A gentle reminder: unions are part of the detention industry

Recent weeks have seen the introduction and review of laws designed to protect the operations of Australia’s immigration detention system, as well as the launching of the disturbing new Border Force agency. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership also now look set to push through changes to their party’s position on boat turnbacks at their national conference this weekend, effectively adopting the position of the Abbott lead Coalition government.

Various commentators have rightly decried the complicity of the ALP and their consistent capitulation to racism. However few if any have looked to explain this as action that helps to protect the investments that a sizeable number of unions have in the continuation of the detention industry. These investments are especially notable given various oppositional statements and activities that many of these same unions have made with respect to mandatory detention, an apparent contradiction that draws into question the strategic intent of such gestures. What does it mean, in short, to make a public statement of opposition to detention while at the same time remaining quiet about one’s role in financing this very industry? Or more directly, are unions indeed committed to ending detention or are they in fact hedging their bets?

To summarise the point to be made here, Australian unions are a constitutive component of the border industrial complex. The actions of the ALP help to protect these investments and manage the risks associated. The investments of unions in the detention industry comes in the form of both financing detention centre contractors through industry superannuation funds as well as recruitment strategies directed at detention and immigration control workers. To this picture we can also add a number of social service and mental health organisations which play a role in either financing detention contractors or charity-washing for directors otherwise involved in the detention industry.

The drawing of these connections not only provides a further explanation for the failures of the ALP but, more positively, maps a part of the detention industry supply chain that can be acted upon by members of a significant number of unions, industry super funds and non-government organisations.

Detention, industry superannuation funds and unions

Operational Matters first reported on union links to detention financing through industry super funds on 30 January 2014, a day after Transfield Services announced plans to take over “Garrison Support Services and Welfare” at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. The signing of this contract, one of nine detention industry contracts and worth a total of $2.46bn, made Transfield Services the largest contractor involved in the running of offshore detention centres.

An industry super fund is a non-shareholder fund managed by employer and employee representatives from a particular industry. The boards responsible for directing the investments of industry super funds are composed of an equal share of employer and employee representatives, which in most cases includes a significant share of union appointed representatives.

Since 17 January 2014, investment manager Allan Gray had been declared a substantial shareholder of Transfield Services, with a share of over 18%[1]. Allan Gray is an investment manager used by a number of industry super funds, including CBUS, REST, Hostplus, NGS Super, Maritime Super and Catholic Superannuation Fund, as well as Qantas Superannuation Plan (a corporate super fund).

To date there appears to have been no change in this situation. Allan Gray remains a large shareholder in Transfield Sevices, with reports from February 2015 indicating a 19% stake. Allan Gray continues to be listed as an investment manager for CBUS, REST, Hostplus, HESTA, NGS Super, Maritime Super, Catholic Superannuation Fund and Qantas Superannuation Plan.

In March 2014, Operational Matters detailed a number of investments by UniSuper, the fund for tertiary sector workers, in various companies with detention industry contracts including Transfield Services, Serco and Decmil.

Industry super funds have also become substantial shareholders of Transfield Services in their own right. HESTA, the fund for health and community service workers, declared a more than 5% share in December 2014, which it held until moving below 5% in February 2015. REST, the fund for retail employees, became a substantial shareholder in June 2015.

Of the super funds so far named, the unions involved in their directorship include:

  • Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) – CBUS, previously HESTA
  • Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) – CBUS
  • Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) – HESTA
  • Australian Services Union (ASU) – HESTA
  • Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) – CBUS
  • Communication, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) – CBUS
  • Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) – CBUS
  • Health Services Union (HSU) – HESTA
  • Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) – Maritime Super
  • National Tertiary Education Unions (NTEU) – Unisuper
  • Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) – REST
  • United Voice – HESTA, Hostplus


Calls to divest

Calls to divest have come from a range of actors including union and fund members, often as a result of or with the support of work by Operational Matters and HESTAdivest.net

On 12 March 2014 the ASU national executive adopted a resolution calling for HESTA to divest from Transfield Services. The resolution appears to have been driven by Sally McManus, then president of the ASU’s NSW/ACT branch. McManus has since left the ASU for a position at the ACTU. Since McManus’ departure, momentum has stalled, with the ASU offering no public response to HESTA increasing its investment in Transfield Services to over 5% in December 2014.

Following a resolution by the Victoria University branch in April 2014, up to five branches of the NTEU along with the National Conference passed calls for Unisuper to divest from detention centre contractors. In March 2015, Grahame McCulloch, NTEU General Secretary and Unisuper director, stated that Unisuper no longer had any “exposure” to Transfield Services. No mention was made of connections to other contractors nor was guarantee made that Unisuper would not reinvest in Transfield Services. Following McCulloch’s statement, the campaign for divestment within the NTEU has effectively come to a standstill.

The most recent call for divestment from within a union came in June 2015 with a motion from Tara Nipe passed at the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (Victorian Branch) Delegates’ Conference. While a much welcome development, signs of resistance from ANMF leadership – Brett Holmes, General Secretary NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association and HESTA director, has previously defended HESTA’s investments – suggests the need to continue building focused and sustained pressure.

In summary, despite much effort on the part of both union and non-union organisers, no industry super fund has yet declared that it has completely and permanently divested from detention.

Unions representing border control workers

United Voice has been organising detention centre workers, including guards, since 2009. As the numbers of members working in detention centres has grown, sources from inside the union have noted a diminishment in the union’s public opposition to detention policies, including an effective silence over laws that give stronger protections to guards to use deadly force against detainees. United Voice has also taken positions against the closure of onshore detention centres in Tasmania and Darwin.

The recent amalgamation of Customs and Immigration into the Australian Border Force drew the CPSU into dispute with the government over the termination of the Customs enterprise bargaining agreement. This campaign, however, should not be mistaken as resistance to the running of Border Force operations as such. As has been the case with United Voice, industrial action of this kind helps the union to both retain and increase its membership base in this industry.

The point that requires underlining in both of these cases is that open opposition on the part of a union to either a government employer or detention contractor cannot be read as opposition to the industry itself. As the position taken by United Voice with respect to onshore detention centres demonstrates, unions who receive revenue from members who work for the detention industry establish a vested interest in its continuation. As is the case with police unions, unions who represent the interests of border control workers also develop an interest in protecting their members from the consequences of the violence that is inherent to their work.

Social Services Sector and Mental Health Organisations

There are a number of known connections between the detention industry and various social service and mental health organisations.

  • The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), representing a large body of health, community, and social service organisations, has a representative on the board of HESTA.
  • REST is a corporate partner with headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.
  • The founder and chair of Beyond Blue is Jeff Kennett, a former Premier of Victoria, who expressed support for offshore camps and at one point suggested the parents of children in immigration detention were to blame for the mental health conditions of child detainees.


The role of the ALP

The ALP has been integral to the continuation of mandatory detention since it introduced the policy in 1992.

Recently the ALP has been involved in either passing or negotiating changes to laws related to the detention industry which can be read not simply as a capitulation to the Coalition but also as a means to shore up the various investments of unions detailed above.

In late June 2015, the Coalition and ALP scrambled to pass legislation to secure the funding of mandatory detention in response to a high court challenge that threatened to rule the existing contractual arrangements illegal.

The ALP has also helped to pass a new law that criminalises detention centre staff who speak out about conditions in detention centres, over which health care professionals and child care protection bodies have expressed serious concern. As these laws continue the process of militarising Australia’s border control system, they also help to protect the financial and reputational interests of detention contractors by censoring whistle-blowers. In effect, these laws complement the already existing practices of Transfield executives under Senate committee review. The position of the ALP has been to push for amendments to the bill rather than opposing it outright. The bill has the potential to protect United Voice staff and detention centre contractors from being found criminally liable for the violence inherent to the running of detention centres.

[1] In finance, “substantial shareholder” is a technical term referring to a company or individual who owns more than a 5% share in a company. Becoming a substantial shareholder carries disclosure obligations, meaning that details of the shareholding must be announced to the ASX.

A gentle reminder: unions are part of the detention industry

On allies and mandatory detention.

Over recent months I have been involved in several debates in which a critique of an organisation over its border politics has been met with defensive claims over the status and proper treatment of “allies.” “These organisations are our allies,” the argument begins, “so we shouldn’t be seen to critique them in public or use tactics that might harm their reputation or operations as a means of achieving change,” is what is then more or less explicitly implied. The primary intention of such a move is not so much about tone policing (even if this may be an element of what is at play) but defining and enforcing preconceived notions of legitimate political action. In effect it amounts to drawing a protective boundary around certain political actors for whom attribution of the status “ally” is deemed a warrant for a moderated treatment. The consistency with which such a claim has been made provides good cause to examine the concept of the ally, particularly with respect to how it is used to shield relatively powerful and well resourced parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against critique from an anti-borders position.

From the outset it is worth stating that neither myself nor xBorder have any strong investment in the concept of the ally. The focus of the xBorder collective’s work is on ending all forms of mandatory detention and in this respect its central concepts include the border, sovereignty, the colonial and the autonomy of migration*. The issue at stake in this discussion relates to the way lines of social conflict, struggle, and solidarity are articulated and understood. In this respect ally discourse is merely one way of framing this conversation and it is certainly not beyond reproach or critique from different positions or perspectives. The relative emptiness of the term in particular leaves it open to co-option as simply the latest way to brand a salvation or charity approach to political work. That said, my interest here is not to expand on what has already been said about those who adopt the term for themselves but, rather, to address  the particular issue of how the term mobilised to defend institutional political formations against anti-border critique. What follows here, therefore, is a brief examination of two ally discourses on their own terms followed by a discussion of the problems, not simply semantic but political, that arise when the term is used to moderate or deflect anti-border critique.

Within the political spaces I’m familiar with there are two major discourses of allyship. They tend to blur and overlap in practice but can nevertheless be distinguished and traced back to different discursive contexts. The first of these can be located in theories of strategy that circulate amongst activist groups, NGOs, unions and professionalised campaign organisations. Within this discourse the ally is generally defined along the lines of a stakeholder that a person or group can work with in order to achieve a shared set of interests. Depending on the context this understanding of allyship might be distinguished more or less clearly from the concept of a coalition partner or constituent groups. A further distinction may be made between strategic and tactical allies, that is, an alliance to achieve a long term goal compared with a short term interest in the outcome of a particular campaign.

It is important to observe that this is an instrumental rather than political theory of alliance. By this I mean that the discourse itself has no inherent political affinity and can be usefully applied to any variety of causes, not simply those that might be considered “progressive.” This instrumentalism makes the theory comparable to theories of strategic alliance within business management or international relations (it is worth noting here that the ASRC, whose board is composed of experienced corporate analysts, auditors and strategists, actively markets itself as a corporate partner. Until recently, due to public pressure from the xBorder collective, the ASRC promoted National Australia Bank as a partner despite the bank being a substantial investor in Transfield Services, the major contractor for the running of Australian offshore detention centres).

The point to emphasise here is not that this kind instrumentalism renders this concept of ally useless — it clearly does (the) work (it is intended to achieve). Rather, the point is to acknowledge that an instrumental concept is no substitute for a coherent politics, anti-border or otherwise. However, as versions of the discourse across activist, corporate and diplomatic milieus make clear, alliances have meaning and definition only to the extent that those involved in the alliance share some level of political or economic interest. Within this discourse the terms under which organisation could be considered allies ought to be based on an argument of shared interest, a criteria that must be assessed by reading position statements (if they exist) or, and often more importantly, observable patterns of behaviour. Given such facts as the Greens’ support for a detention policy,** the ASRC’s checkered history of corporate alliances and practice of celebrating politicians in parties that continue to support detention, and Amnesty’s glossing of Australia’s history of border violence, the claim that such organisations are allies to an anti-detention movement must clearly come under question.

The second discourse on allyship emerges from the work of feminist, anti-racist, LGBTI, disability and other communities of struggle who theorise the place of privileged constituencies in relation to those who are disempowered along different axes of domination. The theory of the ally in this sense examines and expands upon issues relating to the role of men with respect to feminist struggle, white people with respect to anti-racist struggle etc. Much of the discussion and debate within this discourse turns on the question of the “good” ally, of how a person of privilege committed to ally work must acknowledge and reflect upon their privileges and do the intellectual and practical work to divest themselves of the illegitimate power such privilege affords. These discussions may be directed at a generalised concept of e.g. the white anti-racist ally as well as questions of what it means to develop specific and personal relations of trust between individuals and groups involved in anti-oppression work.

This conception of the ally calls to attention the place of power within relationships, structures, practices and processes, not simply the content of particular demands or objectives. In this respect, while the ally can still be thought of as someone who commits to a political objective, this conception of the ally is specifically organised with, by and in relation to the group affected by an issue. The white person and people of colour (POC) are not allies who share the same interest in anti-racist struggle. The white person is positioned as an ally to POC precisely because anti-racist struggle demands that power inequalities, or the inequalities produced by power, are to be acknowledged and addressed as a concomitant part of struggles for freedom and equality, or the freedom to be both different and equal (the concepts of freedom and equality are neither simple nor unproblematic and in this respect call for more complex reading than I will give here, save to say that a decolonial interpretation that can be set in contrast to Eurocentric universalisms comes from the Zapatista movement who state that “we are equal because we are different”).

The commitment of the ally to relinquishing the power of social privilege, including the power to unilaterally determine what such a divestment means or looks like, is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this discourse relative to instrumental theories. The contrast here is between a theory that pictures preformed parties coordinating actions with respect to a shared but separately formed set of interests and, on the other hand, a relation formed on the basis of a commitment by the ally to divest themselves of the illegitimate social power they hold over the communities they claim to support. The white anti-racist ally cannot coordinate “their” interests with POC because, insofar as they are white, such interests are not “theirs” but those of POC. For an ally to align themselves with anti-racist movements in an honest way they must do the work that leads to changes in identity and social practices. At its best the commitment of the ally in this respect is an ongoing commitment to change the self precisely as a means to produce social change. This may be more or less effective in particular cases but as a theory it entails a more distinct politics that could be described in terms of a commitment to supporting struggles for freedom, equality, or social justice. At its worst the discourse offers a language by which to re-brand persisting patterns of abuse or to facilitate what has been named the ‘ally industrial complex‘.

While the relation between instrumental and social justice theories of the ally could be discussed with more complexity my interest here is to address the issue of attributing the title to groups as a means of policing anti-border critique. In light of the social justice theory of the ally it is worth noting that within each of the debates I have been involved in neither myself, those who attribute the title, nor the groups they attribute the title to are in fact (organised by) ex-detainees or people currently in detention. Signals of opposition to the kinds of policies supported by the Greens have come from the refugee lead group RISE but theirs remains one voice in a field otherwise crowded out by larger players.

The challenge with respect to elevating the voices of those impacted by mandatory detention reveals not only the suppression of such voices themselves but the extent to which a crude interpretation of the social justice ally presupposes the construction of the essentialised other as a badge of authenticity. The politics of refugees themselves are of course plural, not singular, but such plurality is not “freely” available to re-presentation by citizens. The border is a medium that sets the terms of communication along the lines of the citizen/foreigner relation. The performative dynamics of the border structures the conditions under which refugees are solicited for information and what responses they may give. The desire of the citizen savior to find validation in the figure of the refugee thus presents itself not only as a tactical opportunity for those on either side of the border, but as a market for the extraction and circulation of a specific form of political capital — “what refugees really want” — that remains dependent upon the existence of the border itself.

The tactics deployed by those whose fortunes are tied to the benevolent sovereignty of citizens should not, therefore, be either automatically conflated with or set against a politics that aims at dismantling the detention industry as a whole. Unequivocally, this is not to suggest that refugees bear responsibility for the structural conditioning of the border, nor is this about questioning the tactics they choose to adopt. Rather, the complication to identify here is that the question of who is or is not an ally to a political cause cannot be resolved by deferring questions of politics. The task of articulating a politics that is able to learn from the work of identarian critique while also being able to think and act beyond the delimitations of “authentic identity” (particularly those identities which are delimited by the logics of the border itself) remains pertinent.

The question of the “ally,” therefore, involves a complex tension between articulating the politics at stake while remaining responsible to those who must navigate the material consequences of an issue in order to survive. It is in this respect that the work of anti-border critique, decolonial thinkers, and theories of autonomy, including that of refugees themselves, remains invaluable to an anti-border praxis. In the end, however, any decision on the part of the privileged to not decide on the question of political allegiance due to its complexity alone can only be read as a decision to align with the default status quo.

Secondly, it is important to note that borders require a mode of analysis that is inseparable from but irreducible to anti-racist, feminist, LGBTI and other positions of critique. This is to say that borders have a materiality to them which if left untheorised within a political praxis tends to permit the citizen/foreigner distinction to cut through and divide political solidarities.

An example of this problem was played out in debates about the Greens within Students Thinking Outside Borders. In response to calls for action against the Greens a claim was made that this would be a diversion from a campaign against the federal budget, a campaign in which the Greens were heavily involved and stood to earn significant political capital. Overlooked in this claim was the division made between the budgetary interests of citizens and the interests of those who are not citizens. The argument for a diminished form of action against the Greens was based on a citizen-centric conception of political priorities that prefaced and conflated the electoral interests of the Greens and the economic interests of citizens. The question of the border in general and the Greens detention policy in particular was thereby demoted as a priority of the group.

The danger here is that such an argument can be made in the context of any campaign that centers the interests of the working class, women, POC, LGBTI people etc. only in so far as they are citizens who constitute a voter constituency. The claim that the Greens warrant a certain kind of treatment because they are “allies” thus takes the form of a perverse inversion of the social justice conception of “ally” in the sense that citizens defer action against a party that promotes detention as a means of defending a particular interest in (overlooking) the divisions of the border. In this context, the move to make an issue of this deferral is an attempt to re-center the discussion on the border and its effects, to insist that this is not an issue that can wait because, simply put, there will never be a time in which it is convenient for citizens to confront their complicity in a structure that exclusively benefits them.

This example reveals what is particularly damaging in the use of the term “ally” as a means to defend parties and NGOs against anti-border critique. The protective boundary drawn around such groups represents an attempt to enforce a sense of unity amongst people and groups with otherwise serious and distinct political differences. What is really being called for in such cases is for an anti-border politics to subordinate itself to a dominant opposition so as to represent an image of a broad and united “pro-refugee movement.” Such empty signifiers as “pro-refugee” are used to collect positions as diverse as those who argue for onshore detention compared with those who argue against all forms of detention. At a stretch the term could be used to encompass arguments for the “no disadvantage test” on the grounds that it facilitates the (eventual) settlement of refugees as opposed to turning them away. In this way the emptiness of terms such as “pro-refugee” is used to level the plural but distinctive expression of an anti-border position so as to make political spaces amenable to the inclusion of racist humanitarians, “progressive” nationalists, and pro-detention advocates.

The point being made here is that the liberal pluralistic demand to include at all costs anyone who nominates themselves as “pro-refugee” leads to an endless deferral of the need to draw distinctions and take action on the basis of who does or does not support detention specifically, or the border as a whole. The problem is not the metaphor used to describe this move — whether that be the ‘banner’, the ‘tent’, the ‘team’, the ‘movement’, the ‘Left’ etc. — but the effort to prevent or police political contestation within a boundary that is so arbitrarily drawn as to include those who uphold the legitimacy of the border.

People and groups should not be told by others who their allies are. That is, surely, a matter for them to decide. To expect that smaller groups or networks modify their tactics with respect to larger and politically problematic organisations is a move that sacrifices the refusal of political pragmatism in favor of a dishonest and debilitating spectacle of unity. Within such political contests, those who appoint themselves to mediating positions in order to police the form of contestation, rather than addressing or taking sides on the issues at stake, become increasingly indistinct from those who benefit from the smooth continuation of the current order of things.

With respect to the discourses, practices and debates discussed, the concept of the “ally” clearly has a meaning that is of both instrumental and political significance. However, this meaning begins to break down and distort if the term is used to police political contestation between groups who have been meaninglessly linked together despite not sharing the same goals, interests, or commitments. If the concept of the “ally” is to remain meaningful it is important that individuals and groups are given room to define for themselves who their political allies are and the form that such an allegiance takes.

The argument being made here is in no way intended to suggest that there is one way to oppose mandatory detention. Remaining open to and defending plural forms of political praxis is not the same as the liberal pluralist project of managing (and thereby suppressing) political difference. Rather, the argument being put is that opposition to mandatory detention does not equate to using “allyship” as grounds for defending those who help sustain detention against those who are prepared to take up political contestation on these terms. The use of the term ally as a means to foster a false unity or to subordinate the work of an anti-border politics to the interests of mainstream political parties and NGOs can only undermine the meaning of the term and push individuals and groups who practice an anti-border politics into refusing its imposition.

Simply put, those who, in their differences, are opposed to mandatory detention cannot be unified with those who are not. If the meaning of allyship relates to shared goals or a commitment to divesting oneself of the privilege of citizenship it makes no sense to try and yoke divergent positions together and expect them to get along. Doing so not only suppresses political difference in a general sense but raises a specific form of reactionary opposition to the demand that (support for) mandatory detention be fully and utterly dismantled.


* The following links are provide for an overview of xBorder’s approach to anti-border politics since 2000.

** The official Greens policy makes an ambiguous statement on the question of detention before detailing provisions for holding people for “checks” for up to 30 days. In November 2014 the Greens published a press release declaring support for a plan to provide the Tasmanian government with a $1billion incentive package to re-establish a “processing” centre in Tasmania and an economic program to place people undergoing processing in rural areas. This follows support by Tasmania Greens leaders for a similar proposal in 2013.

On allies and mandatory detention.

Culture Washing: Operation Sovereign Borders, Transfield, and The Festival of Dangerous Ideas | #FODI

Note: An earlier version of this graphic depicts Douglas Sneddon as an existing board member of St James Ethics Centre. We now know that Sneddon left the St James Ethics Centre board in April 2014 and left the St James Ethics Foundation board in May 2014. The graphic above depicts the current connections as indicated on the St James Ethics Centre’s website.


Peter Nelson: Open letter from an arts worker and an artist

Dear friends,

Many of you might know that I work as an art installer and technician for a number of organisations in Sydney. A couple of weeks ago I was excited and humbled to be offered a position as an AV technician at the MCA. I have worked there for five days now, and it’s the sort of job and workplace where I actually look forward to going to work, both for the great people and the challenging tasks thrown at us (yes, that IS a projector pun).

All of the institutions I work for unanimously agree that they like to employ artists as technicians and installers — we are well-suited for the technical challenges and understand the nature and context of the artworks themselves.

It is as an artist that I have made this decision. The Arts are charged with reflecting and criticising society, but it is so rare that an issue of such political poignancy falls directly at the feet of the arts community. In my heart, I know that it would be impossible to return to the studio, knowing that when faced with a decision of direct relevance, I did nothing.

This morning, I resigned from Biennale of Sydney installation work at both the MCA and ArtSpace. The relationship between the Biennale and the punitive practice of Mandatory Detention is a context that I feel I am unable to work within.

It upsets me that the people directly affected by this will be those who were good enough to offer me the work, and those with whom I work alongside. This is a not a choice I had ever imagined myself making, but I thought this through from as many angles as I could, and kept returning to the same outcome. An arts community has to be credible, it has to be about something. For me to equivocate and delay on a situation that I knew in my heart to be wrong would make life as an artist feel empty and meaningless.

Yours truly,

Peter Nelson

Originally published on Peter Neslon’s Facebook page. Go like, share, and give your support to Peter.

Peter Nelson: Open letter from an arts worker and an artist

Four more artists withdraw from the 19th Biennale of Sydney

March 5th 2014

After much consideration we: Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray, have decided to withdraw our works from the 19th Biennale of Sydney, because of its relation to Transfield, a company involved in the Australian government policy of mandatory detention.

Our motivations reflect those outlined in the statement issued by artists Ögüt, Castro, Ólafsson, Sofo and de Vietri on February 26th, added as a reference with this letter. They close their statement by expressing their hope that others will join them in “solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers.” Our withdrawal is such an act of solidarity.

We have requested the Biennale that our withdrawal be registered on their website and signposted at the physical site of exhibition, so that this action will not be unnoticed.

With Regards,

Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide,  Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray

Contact: 2014workinggroup@gmail.com

Four more artists withdraw from the 19th Biennale of Sydney

Plinth Projects: Statement on the Biennale of Sydney

Plinth Projects Inc. supports a boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

The Biennale’s major sponsor, Transfield, recently deepened its relationship with the Australian Government’s increasingly cruel and unethical regime of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, by signing a $1.22 billion, 20 month, contract to manage the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Transfield derives significant cultural capital from its patronage of the Biennale. As the Board of Directors of the Biennale has refused to prioritise the concerns of participating artists and insisted on retaining its relationship with Transfield, it is our belief that the art community must hold the Biennale and its sponsor to account.

Plinth Projects Inc. encourages artists and art audiences who wish to see the end of mandatory detention to support a boycott that serves to diminish the cultural value of Transfield’s brand.

We believe this can only be achieved if we act collectively as a concerned community, rather than making private ethical judgements (as the Board of the Biennale would prefer).

Plinth Projects Inc. believes that a collective refusal to participate in, or attend, the Biennale of Sydney, is a powerful symbolic action in the ongoing campaign to bring an end to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.


Plinth Projects is a not-for-profit artist-run public art program, engaging the empty plinth at the centre of Melbourne’s Edinburgh Gardens in the exhibition of temporary public works.

Plinth Projects: Statement on the Biennale of Sydney

Diego Bonetto, exhibition installer at MCA, walks off the job over links with Transfield

Open Letter to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

3 March 2014

Hi guys, you know me. I have been working at the Museum for the past 12 years as a casual installer.

In this time, I have seen lots ofthings, lots of changes, lots of power struggles and heard endlessamount of art gossip.

I am walking out of my job for this install.

It was all fine and dandy as we were taking down Yoko Ono, but then when we started working on installing the next exhibition, the 19th Biennale of Sydney, my guts began to revolt.

We all know what’s at stake here.

We all know that despite whatever we want to say to one another and the public, Transfield money is dirty money. Bloody money.

I am not inciting anyone into any action they do not want to do. I am not making a big fuss and/or painting slogans all over the walls. I respect the place, and most of all, I respect the people working within.

There are great mates at the MCA who have known me and what I do for a long time. They respect me and I respect them.

So this morning, I walked in, I stated my intentions and continued to help the crew sort themselves out, as I did not want to leave them stranded.

Once sorted, I walked out, and I am not coming back to help with this bloody 19th Biennale of Sydney.

You are all intelligent people, you all know what’s at stake

By all means, bring on the show, as we have done plenty before. But this time would be hard to ignore the reality of people sufferings.

This would actually be the time to senda clear message to the Australian government that its current asylumseeker policies are ‘ethically indefensible and a breach of humanrights’.

However you want to look at it, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is directly implicated in this.

Some journalist the other day said that after talking to Luca he felt sorry for him.

So do I, I replied. I feel sorry forhim, the Biennale and the MCA.

But I feel way more sorry for the innocent people locked up on an island off the coast of Australia.

With all due respect

Diego Bonetto



Originally posted on Bonetto’s Facebook page.

Diego Bonetto, exhibition installer at MCA, walks off the job over links with Transfield

Arts sector workers and educators boycotting the 19th Biennale of Sydney

To the organisers of the 19th Biennale of Sydney,

We are workers and educators in the arts sector.

We were concerned to hear that a major sponsor of the Biennale, Transfield, is currently contracted to assist with the running of Regional Processing Centres (RPCs) on Nauru and Manus Island. These RPCs are part of the infrastructure of the Australian Government’s policy of mandatory detention, a policy that has been condemned by organisations such as the UNHCR for human rights abuses and breaches of international law. The Nauru and Manus Island RPCs in particular have come under criticism for the harsh and inhumane conditions in which people seeking asylum have been kept.

We note in this respect that RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees – Australia’s only organisation run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees – support a complete boycott of the Biennale.

We feel that it would be irresponsible on our part to support an event funded with profits made from the inhumane detention of people seeking asylum in Australia.

For this reason we wish to inform you that we have decided to boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

Dr Lorraine Bower
Ross Coady
Christie Cooper
Mark Gerada
Dr Matthew Holt
Matthew Kiem
Penelope Lee
Dr Suzanne Osmond
Naomi Solomon

Please let us know in  a comment below if you would like to add your name to this letter.

Arts sector workers and educators boycotting the 19th Biennale of Sydney

Collated links for 19th Biennale of Sydney Boycott

schainCall outs and arguments in favour of the boycott

Statements of support and intent to boycott

Collated links for 19th Biennale of Sydney Boycott

Joostice backs boycott of Sydney Biennale


We write this open letter to join in the call for a boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney. We encourage artists and audiences to stand up for what is right and help disrupt a supply chain that profits from human misery. Continue reading “Joostice backs boycott of Sydney Biennale”

Joostice backs boycott of Sydney Biennale