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The Biennale boycott blues

AAP/Quentin Jones

The Sydney Biennale has commenced after weeks of controversy over the severing of its relationship with Transfield, the company that runs the detention centre in Nauru and which will take over the one at Manus island.

To recap, several artists withdrew from the Biennale in protest over its sponsorship arrangement with Transfield due to the latter’s involvement in offshore detention of asylum-seekers. Activists also put pressure on the Biennale. The Biennale eventually severed ties with the company, and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, whose father founded Transfield and also helped found the Biennale, stepped down as the Biennale chairman.

The federal government has since weighed in. Malcolm Turnbull described the actions of the boycotting artists as “vicious ingratitude” before Arts Minister George Brandis upped the ante considerably. Brandis has written to the Australia Council, the federal body in charge of arts funding, asking that it develop a policy to refuse federal funding to any arts body which “unreasonably” refuses private funding.

Phew! So … what to make of all this. Below are my thoughts on the Biennale boycott.

Transfield and the corporate veil

The private companies Transfield Holdings and the Transfield Foundation, are not the same thing as the entity which runs and profits from offshore detention, the public company Transfield Services. Luca Belgiorno Nettis is an executive of Transfield Holdings, the company his father founded decades ago.

Transfield Holdings owns 12% of Transfield Services. It is apparently the second biggest shareholder in the latter company. 12% is a very sizeable shareholding in any public company, so it is in a position, if it wishes, to exercise some level of control over the actions of the latter. It also benefits considerably when the latter’s share price rises.

The Transfield Foundation is a company which runs the philanthropic activities of both Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services. Its money, therefore, is clearly linked to the profits of Transfield Services.

Arguments about targeting the wrong entity within Transfield make sense from a legal point of view. In law, they are separate entities. But the legal fiction that corporations are separated by a corporate veil cannot automatically be translated into a social fiction. In any case, the name “Transfield” conveys a certain meaning to the public, most obviously the public company that runs the detention centres.

Is Transfield Services doing anything wrong?

Transfield Services has won contracts to run Australia’s offshore detention centres. Offshore processing is probably legal under Australian law. In fact, it is the policy of both major political parties. So, it is arguable that Transfield is not doing anything wrong, and any disapproval of its relationship to the Biennale is a misguided tantrum.

Modern social expectations dictate that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights. Respect for human rights does not equate with “legality under a country’s domestic law”. Our offshore detention system breaches human rights. For a start, blanket automatic detention of asylum-seekers amounts to arbitrary detention in breach of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights.

Evidence also indicates that offshore detention in Nauru and Manus is cruel, in breach of both Articles 7 and 10. (The death of Reza Berati may indicate a breach of the right to life in Article 6, though that did not take place under Transfield’s watch).

So it is fair to link Transfield to human rights abuses. It has made a decision to get involved in a system of offshore arbitrary detention and will make considerable profits from that system. It is irrelevant that another company would have won the contract if Transfield had not. Nobody forced Transfield into its decision to bid for the contracts, and like any “person”, its decisions leave it open to consequences.

Here, the consequences for Transfield were the open condemnation of its activities by artists and others, as well as a great deal of publicity about its involvement in detention centres (which I suspect was not welcome).

Is the boycott inconsistent?

If Transfield can be targeted, other corporate sponsors might be targeted due to perceived wrongdoing. This argument assumes that many or even most corporations have skeletons in their closet, or even bright public skeletons that are apparent to anyone paying attention. And such an assumption is probably true, especially with multinational companies running multiple businesses in multiple sectors in multiple countries.

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is currently being criticised for its association with Santos, due to the latter’s environmental record. So far, the Gallery is staunchly standing beside Santos. Having said that, offshore processing is a particularly “hot” topic in Australia at the moment, so it is perhaps not surprising that Transfield was singled out in this way.

Any boycott can be criticised for inconsistency. Any boycotter can be challenged with the allegation that he or she is boycotting X while ignoring the far worse behaviour of Y. This criticism is commonly made of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

However, taken to its logical end, such an argument indicates that one cannot boycott anything unless one first boycotts and highlights Russian expansion, Syrian aggression, Congolese rape, Sri Lankan impunity, Cambodian corruption and Ugandan homophobia (as possible examples).

There is a descending scale of horribleness before one can legitimately complain about offshore detention centres, and people will rank the horribles in different orders. Such an argument impugns the success of the anti-apartheid movement, given the role played by economic sanctions and boycotts in bringing an end to white minority rule in South Africa. No activist, except perhaps those whose special target is North Korea, can satisfy such scrutiny.

There are many and varied human rights issues in the world and in Australia, and they will all attract some sort of activist constituency. Individuals, alone or in concert, are entitled to compete in the marketplace of ideas in arguing that X or Y should be boycotted, regardless of whether X and Y are “better” than A or B.

One hopes that the strongest arguments prevail, though that is not a certainty. Human rights abuses and complicity in them are not justified by the fact that other human rights abuses are or might be worse. “Tu quoque” is a distraction rather than a valid excuse!

The Biennale takes government money

The Biennale continues to take government money rather than Transfield money, when it is undoubtedly true that the Australian government is far more responsible for offshore processing (or non-processing) policies than any company.

Yet public funding cannot be compared to private funding. Public funding comes from the taxpayer.* It is “our money”. If one is to reject public funding based on disapproval of certain government policies, one logically has to reject publicly funded projects such as Medicare and university education. One loses out twice if one is in fact a taxpayer, as one is rejecting the benefits of “good spending” due to disapproval of “bad spending”.

Furthermore, public funding serves a different purpose to philanthropy. The arts are funded as public goods. Corporate philanthropy has an element of quid pro quo: money is donated, and in return the corporation gets a warm and fuzzy brand boost. That is not a criticism of philanthropy: it is a description of it.

In any case, the arts are funded via the Australia Council, which is supposed to operate “at arm’s length”, independent of government interference. It has zero input into the government’s asylum seeker policy. Transfield is much more implicated in that policy than the Australia Council.

“Vicious ingratitude”

In making his accusation of “vicious ingratitude”, Malcolm Turnbull was perhaps thinking of his own role as a very rich person who enjoys the arts, and probably donates to them. But sponsorship is different to mere donation.

As noted above, there is a quid pro quo for a sponsor. The brand is associated with something “good”, even groovy or funky or posh, such as the arts. Associated perks such as free tickets accrue to employees and clients.

I agree here with the recent statement from the Biennale artists’ Working Group: Turnbull’s statement “sets up a master-servant relationship that doesn’t reflect what corporate sponsors gain from their relationships with artists and arts organisations”.

Brandis and “unreasonable” refusal of philanthropic funds

So we come to the intervention of Arts Minister George Brandis. First, this intervention might undermine the independence of the Australia Council. However, I want to concentrate instead on the broader implications.

News Corp columnist Chris Kenny talks of Brandis’s actions as reinforcing freedom of expression? What, the inalienable right to sponsor? The right to inflict a brand against the conscience of an unwilling recipient? Compulsory gratitude is no great win for free expression!

Perhaps Brandis’s intervention is designed to save taxpayer money, as arts bodies should take private funds and save public dollars. Yet the Biennale, to my knowledge, has not asked for the government to make up the shortfall. Certainly, on a case by case basis, it is fair that public funding decisions be partly driven by the viability of an artistic event, and refusal of private funds might impact on that viability.

But that doesn’t justify Brandis’s broadbrush assault on freedom of conscience. Any person has a right to reject an association with a business that he or she disapproves of.

To be fair, Brandis has only threatened withdrawal of government funding. No individual has a right to government funding for their artistic endeavour. But the conditioning of government funding on depoliticised behaviour, and the rejection of personal conscience, is a strange tactic from an Attorney General who is openly committed to “freedom”.

This sort of government action could lead to a very skewed public debate, where the privately funded can express opinions freely, but the publicly funded are more muzzled. In any case, art should be opinionated and brash, not craven and cowed.

Finally, Brandis’s suggestion may be a tad hyprocritical, given that the Liberal Party, which receives certain amounts of public funding, rejects donations from tobacco companies, which operate a perfectly legal (but toxic) business.

AAP/Ehssan Veiszadeh

The right not to boycott

In resigning as Chair, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis talked of harassment of himself, the Biennale organisers, and I have heard talk on Twitter of harassment of non-boycotting artists.

I do not believe that anyone is suggesting that the boycotting artists engaged in such harassment. However, it is certainly possible that some harassment occurred.** Unfortunately, it is not always possible to prevent the misguidedly overenthusiastic from crossing the line into bullying and harassment, especially in this age of social medial.

People have a right to engage in a boycott, especially for reasons of conscience. It is also important to respect the right not to participate in or support a boycott.

Effectiveness of the boycott

The most common criticism of the boycott is that it has not been, and was never likely to be, effective. Offshore detention will continue as bipartisan policy for the foreseeable future, and Transfield will not terminate its Nauru and Manus contracts.

However, there is no “effectiveness” criterion for legitimate political action. Otherwise the opportunities for political action from the non-powerful are very limited indeed. Political action can be seen as means to an end, but also an end in itself, as an expression of the artists’ conscience in this case.

Furthermore, the boycott may be part of a long game. Transfield is already being targeted through the lobbying of industry pension funds. Those funds may or may not respond: so be it.

It may even be that the boycott is counterproductive, in the sense that the future of the Biennale in particular and corporate philanthropy in general may be threatened. This scenario strikes me as bit doomsday, but only time will tell. Like Transfield, the Biennale boycotters must also live with the consequences of their decisions.

A related criticism is that more effective and constructive protest actions were available. For example, the artists could have highlighted the injustices of offshore detention and even Transfield’s involvement through their art. Maybe. But, as my friend Brynn O’Brien has pointed out, such an approach smacks of “approved protest” in a “sanctioned space”, as opposed to unwieldy unpredictable protest which has clearly made Transfield and the government feel pretty uncomfortable.

Finally, given the extraordinary reaction from the government, it seems clear the Biennale boycott got under its skin. Otherwise, why the rush to try to shut down repeats of such action? Which means it may have had considerable effect. After all, weeks later many are still talking about it and discussing it and thinking about it. And I suspect that more people are going to pour through those Biennale doors.

    • My discussion at this point is influenced by a great Twitter discussion with Brynn O’Brien and Sean Mulcahy, which is “storified” here.
  • ** I altered this paragraph on 25/3 as the original assertion of a belief that harassment had occurred was based on hearsay, especially on twitter. Furthermore, regarding the right not to boycott (and frankly the right to boycott): no one is free of attempted persuasion or even criticism. However, such activities should not cross a line into actual harassment and bullying.


This piece was first published at the Castan Centre for Human Rights' blog.

Join the conversation

120 Comments sorted by

  1. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "Modern social expectations dictate that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights."
    A minor correction. The United Nations Human Rights Council is neither an arbiter of "modern social expectations", nor an authority, nor a legitimate representative of modern society's expectations. The very membership of the UNHRC speaks volumes - Saudi Arabia, Angola, Russia, China, Algeria, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, and so on. More legitimate, appropriate, and accurate statements of 'modern social expectations' can be found in Australian election results, democratically-enacted legislation, opinion poll trends, and so on.

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    1. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      The HR Council also has members from Europe, the US etc. The Guiding Principles were adopted by consensus. Moreover, very few public companies would argue against this notion nowadays. Though few would agree to have it enforced by law. I do agree Australia is lagging on this issue compared to other Western countries.

      The ASX was floating the idea of more social reporting. Not sure what's happened there.

      I agree my statement is a bit pat (one can't explore every avenue in a blog ) but that point is that we don't all regard companies as good citizens just coz they obey the law. Look at how many, even most, view tobacco companies.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Hi Jay, do you think Australian elections have any legitimacy at all?

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    3. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to James Jenkin

      > Hi Jay, do you think Australian elections have any legitimacy at all?

      That is a difficult question to answer.

      The simplistic answer is: "Yes!", emphatically. In as much the entire electoral process, on the day is entirely above the board and complies with worlds best. Third world election stealing relies mainly on shortcircuiting this process.

      The more complex answer is: "It depends".
      Traditionally, when people answer this question in the affrimative, there is an implicit assumption…

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    4. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Hi Jay

      Thanks for your very thoughtful response.

      I'm just worried about the risks when we base a political system on the presumption that some people make better decisions than others.

      For example, the three-question test - who decides these questions?

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    5. helen stream

      teacher

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Unless I've missed something, you seem to deal with every response except that of the Biennale organisers in jettisoning the Bongiorno-Nettis family at the behest of a few 'artists'.

      If the Biennale is so flush with money , or is so sure it can replace the generous patronage of that family, then it should just do so and ask for nothing more from the taxpayer this year or from now on.

      You seem to be saying that the fact that this bunch of Socialists posing as artists are very selective in their…

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    6. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to James Jenkin

      > For example, the three-question test - who decides these questions?

      I do naturally, who did you think James?

      I realise that there are many holes in my 'proposal'. If electoral reform of this form would take shape, there would be a long process designed to water it down and enrich a whole bunch of consultants and lawyers.

      It is hardly a point of debate whether some people make better decisions than others.
      Traditionally we defer to experts when it comes to their areas of expertise. Unless…

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    7. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to helen stream

      Helen,

      Do you always use so many adhom attacks and such de-humanising language instead of engaging in rational argument about the substantive issues in question? You seem very angry and hateful towards so many other people.

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    8. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, why do all your posts accuse others of "hate", while playing yourself up as "ethical"?

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    9. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy,

      I have never played myself "up as ethical" though I do try to make ethical considerations a key component of my thinking and decision making.

      I rarely mention "hate" in my posts so you are clearly wrong when you say "why do all your posts accuse others of "hate". But I do think it is appropriate to point out how angry and hateful some posts here are.

      I suggest you have a (re)read of Helen's post and have a look at how many adhom attacks and how much de-humanising language she used in it instead of engaging in rational argument about the substantive issues in question.

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    10. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      we have companies listed on the stock markets of the world that make guns ,bombs, landmines ,poisons, that pollute and greedily profit from peoples misery....does that mean that all the good companies are tarred with the same brush ?

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    11. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to James Jenkin

      we could ask 3 really rich bankers or miners or media owners..yes ..i think that would be best...

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    12. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to helen stream

      have you ever considered that some of these artists might not have voted for the government,but still have to pay taxes which are spent by it ?
      i know that when i don't like a particular government i claim as much as i can from them, to prevent them spending that money on their policies and ideology that i dislike....have done for years ,it always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to know i am doing my bit even if my vote was of no use...........

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    13. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Jay,

      Whoah, what a contemptuous statement about your fellow citizens.

      When you say one bloke owning the mass media, do you mean the company which owns no radio stations, no tv stations and 30% of newspaper titles?

      As opposed to, say, the ABC, which owns radio stations everywhere, TV stations in every state and city, and has an enormous online news presence? Is the ABC the 'one bloke' you mean? I can't think of anyone else who could fit the bill.

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    14. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris,

      Though I reject your assertion that my comment is being contemptuous of (some) of my fellow citizens, I do take great comfort from my better, no less than the attorney General of Australia who said very recently "In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or bigoted.". A great comfort to many who now have a champion and an avatar of their rotten dark souls.

      Though the figures of 30% you quote are accurate, you neglect to mention…

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    15. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Jay,

      I stand by my opinion of your abusive and contemptuous words in your earlier comment.

      BTW, when last I entered a newsagent I was confronted with a plethora of news publications, those owned by 'one bloke' being a glaring minority.

      You said: ""In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or bigoted.". A great comfort to many who now have a champion and an avatar of their rotten dark souls."

      Absolutely. After all, if bigotry were rendered illegal the comments section here at The Conversation would be near closed down, what with the claims and comments directed at those who disagree with the progressive orthodoxy.

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    16. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to Chris Harper

      > directed at those who disagree with the progressive orthodoxy.

      Is that what the cave dwellers call those who bring fire into the cave?

      In the words of the prophet; "Reality has a progressive bias".

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    17. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to helen stream

      Do you feel better now, Helen?

      I trust you remembered to wash your hands aftwerwards?

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    18. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, why do you resort to absurd inaccuracies like 'all your posts' and expect to be taken seriously?

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    19. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris, the ABC don't 'own' anything in any sense that can meaningfully be compared with a private corporation.

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    20. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Nobody has ever proposed to 'render bigotry illegal' any more than Andrew Bolt was fined for bigotry - Bolt breached the RDA "because the articles were not written in good faith and contained factual errors" as well as "distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language". If you're going to be racist, you have to either be accurate or honest. If Bolt had presented a genuinely-held belief (however bigoted) in good faith, he would be free from all the requirements to not offend or humiliate…

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  2. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "For a start, blanket automatic detention of asylum-seekers amounts to arbitrary detention in breach of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights."
    This claims is questionable, but certainly arguable. The detention is not really 'arbitrary': it is administrative, not criminal; it is made very clear in legislation - for 20 years now - which is widely known; and the detainee is free to leave when they wish. You probably have a stronger with "cruel".

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    1. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy,

      Why are you so keen to defend the current cruel asylum seeker policies?

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    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, the distinction you draw between administrative detention and criminal detention is Orwellian. You'd be better informed if you concerned yourself with the legality of Australia's turn back and detention policies.

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  3. Brad Farrant

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Thanks Sarah, this is the most comprehensive and well argued article I have read on this issue.

    In this new age of "personal responsibility" I think what you said pretty much sums it up - "Nobody forced Transfield into its decision to bid for the contracts, and like any “person”, its decisions leave it open to consequences."

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  4. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Thanks Sarah Joseph for this comprehensive review of the 'art crisis'. I find it very telling that the Liberal Government has reacted with such extremes as Brandis's threat to defund recalcitrant arts bodies. I wonder if he has special plans for recidivist arts bodies who multiply offend?

    It goes to the centre of Liberal concern because the government is barely in control. The media blackout by Abbott, media centralization in his office are all about control. Would it surprise anyone to find that a bunch of rather old fashioned patriarchs in the ministry have a tendency to controlling behaviour. Looked at from a psychodynamic perspective Brandis's anger, and Turnbulls, cast the artists as ungrateful, vicious even, children to the paternal authority of this men's movement government.

    And I mean, if you can't control people who are weaker than you, what sort of man are you?

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  5. Bruce Harding

    Self employed

    They rejected funding for the arts to advance a political agenda and attract publicity to their cause. Seems like this lot are political operatives first, and artists second.

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    1. Bruce Harding

      Self employed

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Ouch! Hit a nerve, did I?

      Of course they can be both, but their priorities are quite clear.

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    2. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      It is quite telling that when artists make an ethical stand it is seen as political. What does this say about the state of politics?

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    3. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      That's pretty disingenuous, Brad. The motivation of the artists concerned may have been ethical (or it may not) but the action was a deliberately political display.

      A display was all that it was, since both major parties have endorsed the detention policy and it seems unlikely that it will change, since it is indisputable that it has been effective in reducing the flow of asylum seekers, which was its stated purpose.

      It has accomplished nothing concrete other than a reduction in the corporate funding available to public artistic endeavours.

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    4. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      To decide not to be associated with those you consider to be unethical is an ethical decision. As Sarah said "Any person has a right to reject an association with a business that he or she disapproves of." That you try to frame it as a political action says a lot about your motivation to undermine their right to make ethical choices. Just because "major parties have endorsed the detention policy" doesn't change the fact that it is a cruel and unethical policy.

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    5. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      The decision may have been ethical, but the action was political.

      If the action had been to personally refuse the funding without publicity, that would have been a quite different and apolitical situation.

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    6. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Oh, just in case you didn't grasp that, it means that I support their right to make ethical choices. I also support their right to take political action.

      What I don't do is agree with you that this was an apolitical action.

      Sorry about that.

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    7. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      No-one said it was apolitical, what I said is that it was an ethical stand. My point is that it is only because our major political parties support an unethical set of asylum seeker policies that the ethical stand of the artists is seen by some as being political.

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    8. Bruce Harding

      Self employed

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      "Why? Maybe they don't ethically want their art and name associated with Transfield"

      That's a mischaracterisation of their actions. In their open letter they urged the Biennale to "act in the interest of asylum seekers" and "send a message to Transfield, and in turn the Australian Government". They sought to politicise the event.

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    9. Bruce Harding

      Self employed

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      "It is quite telling that when artists make an ethical stand it is seen as political. What does this say about the state of politics?"

      Probably not what you think. Ethics aside, they sought to use the event to influence government policy.

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    10. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      How exactly do you put "ethics aside"? Are you suggesting that these artists should have sat silently by instead of taking a stand against the unethical treatment of asylum seekers?

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    11. Bruce Harding

      Self employed

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      No. Being political and being ethical are distinct behaviours. One can be neither, either, or both. Just trying to help you understand that, regardless of their excuse, they are indeed engaging in political activism.

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    12. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      And you misunderstand the point that I am making. You claimed that "this lot are political operatives first, and artists second" and I am pointing out to you that it is quite likely that this was an ethical stand that only had a political dimension because both major parties support unethical asylum seeker policies. If the major parties had ethical policies then the boycott of the company would not have been seen as political.

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    13. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, the ethical argument is far from clear cut and it's certainly not as simplistic as you are trying to make it out to be.

      The political argument, on the other hand, is relatively simple.

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    14. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig,

      What precisely is the political argument?

      The ethical argument is extremely clear - the ends do not justify the means. What is absolutley clear is that there are ways of approaching this issue that do not involve the current level of cruelty to innocent men, women and children.

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    15. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, you're putting forward an emotional argument, not an ethical one.

      Whether the ends justify the means is what makes the ethical conundrum a complex one.

      The political case is simply that the policy is designed to minimise the number of asylum seekers choosing to travel by boat to Australia and it achieves that end. That objective has been a part of Australian immigration and foreign policy for many decades, through governments of both political stripes.

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    16. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig,

      Your attempt to dismiss our ethical obligations to the innocent men, women and children in our care as an "an emotional argument" is quite telling.

      That both major political parties support unethical asylum seeker policies does not make them right. In fact, if preventing loss of life at sea is the policy outcome sought, there are many other ways that this could be achieved that do not involve the current level of cruelty to innocent men, women and children.

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    17. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Actually, Brad, the purpose is to prevent people from seeking to circumvent Australia's immigration policies. The policies exist for good reasons.

      By all means have a go at telling us some of the many ways you believe these policy objectives could be achieved in a different way.

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    18. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig,

      I have never heard a politician give "to prevent people from seeking to circumvent Australia's immigration policies" as the purpose for the current policies and this most definitely is not the purpose they usually put forward.

      We are a signatory to the UNHCR's refugee convention which means that we have committed to help protect people seeking asylum. "The cornerstone of the 1951 Convention is the principle of non-refoulement contained in Article 33. According to this principle, a refugee…

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    19. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, I suggest you do some more research.

      A bit less hand-waving and a bit more substance would be lovely.

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    20. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig it seems to me that you have been the one doing the hand-waving.

      In response to your claims I have provided facts about the current situation and our ethical and legal obligations. In contrast, the best you have come up with so far is to try to dismiss our ethical obligations to the innocent men, women and children in our care as an "an emotional argument".

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    21. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Not a fact in sight, Brad, nor any attempt to address the ethical issues. Just a lot of emotive language and an irrelevant citation from a treaty convention.

      I am not "dismissing our ethical obligations" as an emotional argument, I'm pointing out that you haven't actually put forward anything BUT an emotional argument.

      Do feel free to tell us some of the "many" alternatives that might achieve Australian immigration policy objectives. I for one am all ears.

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    22. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      You haven't shown anything that I have said to be incorrect yet you claim that there is "not a fact in sight".

      How can a citation from the UNHCR's refugee convention to which we are a signatory be irrelevant to a discussion about our asylum seeker policies?

      The primary ethical issue is that (via our current asylum seeker policies) we are needlessly being cruel to innocent men, women and children in our care when other humane alternatives are available to us, some of which I have already provided above.

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    23. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      The citation is irrelevant for 3 reasons. Firstly, the detention policies are not in breach of the convention. Secondly, if they were, it would be of no consequence, since Australia is a sovereign state and a sovereign state has a right and an obligation to act to protect its own territorial integrity, regardless of treaties. Thirdly, the part you cited is not relevant to the situation at hand.

      The ethical situation is far more complex than the simplistically emotive case you have put above. On the topic of alternative methods of achieving immigration policy objectives, they don't actually address the problem of uncontrolled immigration, especially of people who are not likely to achieve regularised immigration status. Further, the Indonesian Government does not wish to be a way-station for immigrants claiming asylum, and will not cooperate with a scheme that gives it that status. The current scheme achieves both of those outcomes.

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    24. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig,

      So now you are trying to argue that a commitment we have given as a nation that "a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom... The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions (Article 32); The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State" is not relevant to the current policy of sending people to a third country where they are detained indefinitely…

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    25. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      Brad, I've already addressed the points above. If you've nothing of substance to add, I'll say thanks for the discussion and bid you adieu.

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    26. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      had the same feelings about rupert murdoch when he runs political campaigns with his press,surely he should not be allowed to, unless he registers as a political party or joins one as a candidate.
      is it not an abuse of the media licence he has been provided with to take sides and use his press for self interested political purposes ?

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    27. harry oblong

      tree surgeon

      In reply to account deleted

      not so, it has highlighted an australian companies involvement and profiting in the illegal detaining of asylum seekers........thats pure concrete to me

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    28. Greg Young

      Program Director

      In reply to account deleted

      The action taken against a public company was not political until the Government chose to make it so.

      Up until that point, artists were just exercising their rights to freedom of association and, moreover, their commercial freedom to decide how they wish to market their product and who to.

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    29. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      Um, Bruce, I don't think you could be judged to be 'political' unless your 'priorities are quite clear' - isn't that precisely HOW we identify a comment or action as being political?

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    30. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      How do you distinguish a 'deliberately political display' from a 'deliberately ethical display', Craig?

      Is there an agreed colour-coding system or something like that?

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    31. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      What would an 'ethical action' have looked like, as opposed to a 'political action' Craig? Simply doing it silently and privately?

      I can't find any dictionary anywhere that differentiates between the ethical and the political based purely on whether an action is public or private...

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    32. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      I think things can be 'political' and 'ethical' at the same time, Craig - granted that isn't always the case, but the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

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    33. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      I don't think you can 'politicise' something like this - anything public is intrinsically (at least potentially) political - in the sense that silence is consent.

      Maybe the artists simply highlighted the matter, but the 'political' dimension was inherent - politics doesn't come into existence merely because someone names something - actions have intrinsic consequences and those consequences are intrinsically political...

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    34. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Bruce Harding

      So, trying to influence government policy is a breach of ethics?

      Gandhi, anyone?

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    35. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      So, if we cover the two major parties, we cover the whole of Australian politics, Craig?

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    36. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      Are you actually aware of our immigration 'policies'? Try checking the extant legislation which activates the UN convention into Australian law.

      The asylum seekers in question were operating within this law.

      How can our policy contradict our law?

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    37. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      'Not a fact in sight'?

      When Brad cites significant relevant legal material, that deserves an award for idiocy, Craig. I shan't waste any more time responding to your nonsense.

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    38. Bruce Harding

      Self employed

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      "Um, Bruce, I don't think you could be judged to be 'political' unless your 'priorities are quite clear' - isn't that precisely HOW we identify a comment or action as being political?"

      Agree.

      "I don't think you can 'politicise' something like this - anything public is intrinsically (at least potentially) political - in the sense that silence is consent.

      Maybe the artists simply highlighted the matter, but the 'political' dimension was inherent - politics doesn't come into existence merely because someone names something - actions have intrinsic consequences and those consequences are intrinsically political..."

      WTF?! Had too much coffee, Felix? The Matrix made more sense to me than that.

      "So, trying to influence government policy is a breach of ethics?"

      No, Felix. Ethics is ethics. Politics is politics. Some acts are driven by both. Some are driven by neither. See my comment above. I'm sorry, but I can't make it any simpler for you.

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    39. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Already explained above, Felix.
      Perhaps you might try reading a thread in future before flooding it with non-sequiturs?

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    40. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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    41. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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    42. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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    43. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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    44. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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    45. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

      This flooding a thread with one-liner stuff is fun, isn't it?

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    46. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Greg Young

      No, when the artists decided to make a public gesture of protest was when it became political.

      In a democracy,politics is about trying to influence public opinion. Parties are merely a convenient way of coordinating a group to do that.

      Whether that artists' actions were ethical is moot, since they were most assuredly political. Whether it is ethical to detain on Manus claimants to asylum who are intercepted at sea is also not relevant to the discussion of the artists' actions, except insofar…

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  6. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Good one thanks Sarah.

    Since, as you write "Offshore processing is probably legal under Australian law" Transfield is not doing anything legally wrong ("the law is an ass"/ a serviceable beast of burden), signed UN conventions and international law aside, but IS doing moral wrong in the eyes of the boycotters and their supporters.

    Arts funding whether by government, ie tax payers, corporation sponsorship or private (non corporate, individual) philanthropy brings up the relationship of how…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Pat Moore

      On the other hand, Transfield may prove to be the sort of 'enlightened' service provider that does not allow those in its custody/care to be unlawfully killed ... which would make them an improvement on G4S's performance.

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    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to David Arthur

      Not if Nauru is anything to go by. None dead, many further traumatized for life by conditions there.

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  7. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    There'd be at least some performance artists who could use the Biennale to critique Australia's asylum-seeker policies, wouldn't there?

    If so, surely such artists could continue the noble tradition of ()rightfully, in this case) biting the hand that feeds them.

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  8. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Excellent article, Sara. It's destined to be truly irritating, and, maybe, a foundation document. Made me think of Pussy Riot being jailed by Putin and beaten by Cossacks.
    On the evidence you tender here, Twitter is dangerous, and may be subversive. :) Mr Brandis should seek urgent dialogue with Recep Erdogan. http://www.dw.de/erdogan-shuts-down-twitter/a-17513812

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  9. Michael Pulsford

    Lecturer, RMIT School Of Art

    Thank you for this, Sarah: it's great. I've been hugely frustrated by the way the boycott has seemed to be intellectual kryptonite for journalists: even sharp people who I usually respect seem to be made weak by its proximity, coming out with all manner of poorly-researched, flimsily-argued malarkey. It's a pleasure to watch you calmly smash that malarkey apart. I'll make sure to read your other articles, too.

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  10. account deleted

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    "the name “Transfield” conveys a certain meaning to the public, most obviously the public company that runs the detention centres"

    What a lot of rubbish! Transfield is far better known as the large construction conglomerate. I am a well-read member of the public and I had no idea until reading this piece that Transfield was associated with detention centres. I had assumed it was one of the usual multinational prison operators.

    Perhaps you need to mix with a wider cross-section of people, Sarah.

    Other than that, the article wasn't bad, although you might like to have a read of Charles Waterstreet's piece in the Fairfax press for a more balanced view.

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    1. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Hmm, I must have phrased that badly if that's what you took away from it. I associated detention with one of the usual multinational prison operators - Serco, etc. Transfield didn't enter the picture.

      I think your point remains weak.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig, the fact that you personally weren't aware of something doesn't make it trivial (well, not to the rest of humanity).

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    3. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Ask someone to explain reasoned argument to you, Felix.

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  11. Connor Jolley

    Environment Student

    The last line is about right, I reckon. Any publicity is good publicity - I'd never heard of the Biennale before all of this, now I actually notice the advertising for it around Melbourne (not that I'd be inclined to go to an arts event like that, but still...)

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  12. Craig Dunlop

    logged in via Facebook

    There are several oversights in this article.

    The assertion that Transfield Holdings is in a position to influence Transfield Services move into detention services is incorrect. Transfield Holdings has not had position on Transfield Services' board since 2012.

    It should also be noted that Malcolm Turnbull does not just a 'very rich man' who makes 'donations' to the arts, he is a long-term donor to the Bienalle, a known and noteworthy art collector, as well as being a major donor to many other…

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    1. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Craig Dunlop

      Thanks for your comments.

      I did link to the Transfield Foundation. Its money comes from TS & TH. I can find no reference to the split of which you speak. In any case, it is closely linked to TS no matter how it says it structures its payments. Companies can use all sorts of wild & wonderful mechanisms to quarantine money: convenient legal devices don't have to transfer to the social sphere. And a 12% shareholder is a big shareholder, able to exercise some influence if it wishes, eg, at AGM or…

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    2. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Craig Dunlop

      I think I disagree with you re the meaning of (1) whether it was effective, and (2) the necessity for it to effective.

      The first is a matter of personal opinion, and in some ways impossible to know as yet - maybe minds were changed and that's important (esp at next election) - after all the Biennale issue has received lots of publicity. Neither you nor I can possibly know the extent of that effect.

      The second is addressed at the end of my piece. I add that acting in accordance with one's conscience is also an issue of effectiveness. Though I take it you doubt the sincerity of that conscience, given your comments on "late pull out".

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    3. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Not sure how anything about the next election is impacted, since both major parties support the detention policy. Unless one of the parties changes its policy, of course, which seems unlikely given how effective it's been in fulfilling its purpose of stopping boat arrivals.

      On the issue of conscientious action, martyrdom can certainly be effective at creating a climate for change, but if the change is to occur and be better than what is replaced, then it has to be based on a better policy set.

      What is the better policy set that might be applied in this case?

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    4. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig, there are already signs of dissent in ALP, eg Sam Dastyari & Anna Bourke.

      I'm not here going to canvass alternatives to offshore detention. That isn't what this article is about. The Refugee Council of Australia's submission to the Expert Panel in 2012 is a good place to start. And, on boat deaths, I wrote this 2 years ago: http://castancentre.com/2012/01/05/sinking-boats-a-reason-to-reconsider-compassion/

      I refuse to believe that cruelty is the answer. The Expert Panel recommended offshore processing but not of the kind we have now, where a man can die & a month later we have no confirmation of how, and where the rule of law, transparency & accountability are totally absent. The EP thought it was possible to have humane offshore processing ... apparently not. Is it worth having such a system to stop the boats? For me, no. I'm with Charlie Pickering.

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    5. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Signs of dissent do not equate with a workable alternative plan.

      I think your cruelty argument is flawed. Any form of detention can be characterised as cruel, whether it is on- or off-shore. I agree that we have a duty of care to the detainees, but let's not over egg the pudding.

      You're also drawing a long bow in claiming that this example demonstrates that humane offshore processing is unfeasible. All it demonstrates is that NIMBYism is not confined to Western countries.

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    6. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Can you provide an example of where offshore processing has been conducted in a humane way? Why aren't we doing it in a humane way?

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    7. Sarah Joseph
      Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to account deleted

      The whole thing is rendered more difficult by the lac of information. For which there is really no "operational" reason beyond preventing embarrassment to the govt, and perhaps shielding us from what is being perpetrated in our name. But there have been signs that the camps are not humane. For a start, refer to the death and the fact that a month later we still don't know how it happened, nor so we have much info on the dozens of injuries. Only Julie Bishop has assured us that the camps are fine…

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    8. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      I'm not so sure that the security blanket is entirely unjustified. By all means I'd like to have more info, but I can also see the validity of an argument that allowing open slather to such information is only likely to lead to deliberately inflammatory activism that will be a significant operational problem.

      There is also an argument that having elected a government democratically, then we must trust that it will act in good faith, whilst having regard to the political exigencies it may face…

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    9. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      "There is also an argument that having elected a government democratically, then we must trust that it will act in good faith, whilst having regard to the political exigencies it may face." Except that such a democratically elected government is not given a mandate to engage in human rights abuses and to refuse to fulfill Australian treaty obligations and standards.

      If you think it does then what are the limits to illegality that could be committed by any democratically elected government? Being in a majority doesn't make the majority right. There are issues of the rule of law, transparency and justice, all of which are tests that democratic decisions must pass before they are democratically legitimate.

      If you think that any decision can be made on the basis of majority will alone then you are advocating ochlocracy.

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    10. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Anthony, you're trying to have two bob each way. On the one hand you're advocating for the sanctity of international treaties, whilst on the other you're disclaiming the primacy of the constitution, without which there can be no international obligations created.

      If the actions of the Australian Government (remember, Governments formed from all four of the largest political parties and 3 independents have all been part of this decision-making process) are unlawful, then by all means let the matter…

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    11. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to account deleted

      Look, I'm sure that the majority of KKK members standing around any hanging tree thought they were in the right and a clear majority at that place, on that day. They were never in the right which is how they are now judged and judged at the time by their critics. If you have no intention of upholding civil and human rights why not just come out and say so?

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    12. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      What a silly, hysterical response, Anthony.

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    13. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig, there are more than just two parties contesting the election - or is that something that doesn't exist simply because you hadn't noticed it?

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    14. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to account deleted

      Craig, Australia has enacted the UN convention into our extant national law. This has not been changed by Parliament. Unless and until it is, any elected government is obliged to obey and uphold the law.

      It's not about the 'justness of the law' - it's about the justness of actions taken that may well breach that national law.

      How simple can it be?

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    15. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my posts above, Felix.

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    16. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      See my post above, Felix.

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  13. harry oblong

    tree surgeon

    a very successful boycott which highlighted loudly and clearly what this company was involved in. the fact that it is the policy of both major political parties does not mean it is wrong to oppose the illegal detention centres, why are the policies of the major parties considered right and correct ?

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  14. Jena Zelezny

    research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

    Surely it can be seen that boycotts have been and continue to be effective. I refer to the current article by Deirdre Coleman, on Modern Slavery (in The Conversation) which notes that awareness of Britain's role in eighteenth century slavery was exposed and discussed through movements such as boycotts.

    Coleman also considers the long term effects of the disaster in Bangladesh (2013) which saw over a thousand workers killed when the building in which they were employed collapsed due to inevitable…

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    1. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      I think he can't see it because injustice is invisible to the senses, until it happens to you!

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  15. Michelle Bruce

    citizen

    A policy which would refuse public funding if artists 'unreasonably' refuse private funding? Doesn't that just mean that their refusal needs to be based on reasons or a reason... as in any reason? Anything can be reasonable as long as it can be reasoned, and anything can be reasoned, so long as there is a reason to base the reasoning on. To me it seems clear that the artists have a reason. That is really the end of it.

    To say that artists are a special part of the community which should express protest through art, is the same as saying that dentists are a special part of the community which should express protest through dentistry. The idea seems a little absurd to me. I see no problem with being an artist and expression dissatisfaction, so long as the means adopted are peaceful and respectful to others. This applies to everyone, not just artists.

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    1. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      I don't think anyone is saying that artists are necessarily a special part of the community, however, I do feel that good Art plays an important, perhaps indispensable, role in any community. It is not irrational to consider that Art can communicate more effectively than Dentistry. Dentistry has an entirely different function as does the Law or medicine.

      Moreover, excellent artists are as rare as hen's teeth and do not become excellent simply because they may have taken a degree. On the other hand any one who takes a degree in Dentistry is entitled to practice, and generally accumulate pots of money, possessions, property and superannuation. Being an artists is not a romantic, carefree mode of existence and there are particularities that relate to no other profession.

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    2. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      No doubt many of your comments on artists are correct Jena.

      I am sorry if I did not make myself clear, but I was merely saying that artists have a right to protest as much as anyone of a different occupation, and not just through their art, but through adopting a different mode of protest, such as a boycott. I do have a cryptic way of writing sometimes, my apologies.

      I think all occupations have their unique characteristics, challenges and rewards.

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