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“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 [] 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


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:

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:

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


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.

‘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.


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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'It is in the best interests of children to have both a mother and a father’. In a society where marriage, heterosexuality and family are so closely intertwined, such a simple, albeit clichéd, statement would seem uncontroversial. In fact, the idea of a mother and a father in a married relationship carries such political and cultural currency that it is hard to imagine having children in circumstances that do not fit neatly under the matrimonial rubric. So how do we then manage to contemplate a family unit that is not only unmarried, but has two mums or two dads?

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A week that began celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) ended with closet ‘scandals’ in sport and politics. Only days after the IDAHO and the GLORIA awards for homophobic comments made in public, AFL player Jason Akermanis announced that the ‘AFL is not ready’ for openly gay players and the former NSW Minister for Transport, David Campbell, was ‘outed’ leaving a sex on premises venue for men. While one controversy suggested the value of silence surrounding one’s (non-heterosexual) sexuality, another emerged hours later highlighting the consequences of managing sexual visibility. Akermanis suggested that players should remain silent about their sexuality sending out a troubling social message that being gay is not only disturbing but also something to keep hidden in sport.

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Last week AIME return from holidays and both the year 9 and 10 workshops we're really productive. The year 10 crew are doing really well and their projects are lookin like they will be ready for the Gala night on the 27th October. Tuesday 24th will be the last session for the year 10 program. Except they will be involved in the Gala day on the 27th October.

Gala Day - 27th October, 10am - 2pm, Sydney Uni no. 1

Sydney University Sport are hosting AIME for a touch football spectacular.
NSW Waratah Al Manning will join six of the Uni rugby players to conduct the workshop it should be a great way to end both the year 9 and 10 programs.

Gala Night - 27th October, 7.30pm - 10.00pm, Hermann's Bar, City Road Syd Uni

Hermann's Bar will be the location for the end of year function. The night will showcase the completed projects from the year 10 AIME proram. Entertainment will also be provided with Wire MC and The Street Warriors performing their unique mix of Hip Hop music. The night will also screen the AIME 2006 DVD for the first time. If you are interested in coming along please email Places are limited and it is invite only. Kids and mentors bring you parents or a friend along it will be a mad night.

Peace to you all

AIME crew


Interesting internship opportunity for postgrads or students. The job is at ActNow, an online political network for young people.

Any interest let me know, I have a line to the boss haha.


The University organises a group of functions within which "gifted students" visit the campus in order to see what they might study and learn and experience at university. These are senior students who are selected as particularly able to gain things from that experience. Departments are offered the opportunity to provide a demonstration or presentation of either the training they offer or the topics they address.

Our department has offered presentations in previous years on topics like "Gender in the Media". This year, we proposed a group effort - a mix of both Gender Studies and Cultural Studies perspectives on the contentious question of pornography - on some of the debates around what pornography is for and the kinds of problem it is often seen to be. Four of us agreed to present short pieces on different approaches to debates around pornography.

So far so good. Pornography is certainly one of the issues where both gender studies and cultural studies have a lot to say, and an issue that's clearly of general public interest as any survey of mainstream media indicates. But the organising body within the university came back to us with the decision that pornography was not an appropriate topic to offer to these students experiencing what university is like.

It's a strange decision, given that "current affairs" and "social issues" segments in newspapers and on television which these same students will be encouraged to consider as a valid field of public debate address similar questions. It would be a rare 17yr old who had no opinion on the various debates around pornography and those people could clearly choose not to select our session from among those available. It would, indeed, be a rare 17yr old who had never encountered a piece of pornography (although we were never intending to show any).

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The latest edition of Borderlands e-journal is now online, and it has writings around the theme 'regimes of terror'. I found one article particularly stunning, so much so that I want to publicise it further through this blog. Suvendrini Perera's 'Race Terror, Sydney, December 2005' is a thorough thinking through of the 'race hate' that permeates Australian culture at the moment, symbolised by 'events' like the Cronulla riots last summer and the rise of figures like Keith Windschuttle, the racist academic, to positions of cultural power (I'm thinking particularly of Windschuttle's appointment to the Board of the ABC, the public broadcaster, earlier this year). For example, in one section Perera explores race hate on telegraph poles, talkback radio and websites and connects them to broader cultural currents of racism in Australia which culminated at Cronulla over the summer. You can read or print the article directly off the web here. :-)


GCS recently hosted a planning workshop at the Darlington Centre jointly organised by Elspeth, Clif and myself. The workshop represents Stage 1 of an international collaborative project to effectively communicate safer sex messages to young people (16-26yo) via mobile and online technologies. Not only are HIV infection rates on the increase, so too are STIs such as chlamydia which is now on the WHO list of morbidities because, while easily treated once detected, it currently stands as a major cause of infertility.
Among the 21 workshop participants were international researchers Yingying Huang from Remnin University, Beijing and John Nguyet Erni from City University, HongKong. There were representatives from community organizations concerned with sexual health such as ACON, AFAO, NSW Family Planning and Streetwize. A rep from the NSW Children and Young People's Commission was there, along with CRN members from QUT, UWoollongong, UQ, UTS and UWS. Then there were researchers from other depts here at USyd including MECO and the Marketing Dept.
The level of expertise in the room was impressive, covering such diverse areas as: sexual consumption, sexual health, sexual ethics, online communities, youth consumption, mobile technologies, mobile logics and the creative industries.
A follow up workshop is planned for October 06 where we hope to be joined by researchers from the UK (Sociology Dept, Goldsmith's College and the Centre for Social and Cultural Change). Workshop participants are also preparing to present a series of panels at the next Inter-Asian Cultural Studies conference in Shanghai, July 2007.
The workshop was funded by the Cultural Research Network (CRN) and the University of Sydney.
We'll keep you posted on upcoming developments so watch this space!


About the Blog

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