It would be churlish to thumb one’s nose at the successful artist boycott of the Sydney Biennale, which cut the Biennale’s partnership with Transfield over the latter’s participation in the federal government’s border protection regime. A new tactic within the mishmash of often mutually hostile campaigns in support of asylum seekers, its triumph certainly brightened my day and that of many others after the depressing spiral of retreat and impotence that seems to have dominated refugee activism in recent years.
That it happened soon after the killing of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati in a pogrom-style attack on detainees on Manus Island — the site of Kevin Rudd’s PNG Solution — shows how politically combustible the apparent elite consensus on asylum seekers can be.
Of course the result has been a reaction from the federal government. First from the eminently liberal Malcolm Turnbull, but more importantly from George Brandis with the threat that he would pull federal arts funding from projects where corporate funding was knocked back on political grounds. This has exposed a tension in the boycott strategy — if it is portrayed as a point of principle to refuse money from corporate participants in the border/detention regime, then why don’t artists also refuse funding from the government whose border policy these companies are implementing? This need not be fatal — if corporate boycotts are seen simply as a tactical manoeuvre to boost a campaign that has long been on the back foot in relation to the state, and if artists are prepared for the possibility of state sanctions on them, then it may well prove to take things forward.
But the question of the state is one that cannot be avoided, and boycotters should expect other such responses as their activities widen (industry Super funds are next), perhaps sanctions under the Trade Practices Act? The Transfield boycott has scored a nice win that should focus minds on “what’s next?” rather than “how can we keep repeating a strategy with a limited shelf-life?”
Soon after Barati’s death, Liz Thompson, a migration agent and long-time radical Left activist came out about her experiences on Manus on SBS television and then caused a stir inside the pro-refugee campaign by pulling out from speaking at a rally calling for the Manus centre to be closed. I’m not especially interested to respond to the criticisms Liz raised of the campaign (Lizzie O’Shea responded here, although I don’t agree with some of her arguments) — I will simply say that I think it would have been better for Liz to have raised them directly at the rally, because I think the divisions between various pro-refugee campaigners should be addressed through direct (and if necessarily polemical) dialogue.
What is important is that, like quite a few people involved in trying to widen corporate boycotts beyond Transfield, Thompson endorses the analysis of Angela Mitropoulos, and the group of people who run Crossborder Operational Matters (xBorderOps). The strength of Mitropoulos’ approach is that it is uncompromisingly for an open borders policy (something Left Flank advocates also) and that she doesn’t treat asylum seekers as passive beneficiaries of the compassion of Australian resident activists.
But there my agreement ends. Because I think that Mitropoulos’ perspective — laid out in detail in a working paper that I commend Left Flank readers to digest — rests on an untenable explanation for what is happening — that “the only real function” of current border policy is to create markets in people-smuggling, use more violence in deterrence, and produce industries that profit from the deterrence.
This is an upside-down view of the world, describing the secondary consequences of Australian government policy as the primary drivers. While this confusion may not be detrimental in the context of the beginning stages of a boycott campaign, it cannot account for the bizarre contortions of the political class over what is at most a second or third order issue in the electorate. In that sense it inadvertently plays into the panic of the political class on the issue.
After this the analysis veers off into the usual free-floating stuff about Australia’s dark colonial past recapitulating itself in an undifferentiated way. The constant conflation by Mitropoulos of ordinary people in civil society (Some of them? Most of them?) with the actions of the state and its political class is telling. It reaches fever pitch with the claim that “Operation Sovereign Borders is the Cronulla riots by other means”. Similarly the playing up of a tiny minority of openly far Right members of the Navy seems to be designed to enforce this impression of out-of-control racism in society driving border policy. The same downplaying of the political logic of the border regime is also reflected in how the paper both recognises how the state shifts blame from itself by subcontracting to private providers and advocates a strategy to attack those providers at least as much (perhaps more) than the state itself. i.e. “Look, the government is shifting the blame! Let’s target the people the government is shifting the blame onto!”
Mitropoulos fudges the question of the alleged electoral benefits of border policies (see here for my summary of the evidence) and basically writes off the possibility of building a movement based on social forces within Australia by damning such an approach as unable to break the current political deadlock (which, reading not very much between the lines, is a statement about an electorate hopelessly caught up in racialised beliefs).
She argues: “Breaking with the downward spiral of border politics requires stepping outside the presumptuousness and anxious reiterations of colonial sovereignty and acknowledging the ways in which the operations and development of border controls function within a global system.” Yet this seems to mean not challenging those notions of sovereignty in the domestic debate, because XBorderOps appears singularly uninterested in actually rebutting Abbott’s arguments around this, which are the centre of his political sales pitch. You may notice that Abbott isn’t even mentioned in the working paper and Morrison’s importance seems to mainly be that he is the “member for Cronulla”. For a much more convincing view on the “national sovereignty” question, this post by The Piping Shrike is essential. The shift to a “global” angle and a call for sanctions against Australia also seems to me to represent a retreat from grasping the fundamentally domestic logic of immigration and border policy.
Mitropoulous has little to say about the Australian state and government, except as part of a complicated and decentred causal web. Yet there is no question that any kind of strategy that could change this policy — even one that started with disrupting “supply chains” — would need to take those centres of power head on. Indeed, the government’s reaction to the Transfield boycott tells us that will be sooner rather than later. I’m curious to know what xBorderOps has to say about how to deal with that.