Sites of Nationalist Border Controls in the Design-Tech Industry

By Reggie Williamson

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) is the Australian government body that develops the online delivery of government services. The scale, scope, and support for this work – modelled on the U.K.’s Government Digital Service – has made the DTA an industry-defining employer. As such, the DTA’s employment policies play a significant role in shaping job opportunities and conditions for design-tech workers in Australia. The DTA recently adopted security measures that demonstrate an increasing (re)entrenchment and unabashed positioning of the Australian state’s nationalist and authoritarian political agenda. These include a requirement for all DTA contractors and employees to be Australian citizens, and for personnel to complete a security clearance that seeks to reveal supposedly suspicious or concerning connections, political beliefs, and sexual behaviours. Although these requirements have been in place for Australian public servants for some years, this is significant in that it is now being applied to sub-contractors in the design-tech industry. Amid these developments, design-tech workers in Australia are seeking to organise, putting a spotlight on how those in the design-tech industry might, or might not, confront issues of authoritarian governance and nationalist border controls as they affect workers within and beyond the design-tech industries.

The Trusted Insider Threat

The recent push for new security measures arose from a 2017-18 audit conducted by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). Then Attorney-General George Brandis began these efforts in 2014 to address what was called a ‘threat posed by trusted insiders’. Two security breaches prompted Brandis’ concerns: the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaks of 2013. Snowden’s leaks revealed global surveillance programs run by telecommunications companies and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada). Manning’s leaks revealed intelligence campaigns and the details of over 100,000 murders that implicated Western forces following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By the Attorney-General’s measure, public knowledge of such details constituted a threat to the national interest and warranted a campaign to mitigate ‘insider threats’.

A report by the Attorney-General’s department also suggested that Manning’s motivations for the leaks may have stemmed from Manning’s ‘ideological conflict with the war in Iraq’ and ‘struggles’ with ‘homosexuality and gender identity’. By making this suggestion, the Attorney-General frames those who do not support military conquest or who are not heteronormative as potential threats to be treated with suspicion.

As an agency that is overseeing the government’s information technologies, the DTA is a core site of the Australian state’s concerns. To address these concerns the DTA has implemented a new security clearance process formally referred to as the Protective Security Policy Framework (PSPF), a procedure that is typically processed and granted by the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA) branch of the Department of Defense. In addition to this introduction, the DTA has committed to implementing stronger security measures by 31 July 2018 to align with the ANAO’s suggestions.

The Trusted Insider Threat of the Other

While the ANAO and Attorney-General explicitly focused on the perceived threat of the ‘insider’, the details of the DTA’s new clearance process reveal an approach to ‘national security’ that is centred on xenophobia. The first question in the personal screener asks the applicant:

‘Do you have feelings of loyalty or allegiance to any other country?’

The first question in the DTA security clearance process

What exactly constitutes loyalty or allegiance is not clear to the applicant, but the ANAO report reveals ‘risk factor areas’ to include ‘external loyalties, influences and associations’, where an alleged security concern includes the possession of ‘foreign citizenship’ or ‘contact with foreign nationals’.

The security process also requires referrals from the applicant’s peers. Professional and personal relations (i.e. workplace supervisors and friends) are asked to assess the applicant’s character based on:

  • if they have exhibited ‘extreme political, religious or racial views’
  • if they are loyal to or maintain contact with ‘foreign persons or organisations’
  • if they have exhibited behaviour that might signify financial concerns, including ‘unexplained wealth’
  • examples of any ‘sexual behaviour, preference or activities that may prove embarrassing’ to the applicant
  • their attitudes toward law enforcement

What warrants suspicion in the Australian state’s view is an applicant’s deviations from  whiteness and other normative standards. If suspicions do not already exist, the clearance process primes people – especially employers – to consider such deviations to be suspicious, thus fostering a xenophobic culture. The Attorney-General states that all ‘[t]rusted insiders… have placed personal motivations and needs ahead of their obligations to their employer’ and in doing so invokes the capitalist fear of the working class as an irrational threat to capital that needs to be controlled and disciplined.

How information about the applicant is procured and handled is of additional concern. The applicant does not need to approve referee contributions, and referees are assured that their contributions will not be shared with the applicant:

The information page of the referee report reveals that applicant consent is not required.

This process allows referees to provide any personal suspicions they may have about an applicant without the applicant’s consent, indicating a disregard for consent and privacy.

Many aspects of the vetting procedure are ostensibly centred on enforcing nationalist border controls, a detail that indicates a shift from the rationale of defending against the ‘trusted insider’ to a racialised national threat. This is especially evident in the choice to enforce citizenship requirements despite both Manning and Snowden being citizens of the United States themselves. The Australian state demonstrates such a firm approach to mitigating ‘insider threats’ that non-citizens are seen as too great a risk to even allow ‘in’ in the first place. This reveals a nationalist logic that holds the ‘insider’ threat to come not from an ‘insider’, but from the act of allowing an ‘outsider’ to come ‘in’.

The ‘Other’ – in normative sexual, political, racial, cultural, and religious terms – is framed as the real threat. The result is to exclude and censor those who do not possess Australian citizenship, or who cannot meet the xenophobic standards that the DTA’s new security measures are attempting to reinforce.

The Broader Ideological Situation

The DTA’s adoption of a new clearance process is not an isolated occurrence. It is part of a broader project to normalise and entrench white nationalism and authoritarian governance in Australia and throughout the Western world more generally. We need not look far to spot the patterns. Italy’s far-right Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, is looking to count and expel the Roma population of Italy to put ‘Italians and their safety first’, deeming it unfortunate that Roma with citizenship cannot be deported. Amid its campaign to separate families at the border, the United States formed a new task force to investigate naturalised citizens and revoke citizenship for those they deem to have been wrongly naturalised.

Australia’s culture of xenophobia is not isolated from these developments. Only last year did Donald Trump express delight at Australia’s mandatory detention policies:

Turnbull exchanging border control techniques with Trump in 2017

Indeed, as Angela Mitropoulos has argued, Australia has often set the precedent for how other Western nations have controlled their borders and conducted authoritarian surveillance. Undocumented migrants who arrive in Australia by boat have been placed in mandatory detention since 1992; deployed preemptive policing technologies since 2000; and regularly promotes its techniques of border control to other Western countries just as Abbott did in the U.K., and Turnbull has been doing in the U.S. and Germany. The DTA’s security measures are part of interconnected attempts by Western states to tighten surveillance and border controls.  And, as part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, we should not understate the global implications of Australia’s experiments.

The Consequences for Design-Tech Workers

The consequences of the DTA’s new security process are immediate. The security clearance has been described as ‘invasive and protracted’, and many design-tech workers have voiced extreme concern about this process and the direction of Australian politics. Several design-tech workers who have contracted to the DTA for years no longer meet these security requirements due only to a lack of citizenship. Other design-tech workers who have recently moved to Australia have been denied opportunities on this same basis.

Rather than confronting this turn, design-tech employers are looking to hire workers with Australian citizenship for the sole purpose of meeting the DTA’s new requirement. This development amounts to an attack on workers by devaluing non-citizens and supporting a logic that presents them as security threats, which adds to the barriers that non-citizens already face. To be complicit in this turn is to support and benefit from nationalist border controls that betray fellow workers while also normalising a project of white supremacy that has global implications.

The Grievances of Design-Tech Workers

Design-tech workers are a key source of labour power that the Australian state depends on to design, build, and remain complicit in border control techniques. As such, design-tech workers are well positioned to either resist this development, or enable it. These factors have implications for how recent efforts to organise design-tech workers will be guided.

Tech workers in the United States have recently unionised to apply collective pressure on Google, Amazon, and Microsoft regarding their involvement with the military, and techniques of authoritarian surveillance and border controls. These developments have caused excitement in the Australian scene for those who are passionate about these issues but currently lack the means to unionise. Now-energised design-tech workers in Australia are searching for opportunities to mobilise in a context where the given means are limited. The Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) #ChangeTheRules campaign has also caught the attention of design-tech workers, many of whom are looking to ACTU affiliated unions for mobilisation opportunities.

A site of more targeted design-tech unionising is How Might We Do Good (HMWDG), a transnational collective of autonomously organised design-tech workers that has sought to build intersectional solidarity. Recent efforts in Melbourne have also appealed to design-tech grievances with a public meeting. This same group held a joint Melbourne-Sydney forum framed as an opportunity for design-tech workers to ‘Meet our Unions’ by engaging with Australian union representatives.

Where HMWDG has sought to unionise on an autonomous basis, the efforts in Melbourne will bridge gaps between the design-tech industry and Australian unions. This has implications for how the power and focus of design-tech organising will be guided. As such, it is a matter of great importance to understand what is at stake if this bridge is made.

Nationalist Entanglements: The Directions of Design-Tech Unionising

It is clear to many that detention centres and military warfare are sites of xenophobic and nationalist conduct. More often overlooked, however, is that these very industries are in fact supported rather than opposed by Australian unions. While the issue of union support for the detention industry has previously been detailed and challenged by the xBorder network, it is worth examining how complicity on this front is already being incorporated into efforts at organising design-tech workers.

The Melbourne-Sydney forum included the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), Professionals Australia (PA), and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). The ways that these unions are complicit in nationalist practices is clear. The AMWU has opposed allowing foreign workers into Australia suggesting that it is against the national interest, and are on a superannuation board that has refused to stop investing in detention centres. Professionals Australia represents military scientists and engineers, promotes the construction of military technologies for nationalist interests, and upholds ‘Australia first’ rhetoric through its opposition to 457 visas. The MEAA were also implicated in detention financing via the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and Media Super. Each of these unions are affiliated with the ACTU and as such they are all complicit in nationalism through their support for the #ChangeTheRules campaign, which holds a policy position stating that ‘the interest of local workers must be paramount’.

The ACTU’s policy on migrant workers

By providing a platform for these unions to engage with design-tech workers, the Melbourne-Sydney union forum gives the ACTU network the opportunity to tailor their appeal to design-tech workers, and sets up unions to absorb design-tech workers into existing union power structures that are complicit in the very kinds of issues that many design-tech workers oppose. There is also the potential to further embolden ‘Australia first’ policies by gaining access to design-tech workers who agree with such efforts.

The newly deployed security measures of the DTA and the complicity of ACTU associated unions are not minor details that can be brushed aside in a pursuit of worker power. Such details are the meshwork within which grander projects of white supremacy are made possible. Indeed, for those who are directly affected, these are not minor details at all. The changes to the DTA’s security process alone accentuate the already-existing rates of exploitation experienced by design-tech workers, especially those who are already affected by racist, sexist, and homophobic structures. Such a development is not possible without large scale complicity, which is why every manifestation of nationalistic border controls must be confronted and refused.

To leverage the power of nationalist unions is not a path to genuine class struggle. To build ‘worker’ power in conjunction with Australian unions first, with a view to confront nationalism ‘later’, is to consider the mobilisation of systems of oppression to be an incidental occurrence. As Ijeoma Oluo says of such labour movement rhetoric, these strategies ‘move everybody forward but in the exact same place, with the exact same hierarchy, and the exact same oppressions.’ The power structures of Australian unions are sites of complicity in, not resistance to, the very issues that design-tech workers seek to confront. Design-tech workers are in a position to refuse these structures of exploitation and oppression within their own efforts to organise. The next moments of design-tech organising will reveal who is prepared to take these issues seriously.

Sites of Nationalist Border Controls in the Design-Tech Industry

Roundtable on Social Democracy, Borders, and Novara Media

MATT: In astronomy the term ‘nova’ – derived from the Latin feminine of novus or ‘new’ – refers to the event of an explosion on the surface of a star that gives off a sudden burst of light preceded by a gradual return to its original state. An interesting detail in the origins of the astronomical concept is that it is based on a sixteenth-century assumption that these flashes of energy that seemingly appeared out of nowhere signalled the birth of a new star. While this was eventually found to be incorrect the gap between the invention and the subsequent revaluation of the concept was enough to allow for convention to take hold and legitimate the ongoing circulation of a false signifier.

In this light, it seems to me that a question worth asking with respect to Novara Media is why are all these social democrats pretending to be libertarian communists? And, further, what impact is this having on the politics of the border?

In my own case this questioning arises from having followed the Novara project since the period following the convulsions of the UK student opposition to university cuts and a tuition fee hike. The slogan from around that time, “No Future, Utopia Now!”, struck me as a refreshingly clear-eyed rejection of the pragmatics of austerity. Cut to 2017 and, in the wake of Corbyn’s proposal to abolish tuition fees, we find Aaron Bastani imploring his followers to regard “no borders” as a horizonal proposition that, as such, lies beyond the existing terms of the political proper.

The argument here is that “no borders” is horizonal because it lacks a “how.” This distinction is curious considering that millions of people at this very moment are quite seriously engaged in questioning the border on precisely these terms: how to obtain documents, how to leave, how to cross, how to evade detection, how to escape detention, how to stay in touch, how to keep it all together etc. From the perspective of those who confront them as an obstacle, the question of overcoming borders has an inherent pragmatics to it, one that is no less real or non-political than any other issue. In this sense, placing “no borders” in the category of the “horizonal” is less a description of the reality of cross-border politics than a devaluation and deferral of the work to support it.

So what gives? In short, the question of how people might cross a border in safety and sustain a life beyond it is not the same as the question of how to win the consent of a populous defined and shaped by that same border. In this case the question of whether the apparent contradiction in these propositions could be resolved is less significant than the question of which side of the equation tends to win out whenever they are set in conflict. The stakes of allowing this dynamic to slip from view are clearly born out in an analysis that demonstrates the function of an electorally interpolated British left to the interests of a party whose immigration policy is more draconian than that of New Labour.

As Angela noted in a previous discussion, the politics of pragmatism (the how), turns less on a distinction between utopia and the “now” than a politics of work, i.e. what works (or doesn’t), and for whom. It seems to me that this is a useful basis for posing a few direct questions. What is the point of Novara Media and what place does it have engaging in a liberal-pluralist obfuscation of “no border” politics? Why is there such insistence on including someone like Paul Mason who continues to circulate nonsense arguments about immigration, wages, and political necessity? Why are people who stand for something other than a politics of populist nationalism regularly compelled to justify and explain the basics of this position? Moreover, why do such individuals continue to perform this role of supplementary counterpoint to the “how” of social democrats?

ANGELA MITROPOULOS: I wanted to briefly pick up on two points here.

The first is the claim that migrants bring down wages or drive up unemployment, implicit in Mason‘s argument that is it necessary to “meets the objections of low-paid workers to wage suppression” with the suspension of freedom of movement. It is remarkable that anyone on the Left gives this idea any credence at all, let alone a platform. They are not just false views; they are racist. Population increases do not decrease wages or increase unemployment. A fixed number of jobs or work is never how any economy has operated, ever. The difference between the effects on the labour market from population increases through birth-mortality rates and those of migration are, within the scope of a single country or area, at most short-run impacts restricted to a narrow band of occupations where substitution is in play. That has to do with time, not migration. And, it is border controls which decrease the wages migrants can expect and which makes some instances of worker substitution tempting for employers – leaving aside that much of this involves a turn-over between migrant workers in some sectors.

The second is that the social democratic project is exhausted. If the role of the state is the regulation of money and labour, social democracy has been reduced to the project of controlling labour. For all the enthusiasm it has mustered around the revival of national-populism (and associated familial-racial personalities); for all the bombastic talk about regulating capital and finance, the only lever that social democracy has managed to press in many years is controlling the movements of people. This has been true of the Australian Labor Party since the Keating government (which also happened to introduce migration internment), and it’s been true of SYRIZA.

The British Labor Party seems to be pursuing a very similar course in ‘soft Brexit’ arguments for the retention of a single market (in goods and services) and the suspension of freedom of movement (by people). In putting this forward, Paul Mason cited Article 112, which in effect means defining freedom of movement as the cause of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” Corbyn, Mason and others have also claimed that the end of freedom of movement is a necessary consequence of Britain no longer being part of the EU, though this is clearly untrue (Norway is not a member of the EU, but retains open borders with EU countries).

The amazing thing about a lot of this is the extent to which Mason and others claim to be against ‘neoliberalism,’ and that the revival of social democracy has been made possible by the collapse of said ‘neoliberalism.’ Because by my account, what a lot of people called ‘neoliberalism’ was in fact an increasing freedom of movement of things and money and, by contrast, an increasing control over the movements of people. A position that Mason is now promoting as ‘soft Brexit.’

Roundtable on Social Democracy, Borders, and Novara Media

Boycott the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (#FODI): Stop Culturewashing the Detention Industry | #DumpMolan

From late 2013 xBorderOps, along with other groups such as RISE: Refugees Survivors and Ex-detainees, has been running boycott and divestment campaigns against the financial and cultural supply chain of the Australian refugee detention industry.

We are reissuing the call for local and overseas visitors to respect the boycott of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) over its role in culturewashing the detention industry.

We appreciate that it is not in the interest of FODI organisers to make its detention industry connections clear, and that many speakers would have booked their attendance without a complete picture of what they were signing up to. Nevertheless, experience has shown that merely voicing one’s concerns from inside the event does not produce change. Given the information below, we ask that speakers refuse to offer the value of their work to this industry, withdraw from FODI, and make other arrangements.

Continue reading “Boycott the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (#FODI): Stop Culturewashing the Detention Industry | #DumpMolan”

Boycott the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (#FODI): Stop Culturewashing the Detention Industry | #DumpMolan

#Broadspectrum is finished

On Thursday, April 28 2016, Broadspectrum (BRS) requested that trading in its shares on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) be halted pending the release of a statement by BRS.

According to the most recent report, Ferrovial is extending its takeover offer until May 13, as it aims to get at least 90% of buy-offers accepted by that date and will, upon doing so, de-list Broadspectrum from the ASX.

Continue reading “#Broadspectrum is finished”

#Broadspectrum is finished

Design, architecture, and the cultural violence of the border. #BoycottArchDaily #NoBorderWall

Lines of opposition have been drawn across international architecture and design circles following the launch of competition that invites creative engagement with Donald Trump’s proposal to “Build the Wall”. The dispute has resulted in a call from Montreal-based FIG Projects to boycott the ArchDaily weblog over its role in distributing the competition call out, and a decision by Bustler editors to refuse to publicise the competition due to “fear that it promotes xenophobia”.

These moves resonate with tactics used in the 2014 Sydney Biennale Boycott and raises again the question of how designers, artists, writers, and other creative workers might effectively oppose the interests of the border industrial complex.

A new piece by Matthew Kiem makes the case for disrupting the connections that events like Building the Border Wall? aim to facilitate. It is worth reading in relation to an interview with Angela Mitropoulos published in New Inquiry last November that addresses the international reach of the both the border industry and its opposition, along with this piece by Mitropoulos on the meaning and implications of post-Fordist fascism.

Design, architecture, and the cultural violence of the border. #BoycottArchDaily #NoBorderWall

Roundtable on #LetThemStay and #KidsOut

Roundtable discussants: Carolina Lee, Ahmed, Sanmati, Tom, Matt, Liz and Angela Mitropoulos.  Continue reading “Roundtable on #LetThemStay and #KidsOut”

Roundtable on #LetThemStay and #KidsOut

REST Super: Major Shareholder In Manus and Nauru Detention. #Broadspectrum #RESTdivest

REST, the superannuation fund for workers in retail, warehousing and the fast-food industry, is a major shareholder in Transfield Services Broadspectrum.  According to Broadspectrum’s 2015 Annual Report, REST has just under 25 million shares Continue reading “REST Super: Major Shareholder In Manus and Nauru Detention. #Broadspectrum #RESTdivest”

REST Super: Major Shareholder In Manus and Nauru Detention. #Broadspectrum #RESTdivest

Roundtable: Nauru, Border Force and the Transformation of the Detention Complex

A discussion on recent changes to Australia’s detention industry and policy by Sanmati Verma and Angela Mitropoulos. Continue reading “Roundtable: Nauru, Border Force and the Transformation of the Detention Complex”

Roundtable: Nauru, Border Force and the Transformation of the Detention Complex

GetUp and the Amazing Disappearing Women of Colour

by Ardhra

One could be forgiven for thinking GetUp, the progressive online email campaigning outfit, had been taken over by a coterie of white radical feminists when they started campaigning for the Australian Government to refuse a visa to Chris Brown. This was on the grounds that Brown had severely abused his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna, in 2009, in a high-profile case of domestic violence. Continue reading “GetUp and the Amazing Disappearing Women of Colour”

GetUp and the Amazing Disappearing Women of Colour