to calls for a boycott, as various articles appeared in arts media on the boycott and elsewhere on Transfield, as open letters were sent by participants in the Biennale to its Board requesting they sever their ties to Transfield and, not least, as these discussions were taking place against the backdrop of terrible events—including one death—at the Australian Government’s detention centre on Manus Island, the question that kept emerging in various ways throughout these conversations has been that of risk

For while there are indeed serious questions involved here about liability for human rights violations, and in particular organisational structures that incline toward enabling blame-shifting, the issue of risk and risk-shifting has not been specified nor directly addressed. Risk means, simply put, navigating uncertainties. It implies not only a consideration of factors, of nuance and information. It is not only a question of the criteria used to ascertain risk, from utilitarian considerations of a cost-benefit analysis to more everyday juggling between incommensurate desires and competing priorities.

More crucially, the very possibility of taking a risk involves having the ability and scope to navigate the uncertainties of life—and it is this very question of freedom of movement (and its detainment) that lies at the centre of what is an unfolding whirlwind of speculation. Because while many of us engage in conjecture, the risk of seeking asylum across the seas to Australia is an incalculable and uninsurable one. The thousands who have drowned in ocean passage bears grim testament to this. But, still, people continue to seek asylum because they have made the decision that it is better to take the risk of flight than to stay where they are. Successive Australian governments have responded to this by, in effect and by design, making Australia a far more horrific destination than where people are fleeing from. This is the presumed ‘logic’ of a deterrence strategy, and it has indeed yielded horrors both real and symbolic.

Companies such as Transfield and Serco convert the incalculable risk of those seeking asylum into the calculable one of profit. It is this very detention and capture of bodies in flight (made possible by the policy of mandatory detention) that provides the mechanism for that conversion. There are, then, a range of risks involved. But this is a very particular kind of risk that is traded on – in very real and clear ways by Transfield Services Ltd on the Australian Stock Exchange and (as an investment) by Transfield Holdings.

And, as everyone who has considered making a bet knows, the worse the odds, the better the potential payoff. In other words, for speculative capital, there are potentially huge windfalls in what is also a particularly risky business – so long as they can limit their own liabilities, externalise the bad risks, and so on.

Risk, and indeed speculation on risk, is a crucial part of all of the dimensions of the conversations now occurring about Transfield’s involvement in the sponsorship of the arts and mandatory detention. Many of us are invited to think about the risks of mandatory detention and our implication in its financial circuits, from the arts to superannuation funds. There are a range of positions within this conversations that are in no way the same. Artists and participants have been weighing the risks of withdrawing from the Biennale against those of contributing the cultural value of their work to a company that profits from detention. Prospective audiences are wondering whether or not their enjoyment of an art festival has more value to them than an end to the Australian Government’s policy of mandatory detention. For many others the deliberations have been seemed much faster, but in reality they too have involved pausing and thinking before doing something that would have otherwise seemed natural, a part of the job.As an art educator, Matt Kiem considered the question of whether or not to take his students to the Biennale having read a tiny blog post and Biennale literature in the space of a few days—and he decided to write an open letter calling for a boycott.

For people who have been in the detention camps or have had friends and family there or still do, the question has been posed and answered in a much starker way. RISE released this statement, which read in part: “Australia and Transfield have the blood of refugees on their hands. … we ask that you take a stand and not participate or support this event or any other event that benefits from the dirty profits of Australia’s racist, anti-refugee industry.”

But it is important to be clear that from the perspective of finance—that is, from the perspective of Transfield Services Ltd’s shareprice as a bet on the future and Transfield Holdings as an investment company—the issue of risk can be shifted around in far more elaborate ways than indicated above.

There are a range of ways to engage in risk-shifting. Investment practices are increasingly defined by hedging—otherwise known as ‘having your cake and eating it too.’ Portfolio diversification allows companies to take contradictory positions in the market, to invest in, say, both mandatory detention and criticism of it.

From Transfield’s perspective, as is usual practice in large corportations, it is undoubtedly possible to do a cost-benefit analysis of the range of emergent positions within discussions about the campaign for a boycott, and to set this against its multi-million dollar contracts with the Australian Government to run the detention centres on Manus and Nauru. The Biennale’s invitation to include opposition to mandatory detention in the festival while not eschewing sponsorship by that industry is the best possible outcome for Transfield. It is not simply a ‘win-win,’ but the addition of the edgy value of dissent to the brand. The Open Letter by participants in this year’s Biennale to the Board has however been clear: “Participation is an active endorsement, providing cultural capital for Transfield.”

So perhaps these instances of risk-shifting have begun to move in another way. Perhaps it has become possible to not only speculate on past and future worlds, but on the here and now considerations of how to end mandatory detention and the now-easily predictable, grindingly foreseeable horrors that this system continues to generate and in which we have become implicated. This involves risks. But what great art has ever been risk-averse?

[For more on borders, risk & speculation, see Mitropoulos (2012), Contract & Contagion and some of the discussion here.)

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