“The mode of being of the new intellectuals can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, 'permanent persuader' and not just a simple orator...” (Antonio Gramsci)

Bob Gould, proprietor of the renowned Gould’s Book Arcade in Newtown, Sydney, died on the 22 May 2011 at age 74. The following are some reflections on some of my personal encounters with Bob at his iconic bookstore.

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Last week protests became riots on three separate occasions on Christmas Island. Of the more than 170 asylum seekers who absconded from detention, between ten and twenty had not returned by Tuesday of this week. A lack of government commentary means it is still unclear as to whether everyone has been accounted for. Following the protests, an estimated 250 asylum seekers could face criminal charges and the rejection of their claims for refugee status. Less than two months ago, following speculative media coverage from a Sydney Morning Herald journalist regarding supposed connections to Scientology, the Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV) had its contract to provide recreation and education programs to Australia’s detainees cancelled by Serco, the private company responsible for administering Australia’s detention centres. Since this time, no similar charity has replaced these lost services.

Detention centres on Christmas Island are overflowing. While the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, cites the government’s reduction of asylum seeker numbers on the Island from 3052 in December 2010 to 2539 a week ago, the remaining population is more than three times the operational capacity specified by the contract between Serco and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. At Northwest Point, the main centre on the Island, about 1800 asylum seekers are being detained in a centre designed for less than half this number, many sleeping in demountable buildings and white tents more commonly associated with music festivals. Last Thursday, those living in two major temporary accommodation areas attached to the maximum-security facility were told to pack up and move inside the main grounds of Northwest Point. It is unclear how these six hundred individuals are being housed in already overcrowded buildings.

During the weekend before last, peaceful protests began at Northwest following the receipt of a government letter which stated that security checks for a number of detainees recognised as refugees would not be undertaken until April. There are currently about 900 individuals who have been accepted as refugees but are awaiting security clearances from ASIO, an increase from 330 in October 2010. Following mass escapes from the centre, responses to the protests became violent as Australian Federal Police and security staff handcuffed suspected protest leaders and employed tear gas to control protesters generally. Last Thursday night, tensions escalated further with detainees setting fire to buildings and accommodation tents, and AFP officers using tear gas and bean-bag bullets to again quell protesters. Reports have suggested Serco officers were unaware of this aggressive move until it was taking place and that a number of non-protesting detainees were also targeted. Current reports claim that there are now between 170 and 190 AFP officers on Christmas Island.

The protests on Christmas Island are not an aberration to the current state of Australian detention centres. Last week protests were held at both the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin and the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, near Derby. These events follow protests at Villawood Detention Centre late last year. Predictably, the Federal Opposition has seized upon recent events as evidence of what they argue is Australia’s lax border protection policy. Julie Bishop has stated that the recent violence was inevitable given the overcrowding in the facilities, suggesting Chris Bowen should be “held to account” for the current “chaos”. Tony Abbott has attributed the worsening state of Australia’s “detention system in crisis” to the current government’s inability to “stop the boats”. Comments from both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have characterised the protests of the detainees as irrational, condemning their violence and suggesting that it will only slow down the processing of their claims. Such comments condescend to asylum seekers, whose protests concern these very delays. Last week 155 detainees were flown from Christmas Island to the mainland, with other large groups moved onshore throughout this week.

This spate of protests should come as no surprise for either the government or the opposition. News has emerged this week of a letter sent to Chris Bowen last December by a local resident worried at building tensions on the island. More significantly, in a report released early last month, the Commonwealth Ombudsman made a number of criticisms of the Christmas Island facility based on observations collected between October 2008 and September 2010. The report argued that overcrowding in the centre has contributed to hygiene problems, a lack of access to communication facilities, such as phone and internet, and a lack of necessary resources for lawyers and migration officers working within the centre. Insufficient mental health services and low officer-to-detainee ratios continue to undermine detainees’ well-being, despite government efforts to expand the former.

It is surprising to me that from no corner in the recent debate have I heard mention of the possible ramifications of removing the major non-government contributor to education and recreation programs in the detention centres. In January this year, a long and successful relationship between ALIV and Serco was terminated, with the charity no longer able to provide recreation programs inside a number of Australian detention centres. The termination came immediately after Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Nick O’Malley, published a conjectural article speculating on supposed connections between ALIV and scientology. The real story at the time concerned ALIV’s failure to produce required financial statements and a related investigation by Fair Trading NSW. The poor management of the charity was disappointing for the many volunteers that have worked within the organisation and especially the detainees who benefit from its contribution, however appropriate financial records have since been submitted and the matter remedied. I have argued elsewhere [http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/thinkingculture/2011/01/refugees_pay_a_high_cost_for_j.html] that O’Malley’s allegations about connections between the charity and Scientology were poorly grounded and after correspondence between the SMH and myself, O’Malley noticeably backed away from his earlier claims.

In the time that it worked within Australian detention centres ALIV provided informal programs aimed at involving as many detainees as possible, in order to reduce the trauma associated with mandatory detention. Programs ranged from informal English language lessons, to cooking, music and art classes, to Yoga and other sports activities, and various party and games nights. In discontinuing the charity’s contribution, Serco has removed the opportunity for detainees to participate in activities other than the very limited range of educational classes they themselves offer. It should be said that even where ALIV’s volunteers were present, its programs only serviced a proportion of the detainee population. However, the symbolic value of the volunteers’ presence is something that should not be underestimated and I would suggest the recent absence has played some part in building tensions within the centres. Where government contracts with private companies for custodial institutions focus on security first, and the well-being of those being detained second, the role of non-government organisations in providing extra services and a symbolic lubricant between the managers and the managed is vitally important.

In recent days the Federal government has flirted with the possibility of a new type of visa that would allow those asylum seekers who have been recognised as refugees to live in onshore communities while their security checks are processed by ASIO. While it is preferable that those individuals whose refugee status has been recognised do not continue to be detained, one would hope that such government consideration instigates reflection over a situation where refugees are able to live in the community during security clearances while a majority of asylum seekers are mandatorily detained offshore, one of the political justifications for which has been the potential security risk posed by these individuals were their claims to be processed while they lived in Australian communities. There are no signs from either side of politics that Australia’s current system of mandatory detention is likely to change significantly any time soon. As such, it is imperative that charities, ALIV or otherwise, are allowed to play a more significant role inside detention centres, in order to relieve some part of the stress inevitably associated with detaining people. Greater access is clearly of pragmatic utility, if it contributes at all to reducing tension and the frequency of violent protests. But greater access is also symbolically important. There are many good people working for both Serco and the DIAC. However, it is vital that asylum seekers in Australia’s ‘care’, many so accustomed to state violence as a response to their protests, are able to engage with Australian citizens who are neither employees of the state nor a company to whom the state’s responsibility has been outsourced.


Liam Grealy

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What does it meant to build a politics centered on diversity? How do we seek to combat homophobia in cultural contexts different to our own? Can we build dialogue amongst communities of diverse sexes, sexualities and genders across the world? These questions were merely some of the issues, renowned gay Ugandan activist David Kato, who was brutally murdered last week, dedicated his life to.


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The following post is an article I have written in response to this story published in the SMH early last week:
http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/volunteers-at-detention-centres-speak-about-scientology-influence-20110116-19sls.html

The SMH was not interested in publishing the response (nor were both The Australian and Crikey). The day following my correspondence with the SMH it published this follow-up story:
http://www.smh.com.au/national/volunteers-detentioncentre-work-stopped-20110124-1a2x4.html

Overall a very disappointing week for ALIV, its volunteers and, ultimately, thousands of asylum seekers.

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Last week the SMH published an article by Nick O’Malley titled “Volunteers at detention centres speak about Scientology influence”. Despite the title, the article’s impetus is the possible deregistration of Sydney charity Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV) by Fair Trading NSW for failure to provide financial statements. This matter provided O’Malley the opportunity to embark on a facile report of the charity’s supposed links to Scientology and its treatment of volunteers.

Following its publication, ALIV’s English and recreation programs at Christmas Island, Darwin and Villawood Detention centres have been discontinued by Serco, the company responsible for running these institutions. This is an understandable response from a company conscious of the effects of negative media coverage regarding their role in a contentious area of public policy. However, in canceling these programs Serco’s clients (or Australia’s detainees) have been deprived of opportunities that interrupt the otherwise monotonous and difficult experience of mandatory detention.

In his article, O’Malley quickly abandons his reporting of ALIV’s financial management. He then sources anonymous volunteer comments that he admits are speculative about supposed links between ALIV and Scientology. He also writes that Asylum Seeker Resource Centre coordinator Pamela Curr “fears” for the well-being of the detainees but fails to provide any evidence of such concerns.

Two opening caveats are required. First, I have volunteered in ALIV’s recreation programs because I believe that the charity’s contribution is valuable to the emotional health of asylum seekers in detention. Second, my volunteering for ALIV has not required any involvement with the charity’s financial administration. On this matter it is likely that the apparent lack of financial disclosure is an effect of an organisation concentrating primarily on the expansion of its services at the expense of thorough administrative management. It is unfortunate that administrative carelessness could ultimately undermine the contributions of volunteers and the provision of services to asylum seekers.

It is unclear why O’Malley represents Ms Curr as “[fearing] for the well-being of the vulnerable detainees”. However, Ms Curr expresses two legitimate concerns that deserve consideration. These relate to the possibility that ALIV’s programs have operated as a substitute for those Serco has a contractual obligation to provide and that asylum seekers might feel compelled to participate in ALIV’s recreation programs in order to obtain a visa. Regarding the latter point, ALIV volunteers do not promote this view, and are advised not to discuss visa applications since this is an immigration matter and lies beyond the expertise of the charity.

Regarding service provision, ALIV is responsible for the provision of its own programs within detention centres rather than for assessing Serco’s satisfaction of its contractual obligations. Instead of casting doubt on the quality of the programs provided by ALIV, O’Malley might have better used his report to examine the regime by which the Australian government assesses the performance of a private company to which it has hand-passed the responsibility of detaining asylum seekers. Responsibility for the proper care for individuals mandatorily detained ultimately rests with the State that has privatised this institution.

Secondly, it is disappointing that the comments of unnamed ALIV volunteers indicate unfulfilling experiences with the charity. However, these experiences are not typical. Regarding the strict confidentiality agreements volunteers are required to sign, these exist on behalf of the privacy of the clients that participate in ALIV’s programs. Signing is a necessary compromise to act as a volunteer inside detention centres. The cancellation of programs demonstrates the precarious nature of any charity’s access to Australian detention centres and the detrimental effects of reputational damage caused by negative media coverage.

O’Malley quotes anonymous past volunteers regarding the twelve hour workdays purportedly struggled through by ALIV’s volunteers in the Christmas Island program. In my experience there, where such days occurred these were for a maximum three days per week and included over three hours of meal breaks, two hours casual administration work, and generally conducting recreational programs within the centres. It is not factory labour. Volunteers are also made aware of the hours involved during the selection and training processes prior to departure. While refugees are not so lucky, no Australian has yet been coerced into the Christmas Island detention centre.

Group debriefing, which I initially thought unusual, is in that context effective and therapeutic. Detention centres can be confronting places. The group debrief – volunteers are also given the opportunity to debrief individually – allows volunteers to both articulate their own experiences and look out for their peers’ well-being. It is an effective, non-coercive team-building strategy that establishes an emotional support network. It is neither introduced nor undertaken as a tactic from the Scientology handbook.

Finally, it is interesting that O’Malley draws upon the symbolic authority of an anonymous priest, described as “concerned about [ALIV’s] restrictive regulations”, in order to criticise supposed links between the charity and Scientology. I have no investment in any institutional religion, nor any alternative spirituality. ALIV’s lack of political and religious affiliation attracted me originally. The charity’s volunteers include practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, and non-religious individuals whose common ground is a basic humanism felt for people in detention. To suggest that ALIV is run according to the tenets of Scientology is simply untrue. It fails to give credit to the diverse religious and moral value systems that underpin the actions of the volunteers, which are, in the end, basic human interactions with vulnerable and traumatised individuals.

It is disappointing that O’Malley’s article appears to have contributed to the decision to cease ALIV’s provision of programs inside Australian detention centres. It is equally disappointing that this comes, in part, of poor administration by the charity. Ultimately, a vulnerable population for which Australia has a duty of care loses out. It is especially disappointing that this result might have been less likely were O’Malley’s article more coherently focused upon the major issue – Fair Trading NSW’s investigation into ALIV – and less interested in making false allusions to ALIV’s supposed connections to Scientology and in complaints from unrepresentative, anonymous volunteers. The cost of such reporting has in this case been high.

Over the past few months Kane Race and I have started a working group in our department called "Sexuality and Space". The idea is to develop an archive and a network of resources, ideas and events about the politics of urban space in Sydney, particularly as this relates to gender and sexuality.

The group builds on the foundation laid by Kane's fabulous book, Pleasure Consuming Medicine,and recent work I've done on the night-time economies of Australia's inner-cities. It is also a chance for us to work collaboratively with students in the department who are leading the way in researching these issues locally.

In my case the project continues a set of concerns I began to investigate in Brisbane through essays like 'Normal Homes', which deals explicitly with city space, sexuality and ideas of kinship. It also develops from writing I did at the outset of my forthcoming book, which describes changes to Brisbane in the wake of the creative industries policy drive. In that context, Fortitude Valley was just one area to be transformed from eccentric haven to jewel in the crown of a new leisure economy marketed to wealthy locals, cosmopolitan tourists and interstate migrants. In a further paper I co-wrote with Jason Wilson, these transformative acts of urban entrepreneurialism are described as a "cultural economy of infamy" - its ultimate manifestation being the Underbelly franchise.

The S&S project is an attempt to chart these trends in Sydney specifically, answering questions like these that Kane has summarised:

*How do strategies of city branding appeal to, and repackage, histories of subcultural and illicit activity in their attempts to market the city? What are the implications for sexual minorities and how are sexual subcultures transformed in this process?

*What are the effects of current policing initiatives (drug dog operations, patrolling of beats, etc.) on the shape and social possibilities of sexual communities in cities like Sydney?

*How is the night-time economy represented, marketed, and governed? What forms of consumption (licit and illicit) does it depend upon - explicitly and tacitly - and what relations are there between them?

*How do we resist the sanitization of sexual cultures as these cultures begin to feature in more extensive networks of commerce, government, and public representation?


At the moment we're meeting fortnightly to discuss readings that set up our aims for the group. Later in the semester this will expand to include a selection of guest speakers from scholars, activists, community and council reps and more.

One of our researchers, Viv McGregor, has started a tumblr blog featuring images of sexuality and space. It's a work of art in itself! Well worth a bookmark. Viv has also started a delicious page for relevant links - feel free to link to us and add more with the sexualityspace tag.

We welcome involvement from anyone interested in cultural economies, consumer culture, cultural geography, criminology and urban governance... and most of all those whose precious intimacies and alternative forms of sociability are increasingly subject to arbitrary surveillance and suspicion.

The Facebook page is one of the easiest ways to keep in touch.

Cross-posted at Home Cooked Theory

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‘Legitimating gay marriage is like legalising child abuse’. Family First Senate candidate Wendy Francis’ comments on Twitter reiterate the homophobic anxieties towards same-sex parenting and marriage that continue to plague the political imagination in Australia.

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The first meeting of the ‘Sexuality and Space’ research group was a success: participants read two interesting articles and discussed many issues regarding the queer spaces in Sydney. But I left with some doubts and disappointments.

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A fair go?

21 Jul

The Federal election has been called and the message from both sides is a commitment to ‘a fair go for all Australians’. When it comes to election messaging, this slogan is quite clichéd, however, the ‘fair go’ sentiment is likely to carry significant voting currency in the upcoming Federal election.

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This blog post is an immediate reflection on the banning of the burqa and niqab in public by the French Assemblée nationale in the wake of similar legislation in Belgium. I neither intend (in a blog post!) to justify or condemn the ban, premised as such dichotomies often are on unexamined presuppositions of what constitutes “freedom” and “oppression”, nor canvass the different material conditions, modes of being and subjectivity that may render the wearing of a veil acceptable or unacceptable in public. Drawing on the recent events in Europe as a starting point, what I do want to do is to take one step further 'back' in order to bring to the fore the presuppositions that are latent in a certain construal of that domain we have come to know as religion and/or ‘the religious’.

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.
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