Refugee advocacy moves forward

Since Tampa, the community refugee movement has leaned heavily on public protest as their preferred form of advocacy. The results speak for themselves. This broad, disparate group of people and organisations have failed to influence government policy or shift public opinion.

The future may be slightly different thanks to a different campaign being waged.

This week, the Biennale of Sydney, “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, found itself without a chairman of the board. In addition, the Biennale organisation withdrew from a sponsorship arrangement with Transfield, a company with strong links to Transfield Services.

This occurred because Transfield Services was recently awarded a $1.22bn contract to run Australia’s offshore detention centres in PNG and Nauru. The combination of such a contract being awarded and the timing of the Biennale, sparked a backlash from artists and refugee advocacy groups, particularly RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees). Multiple artists withdrew from the festival and within four weeks, the link between the festival and Transfield were broken completely.

At first, I was highly skeptical of such a campaign. Transfield is a major sponsor of the arts in Australia and I found it hard to link their participation in this with something such as operating offshore detention centres. Further, many in the arts industry would lean progressive, meaning a campaign was unlikely to change opinion of those people participating.

I was wrong. This is one of the most positive campaigns run by community refugee advocates in recent history. It was practical and not overtly aggressive. It was targeted. It achieved its goal and has increased public knowledge through media reporting about the Transfield Services contract. Further, the campaign successfully fused online activism with offline action, such as artist meetings and conversation groups. This was not just another petition.

This points to the success of carving out discrete goals instead of pithy, anti-establishment calls to end mandatory detention and offshore processing. The key for this movement will be to use this initial success and turn it into something bigger, generating momentum which can change policy and public opinion over the long-term. Asylum policy will not change in the short-term. But this is a sign small victories can be effective in creating an environment more conducive to long-term change.

Perhaps the most significant of future options is divestment. Typically divestment is difficult given the cross over between progressive activism and corporatism is slim. Yet Australia has a major point of difference to most countries in terms of corporate investment. Superannuation means a large majority of voters each hold very small stakes in large firms, like Transfield Services.

When you combine this with established industry super funds and union-dominated boards, there appears to be a direct link for how a possible divestment movement would operate within a framework to change asylum policy. This is not an easy route to take for refugee advocates. However the consequences of a well-run divestment campaign could far-reaching. Shareholder activism speaks because money speaks.

Let me be clear. I don’t support most of the goals outlined by this movement. Yet, it is pleasing to see a more concrete opposition to current policies based on achievable campaigns. A more informed, better run community advocacy campaign on asylum policy in Australia will force better political and policy outcomes. When governments and businesses operate in a vacuum, the most favourable policy options can be overlooked for those which are easiest to implement.

Arguably, the PNG policy shows some of this in the sense it was only a sketch when announced and the details behind the policy are still being put into place. Again, I agree with offshore processing but the manner in which the PNG policy has been implemented is clearly sub-optimal. There are serious questions about the management of the detention centre.

A refugee movement build on firmer foundations than endless rallies is a good thing for asylum policy in Australia.

For more information on this campaign, see the website xBorder Operational Matters.

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