Friday, January 22, 2016

Visceral Art and Political Voids Art Review published in Rochford Street Review

Visceral Art and Political Voids: Bernadette Smith Reviews ‘Refuge’ & ‘Have Your Say’ at Verge Gallery & Articulate Project Space

Refuge ran at the Verge Gallery, University of Sydney, from 19 November to 12 December 2015. Have Your Say ran at Articulate Project Space, Leichhardt, from 18 December to 20 December 2015
Two non-commercial Sydney galleries ended 2015 with group exhibitions of political art. Verge Gallery, funded by the University of Sydney Student Union, showed Refuge while Articulate Project Space, an artist run initiative, exhibited Have Your Say. In spite of these outward similarities both galleries were poles apart aesthetically and perhaps even politically.
Have Your Say was a boisterous, stylistically-inclusive affair that demonstrates how liberating conceptual art can be when it lets its hair down. Articulate Gallery had been prompted by “the social and political crises facing the world to invite artists to have their say…”(Have Your Say Facebook page). Displaying a no holds barred approach, artists dealt with political subject matter that rarely gets funded by government or big business. Have Your Say wasn’t afraid to tackle the impacts of mining, gender violence, rampant capitalism and economic inequality head on.

Exhortations/Invextions by Gary Warner at Articulate Gallery. Photograph Bernadette Smith
Many artists in the show were moved by climate change and the spectre of mass species extinction to visualize explicit data on the Anthropocene. Gary Warner’s work ‘Exhortations/Invextions’  used an altered photoframe to match annual technological inventions against annual extinctions. The viewer is forced to confront the year by year cost of so called progress on the macro level. Marta Ferracin’s whimsical installation Meeting Point used multi-channel video and wind-up carillons. Part New Materialism and part Surrealism it explored sensory connections between nature and the mechanical in a confounding way.
Bylong, a penumbral, layered mesh floor piece by Margaret Roberts, spelled out the unfolding tragedy of so many regions being destroyed by open-cut mining. Her online artist statement doesn’t try to aestheticise this ugly reality but on the contrary includes Lock The Gate’s web site which states: “The residents of the Bylong Valley, like communities all around NSW, want action to protect land and water resources from coal mining. The government’s failure to deliver this is nothing short of criminal.” Certainly no fig leaf there.

RAW Contemporary performers with Betablocked installation at Articulate Gallery. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
Performance art had a strong presence in the show with several affective performances stressing human intimacy and connection perhaps as a corrective to virtual reality. Regardless of overarching claims that globalisation and digital culture have brought us closer together with the world now at our fingertips most performances invoked a need for physicality. Artists responded almost shamanically to a sense of social alienation born of late capitalism. Performers included RAW Contemporary artists led by Renay Pepita and Linda Luke seen above foregrounded against no words anymore installation by Betablocked.
Part of the synergies inherent in the show was the way different artworks intermixed and flowed into each other enhancing aesthetic relationships. The role of chance in contemporary art relations was further revealed to me when I discovered my urban art intervention in a suburban street had been used in an accidental collaboration at Articulate. Part of my art practice has been repurposing abandoned shopping trolleys to create Precariat Billboards that state facts about Australia’s invisible underclass rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. I then film my performance partner pushing this mobile bricolage up and down the street until exhausted. There it is finally left as an art intervention on the side of the road ( 2015/11/abandoned-shopping-trolleys-in-sydney.html)

Linden Braye’s installation with Barbara Halnan’s Greed artwork in foreground at Articulate Gallery. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
It was a pleasant surprise to rediscover one of my altered trolleys in Lyndon Braye’s created and found object Arte Povera installation at Have Your Say. All elements worked together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. While the purists might disagree I believe this creative serendipity and collective authorship helps subvert the art market imperative of a sole creative genius. The aesthetic language and social context was further deepened by being exhibited in close proximity to Barbara Halnan’s Greed artwork seen above in situ at Have Your Say. It is simply not possible to review all the memorable works in this show but for me taken as an organic whole, it was a powerfully, visceral experience.
Refuge at Verge Gallery, curated by Siân McIntyre, aimed to: “broaden the dialogue around current Australian policy with works by refugee artists, non refugee artists and collaborative works…”. In contrast to the cornucopia of unrestrained creative expression at Have Your SayRefuge had a somewhat austere, institutional atmosphere not unlike the waiting room of an Australian Immigration department perhaps.
“If You Come to Australia” installation consisting of flags, headphones, carpet and digital photo frames by Katie Green and collaborators at Verge Gallery. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
Near the entrance was a prominently sited installation seen above called ‘If You Come To Australia’ by Katie Green and collaborators. This consisted of plinths covered with Australian flags and headphones which played back harrowing refugee accounts of seeking asylum and their hopes for a successful future in Australia. The symbolism was accentuated by the gallery visitor having to stand on a handcrafted Turkish carpet in order to listen. This served as a metaphor for the way Australians have sometimes been complicit in trampling over ethnicity and human rights.
Juxtaposing precious luxury objects as markers of suffering and displacement was Alex Seton’s life size marble and bronze sculpture of an anchor and paddle inlaid with signaling flags. The flags spell out Stop Your Vessel evocative of desperate attempts by refugees to reach Australian waters. In the catalogue statement Siân McIntyre urges us to remember those less fortunate while in “this sterile gallery environment”. This is a curious statement – why would the curator and gallerist condemn such a space in these terms. The traditional white cube that Verge is creates a neutral space which ought to allow oxygen for the conversation around the work exhibited. The curator appears to be confusing ‘sterile’ with ‘neutral’ in her essay and one is left wondering why?

“Stop Your Vessel” marble and bronze sculptures by Alex Seton at Verge Gallery. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
Adjacent to Seton’s carvings were props such as clocks, timers and documentation seen below from Amy Spiers performance installation staged earlier in 2015 at Underbelly Arts Festival. ‘Wait Until Called’ had involved simulating a room of patiently waiting refugees who were being punished by having to wait “a very long time” to be processed for asylum status because they had attempted to come to Australia by boat. The Verge wall statement quoted Nina Power who theorises that carceral states use time as a weapon to crush the sanity and futures of those held in legal limbo. Power is quite accurate in her description but it could just as easily apply to jobseekers or homeless people already in Australia. A third of Australian residents could identify with the endless wasted time waiting as denizens in welfare offices and job placement agencies while getting nowhere. It begs the question why art about economic inequality across the board is never aired in publicly funded galleries. Arguably they should allow local artists to record the desperate stories of jobseekers and the homeless right here in Sydney without the need to look any further afield. Instead art funding bodies, decision makers and even activists turn a blind eye to the needless suffering caused by neo-liberalism. Could it be that our society is becoming desensitised to the poverty in our midst and conditioned by the constant demonization of poor people in Australia?
“Wait Until Called” Verge Gallery display of documentation and props by Amy Spiers from an earlier performance/installation at Underbelly Arts Festival. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
I asked curator Siân McIntyre about the relationship between refugees and the existing underclass who can be seen as ‘refugees’ from the kind of society which is the logical outcome of austerity and Neoliberalism. McIntyre replied that raising these issues too prominently in the context of the exhibition posed the danger of being perceived as aligning oneself with racist groups such as Reclaim Australia. I responded that it could hardly be racist to prioritise jobs and housing for poor people already here since it would help Indigenous Australians and minorities who are over-represented among Australia’s underclass. (I might add that this underclass status largely stems from the historic oppression of colonised people rather than being the result of so called “character flaws” that the oligarchs would have us believe.) She still said it sounded like something you’d see on the website of Reclaim Australia so today I looked up their website but could see nothing of the kind there. What I did see though was an over-predominance of Australian flags which reminded me a lot of the Refuge exhibition. In fact the clinical absences and didactic nature of the show brought to mind the middle class value judgements made in Victorian era England about deserving and undeserving poor. Ultimately if we go down that path it is going to lead to more inequality and a truly emancipatory politics needs to treat all disadvantaged people equally. Hopefully we may one day see a Refuge exhibition about Australia’s unacknowledged refugees like the over 28,000 homeless people in New South Wales some of whom can be seen below in Belmore Park. As usual it is the poor who are asked to carry the burden as our fractured society attempts to deal equitably with refugee intakes.
Some of Australia’s homeless internal refugees at Belmore Park in Sydney. Photograph Bernadette Smith.
 – Bernadette Smith

Friday, November 14, 2014

Exploring Art Responses in Australia to the GFC

Paper delivered at the University of Wollongong Provocations Conference November 2014
Since 1989 the world has seen the fall of Communism, the seeming triumph of globalisation and rising inequality both within and between nations. We are seeing the demise of the welfare state and the undermining of full employment by transnational corporatocracies. A growing global underclass or ‘precariat’ of casual and underemployed workers has emerged here. Friedman economics and wasteful privatisation helped cause the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 which has further impoverished millions and prompted the worldwide Occupy movement. In 2011, protestors swelled by the precariat, took to the streets against the oligarchs and demanded alternatives. They carried hand-made signs such as: ‘We are the 99%’ and demanded a fairer society. When tens of thousands rallied in Martin Place, Sydney, I saw Channel 7 television staff watching the unrest from their window while their cameras stood idle. Apparently it was unnewsworthy and like other mainstream media they maintained a news blackout for most of Occupy Sydney. Into this vacuum I wondered what artists could do to process this public phenomenon the plutocracy tried to ignore.
Staff at Channel Seven TV studio in Martin Place overlooking Occupy Sydney rally.
Many artists inspired by the Occupy movement have maintained blogs of photographs, video and commentary as an act of witnessing. This served not only as a corrective to the dearth of mainstream reporting but as an incubator for further cultural responses. 1 The GFC and its implications has prompted other ongoing responses from artists, curators, institutions and funding bodies in Australia. Prominently featured were installations, time-based screen presentations, social media experiments, artist interventions in public spaces and participatory art. Such cultural exchanges can be effective; however, aestheticising the politics of protest and re-presenting it in a safe gallery milieu can also render it impotent.
Disembodied from its social context, art may employ formalist devices and a seductive repertoire of visual language that can challenge aesthetic boundaries, while still obliquely reinforcing the social status quo. Yet some art has proved to be empowering and a key factor of cultural survival for those denied economic equality. With the benefit of partial hindsight, let’s sample these responses within Australia. Given the ongoing impacts of government austerity budgets, an evaluation is all the more urgent.
During Occupy Sydney, I met Jacquelene Drinkall an artist-in-residence at Art Space, Woollomolloo. Her art practice ranges from conceptual, installation and participatory art using telepathic themes or what she calls UFOlogy. Jacquelene’s approach to making art is sometimes tech savvy while at other times more craft-based. She became involved with Occupy Sydney after going to Martin Place to capture audio for a collaborative virtual world performance in Blue Mars Lite. She worked with Jeremy Owen Turner of Vancouver and nineteen other avatars using cutting edge software.2 When I viewed the project online it seemed slightly awkward but perhaps its value lies in the way it sets the stage and hints at collaborative possibilities for future online actions.
Jacquelene went on to help facillitate a cultural response for both Occupy Sydney and Occupy Melbourne. Occupy Sydney organisers tried to hold free classes in Martin Place, a public space in the heart of Sydney’s CBD but were constantly harassed by police. Their open school on how to use social media was endangered until Jacqueline made her studio available. Members of the general public were invited to learn how to use twitter, blogging and Facebook etc to organise protests, create information sharing networks and narrowcast alternate news. Compelling ideas for non-hierarchical forms of social organisation were also discussed.
For Occupy Sydney’s Creative Day of Action Jacquelene led a series of open workshops at her studio in which a banner and giant papier mache skulls were made. These props were used with sensational effect during the Occupy Sydney Tour of Corporate Greed. They blockaded Coles Supermarket to hear from former Baiada Chicken employees affected by workplace safety and underpayment. Jaquelene explained to me that this rally-tour was supposed to be as noisy and colourful as possible, so male participants put on her Weatherman UFOlogy dresses while others wore her Telepathic Balaclava Fascinators or headpieces handwoven from telecommunications wire. 3
The tour, which finished at Martin Place, made a provocative visual statement with skulls, reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and men’s neckties cut-and-tucked into dresses. Normally business ties are recognised as signifying a man’s occupation and economic status. However this intervention, which spread throughout the CBD, challenged public perceptions of gender and class. It also lampooned the financial servants that brought us the GFC and resonated with queer culture. Jaquelene recalls that: “It was in the lead up to the monumental Marriage Equality rally, so the gender-bending worked well to show solidarity with that event”. Jacquelene Drinkall’s socially embedded praxis seemed far removed from the traditional white cube gallery exhibition.
Telepathic Fascinator by Jacqueline Drinkall worn during Corporate Greed Tour
Sydney’s art institutions have also responded to the GFC by showing a selection of fairly high profile artists considered to have some connection with worldwide protest. At Cross Art Projects there was an exhibition of activist art called “Occupy the Future: Sarah Goffman, Mini Graff, Deborah Kelly and Fiona McDonald” shown in February 2012. It also featured artists’ blogs concerned with the Occupy movement.4 Sarah Goffman was involved as an artist with Occupy Sydney and meticulously reproduced dozens of cardboard placards which were exhibited as a wall installation. They included appeals from the disenfranchised such as “I need a job now” and “I am a human being not a commodity”. Her stated intention was to honour the 99% and bring new life into the placards as a unified art work. The installation was shown again in a more reverential setting at Artspace for the Everything Falls Apart (Part 1) exhibition in June 2012. Curated by Mark Feary and Blair French this exhibition explored “political and ideological systems collapsing around the world”. 5
At Artspace, people seemed to connect with Sarah’s installation, spending lots of time reading the signs and taking it all in. Many took selfies in front of the work and a sense of shared ownership was palpable. Rather than being the product of a sole creative genius this artwork is actually a mass collaboration. Some viewers may have even recognised their own Occupy placards now dignified within the space of a well funded art gallery. Of all the exhibitions I have seen, Sarah’s installation seemed the most respectful of the public will for political change.
detail of Sarah Goffman's installation at Artspace
Deborah Kelly showed her My Sydney Summer series at Cross Art Projects which was originally commissioned by Cambelltown Art Centre. Her art is influenced by anti-Fascist political montage and she is a member of boat-people. Deborah has collaborated with corporate sponsors re-directing their resources to fund art postcards, billboards and other forms of mass advertising to support refugees, peace, diversity and gender/identity politics. Her photographs for this show exuded a seamless professional quality suggestive of magazine advertising. The high production values were in stark contrast to Sarah Goffman’s humble cardboard signs. Deborah had merged street actions from all over the world into a single backdrop, showing Egypt during the Arab Spring and Sydney with St Mary’s Cathedral burning, then volunteers were rephotographed in front of it holding their own placards. Deborah regarded the photographs featured on the website of Cross Art Projects such as: “Be More Thoughtful” and “Consensus Not Conflict” as her least effective and emailed me others such as “US bases Out” and “Free Palestine”. All but gone were the desperate pleas for decent jobs and a fair go seen during the real Occupy protests. A simulacra that wasn’t quite real enough for me.
Deborah considers the whole of her My Sydney Summer series “a performance work whose traces were exhibited at Cross Arts, to be not very good or important” compared to her other work. This is a courageous admission by a significant artist and I applaud her candour however it indicates a problematic curatorial process. Its puzzling that the artworks Deborah regarded as her least effective were the very ones selected by funding bodies and institutional curators to respond to the Occupy phenomenon. What then are the policy criteria that art institutions use to curate cultural responses to social zeitgeist? One often encounters ill-defined standards of quality or excellence that can be used to exclude or squeeze the aesthetic space that artists have to work within. It is worth asking whether these institutional and aesthetic filters have sanitised the message of Occupy and muffled any real challenge to the status quo.
Cross Art Projects online webpage
Deborah’s latest series “No Human Being is Illegal (In all our Glory)” was commissioned for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney. Transfield, a major sponsor of the Biennale, had won the government contract for detaining Australia’s asylum seekers and refugee advocates were calling upon artists to boycott the Biennale. In one art-blog review, a visitor had unkindly commented that Deborah should have joined the boycott which is a little unfair considering she was active in the artist group calling for divestment from Transfield.6 Not only that but all successful artists need the patronage of corporations, institutions, powerful curators and wealthy collectors. This puts artists in an impossible position: either accept art funding and ignore the elephant in the room ie. our brutal economic system or accept total obscurity. Many artists from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t even get to make that choice because they lack career networks.

In her book Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop mentions how at one stage the British Arts Council was controlled by the aristocracy which meant only art that propped up their class interests was funded and disseminated.7 There are parallels to Australia when one considers how lower socio-economic areas such as Western Sydney, Wollongong or Newcastle are denied an equitable share of arts funding. Funding bodies may underwrite artists who deal with cultural diversity yet ignore class diversity. There is funding for art that speaks out against formal racism but not postcode classism. Economic apartheid has meant that under-resourced ‘Westies’, too poor to live in city centres, are consigned to the margins of society. Issue-based art is only funded so long as it doesn’t mention the class war or the interests of the precariat.
It was revealing to see how the 19th Biennale of Sydney artists dealt with the implications of the economic crisis. Nathan Coley’s Honour series uses black and white photographs of political demonstrations, concealing their slogans with gold leaf. The viewer is left to insert their own meaning into the blank space of the protestors’ placards. The date given for one of the works, 18.10.11, indicated that it was around the time of the worldwide Occupy protests but we have little other contextual information to go by. Nathan claims that he is honouring the protestors by covering their signs with gold but his strategy could be perceived as censorship or mockery of an already silenced underclass. The last gasp of postmodern irony has been used to deconstruct the very idea of public protest.
In the work of Hubert Czerepok there also seems to be a playful detournement or trivialisation of public dissent. Let’s Change It All is a performance in which children were asked to make placards demanding positive things and march in the streets ‘in support of freedom and frivolity’. On Cockatoo Island kids marched with placards calling for “more sport” and “Save the Great Barrier Reef”. Basically Melbourne based Biennale curator, Juliana Engberg and the sponsors weren’t overly concerned about austerity so the cultural responses to it seemed rather anaemic. Art that questions economic equality, affordable housing, job security and welfare just didn’t get selected. Censorship by omission perhaps.

Occupy Sydney, Martin Place October 15th 2011
Lastly I turn to an academic cultural response to the GFC. Glenn D’Cruz and Dirk de Bruyn’s performative, multi-media lecture called Click if You Like This, or OCCUPY as Spectacle: Situationism and a Technological Derive. Coming from an experimental film background Dirk de Bruyn’s skill in weaving disparate images and sound into a coherent whole is apparent. This visually dense text used Guy Debord as a point of departure but I found a somewhat paternalistic voice overwriting the meaning of the imagery.

Referring to Occupy as the ‘detritus of the worldwide spectacle’ the mainstream media’s view that it lacked leadership or a program of demands was rehearsed. At one point the authors declared: “Everybody at Occupy Melbourne appeared at some point to click, tap, snap or excitedly stare into some kind of mobile device. It’s impossible to know exactly what they were doing with these devices.”8
Impossible? Was it really so impossible just to ask Occupy Melbourne participants what they were doing rather than speculating on some mute other? Dirk and Glen might have learned something - such as that Occupy protestors had no choice but to broadcast their own news through social media because of the mainstream media news blackout. When I wandered around Occupy Sydney there were dozens of people only too eager to discuss why they were there.
Artists need to beware of a holier than thou approach when creating aesthetic responses to such a complex and ongoing mass action. They need to remember that they are drawing on powerful forces in motion that are beyond just aesthetics. The spontaneity of the Occupy movement threw up appropriately self-generated cultural responses. Frequently short-lived, not precious as to their longevity, these works are of the moment even if they draw on the continuum of responses going back to the Paris Commune.
1 My blog and those of other artists such as Jacqueline Drinkall, Jagath Deerasekara and Sarah Goffman were featured in Cross Art Projects’ Occupy the Future exhibition of activist art in February 2012.
2 Published online at
3 emailed statement from Jacquelene Drinkall to the author in May 2014.
5 from Everything Falls Apart (Part 1) exhibition review by Anna Madeleine in Art Almanac June 2012.
7 Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (Verso 2012) Claire Bishop
8 Glenn D’Cruz and Dirk de Bruyn “Click if You Like This or OCCUPY as Spectacle: Situationism a Technological Derive”. The Second International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersections between Art, Science and Culture 2012.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Hi, I’m a welfare recipient with an attitude problem. Not that I’m complaining cos we’re living in the best country money can buy and going fracking cheap too! And such a clever country. Just look how they're improving our public transport by banning welfare recipients from travelling at peak hour.* What will they think of next - make us wear a black star or tattoo perhaps? Achtung, eine velfare recipient. Das ist Verboten! Like they say: “American Express – don’t leave home without it” but if you’re on welfare then just don’t leave home!

In fact there’s only one thing worse than being a welfare recipient and that’s being a disabled welfare recipient. But whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger like my job capacity assessment. Hey guys, don’t diss my disability. You know being on welfare makes us aspirational voters – we take an aspro every time we get called into Centrelink. Gees it's been at least 2 weeks since the last compulsory client review – must be time we checked up on them again! At this rate we’ll have one half of Australia being paid to watch the other half – ASIO eat your heart out. And deciding which major party to give our preferences to is a real pain. Do we vote for the one that’s anti-welfare or the one that’s uber anti-welfare? Next election I’m telling them: “not tonite dear I’ve got a headache”. 

Speaking of being screwed. Have you ever noticed how efficient banks are since they sacked most of the staff? Now banks like Westpac make $5.9 billion a year and their CEO, Gail Kelly, got $9.5 million. You’ve gotta admire the symmetry its almost like 69 no wonder they’re fucking us over! But seriously you need real money to get the best qualified executives like Gail. She’s a Latin teacher from Seth Efrika and with daddy’s “encouragement” lands a job in a bank gets fast-tracked and the rest is history. Or was it herstory... 

I guess Australia thought economic apartheid was such a great idea we had to import it. Can’t call em names here cos that would be discrimination so how about westies, bogans, dole bludgers, job snobs, cruisers, losers and leaners? But what ever happened to good old fashioned Aussie battlers? Well they’re earning $150,000 a year according to the pollies. They’re the real deserving poor so dig deep Australia – its only politics of envy if you mind subsidising the big end of town. Besides  anyone on less than a hundred grand a year’s got character flaws so suck that. Well Gail Kelly must be Mother Theresa or maybe Australia’s first saint – our lady of dollars, patron saint of crapitalism. Religion’s a bit like a shit sandwich – the more bread you got the less shit you eat. 

The Greens have got the right idea – just recycle everything. Ya recycle holy water by boiling the hell out of it and reuse toilet paper by beating the crap out of it. So why not losers too? Yeah f*ck all those broke useless cripples and redundant workers. All they need is tough love to cure their character flaws. Then when they get depressed and suicidal and can’t afford to eat we’ll ask for more psychiatrists. So why not get welfare recipients to line up and jump off a big, tall tower? We’ll have the shrinks standing by telling them it’s all mind over matter – Australia doesn’t mind and you don’t matter. But that could be messy, maybe we need a ‘Pacific solution’ – it works so well for refugees why not jobseekers? So next time some retrenched worker turns up at Centrelink we’ll stick a sign on the door saying: “Piss off, we’re full” and send them to Christmas Island for processing. If they get shipwrecked and tossed into the sea, we’ll throw them a Hillsong Church sermon: “A hand up not a handout! Jesus loves a billionaire, greediness is next to godliness”.

Guess I’m an expert now cos I received help from the government’s welfare-to-work reforms. I phoned their help line to tell them their ‘help’ wasn’t very helpful and a voice on the other end says: “ We’ll decide what’s good for you not you!”. After that kind of help I get a nervous breakdown and referred to the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. They send me a glossy brochure with all these smiling faces saying how much they’re gonna ‘help’ me. So I turn up at this CRS panel with a dozen people sitting around a table the size of a football field.
“Look” I say “I’ve got depression, a dodgy back and wrist and I’m looking after a kid and a mother with dementia.” I ask for physiotherapy – but they’ve got no money for that.
“What about helping me contact employers and typing job applications?” Not bloody likely.
“So what can you do for me?”
“We will supervise your efforts to find employment.”
Well at least its keeping them off the streets – the CRS I mean, because I’d hate to meet them in a dark alley. They mugged me from behind an office desk – imagine what they could do in a balaclava!

Who needs the CRS anyway when we’ve got the Starvation Army’s Employment Pus just back from their Manus Island Tour of Duty. Now instead of overseeing refugees, they're breaching jobseekers for being just five minutes late to their lousy seminars on how to write a letter to an employer. Never mind the futility of learning to beg for jobs that don’t exist. Or that we've done the same job training ten times over. NO EXCUSES. “Your bus was running late? That’ll be 6 months of bread and water for you!” Thank god for the Salvos? How about some truth in advertising like:
“Help us to help Australia beat up the unemployed” or
“This winter, give generously to authority, make charity history.”
Street beggar signs should say: “Forget spare change, we need real change!”


Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Legacy of Nelson Mandela in Australia

At the end of 2013 society can reflect on the passing of Nelson Mandela, revered anti-racism activist and founder of post-apartheid South Africa. Shortly after he died an ABC television interviewer asked a former Australian parliamentarian what Mandela’s legacy might be. He answered that it would never again be acceptable for people to be discriminated against on the basis of race, language, colour or creed. There was no mention of class or the increasing  economic  inequality which now exists between nations and within nations. Yet many would argue that the struggle against increasing economic apartheid and social disadvantage based on class and race is far from over in Australia.

Instead we find an impoverished class of people, up to 40 % of the population, subsisting in precarious employment. Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that they are involuntarily trapped in part-time or temporary casual jobs, dead end vocational training, underemployed or unemployed. This 'flexible' workforce forms a Third World sometimes described as a fourth world, co-existing uneasily within a First world. But rather than discrimination being based purely on skin colour now there is evidence of a type of postcode rascism depending on where one lives and exacerbated  by race. People denigrated as 'Westies' or bogans for example are denied jobs and other opportunities because they come from the western suburbs of  Sydney.

This reached its nadir when the former Federal government picked on poorer suburbs throughout Australia to extend Northern Territory Intervention measures to non-Aboriginals. Reminiscent of South Africa's dreaded Pass Laws, jobseekers from disadvantaged communities such as Bankstown in Sydney were to be issued with dehumanising ration cards otherwise known as the Basics card until there was stiff resistance. More marginalised Aboriginal communities in Northern Territory however still suffer this form of discrimination and recent frontpage headlines in the Sunday Telegraph vilifying disabled citizens as “bludgers” show that Australia still has a long way to go before we can claim to be a diverse, inclusive society.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dissing the Disadvantaged – how Australia is failing the long-term jobless and people with disabilities.

As part of Social Inclusion Week 2011, the then Minister for Social Inclusion, Tanya Plibersek, outlined the Australian government’s social inclusion agenda in its 'Foundations for a Stronger, Fairer Australia' report. It includes improving outcomes for people living with disability and helping jobless families with children to 'increase work opportunities, improve their parenting and build their capacity'. This will be achieved through partnerships between government, business and the not-for-profit sector targeting disadvantaged groups such as the long term jobless and Indigenous Australians. Curiously there's no mention of providing secure, remunerative employment for targeted groups through actual job creation or affirmative action.

The report foreshadows private sector outsourcing of government programs designed to address disadvantage. This risks commodifying society's most vulnerable particularly where public accountability is lacking and perverse profit incentives exist. Instead of protecting end users from endemic exploitation in the privatised job service and charity sectors, the government ostensibly is moving towards deregulation with planned reforms to 'cut red tape'. Their consultation process seems limited to business and non-government stakeholders despite the report's stated aim of helping clients “Have a voice so that they can influence decisions that affect them”.

The government's agenda seems less about alleviating poverty than delegating non-government organisations to act upon a mute, deficient other. Instead of empowering the disadvantaged the government will outsource supervisory control over them by private agencies that are mainly answerable to their shareholders. Rather than being informed by an evidence-based approach, the report's blanket value judgement that jobless families with children need help to 'improve their parenting' smacks of classist paternalism. Its underlying assumption is not far removed from Opposition leader Tony Abbot's assertion that lowly paid workers and the unemployed are only in that position because of individual character flaws.

With the ink barely dry on parliament's apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation and British child migrants the government and often self-serving church based service providers are again peddling the myth that disadvantaged families are somehow dysfunctional and in need of intervention. Since the Northern Territory Intervention affecting Aboriginal communities began, reported rates of suicide and self-harm have more than doubled and indigenous incarceration has increased by 40 per cent (Closing the Gap Monitoring Report). Ominously, Social Security amendments will spread dehumanising intervention measures such as compulsory income management to Centrelink recipients throughout Australia starting with ten priority sites like Bankstown, Sydney. Future parliaments may well have to apologise for another shameful chapter in Australia's history while business, church and state seem set to ride the next new wave of institutional abuse of our nation's vulnerable underclass.

Australia's underclass has grown significantly along with rising inequality since the ascendant global influence of economic rationalists such as Milton Friedman from the mid 1970's. The dominant economic paradigm now dictates that it is harder to control inflation if unemployment falls below 4.5%. To ensure constant downward pressure on consumables and labour costs, the bottom third in our society or Fourth World must be denied any kind of disposable income beyond the basic necessities of life. Hence our governments have sustained policies of economic apartheid to produce a permanent class of marginalised unemployed and underemployed Australians.

Controlling the power of unions, casualisation of the workforce and privatisation of state infrastructure, essential services and public enterprises brought this about. Import tariff reductions have caused most of our manufacturing industries to be outsourced offshore and what remains is a tenuous labour market. Labour hire is now a market driven commodity generating a stressful, lack of control over the lives of jobseekers forced to eke out a precarious existence on the margins of our economy. This 'flexible' workforce is a revolving door of untenured, low paid and under/unemployed workers lacking job security and protection. They belong to what Noam Chomsky calls a 'precariat' and Australia's disadvantaged target groups are at the very bottom of this precariat.

This is why social inclusion initiatives simply cannot work without the government undertaking full employment through public sector expansion as happened in the 30 years following World War II. The Local Government Association alone has identified enough jobs needing to be done that if funded could provide long term employment for all Australia's unemployed. Never mind the abundance of jobs which could be funded in the creative industries, health, education and new green enterprises if the benefits of Australia's resources boom were spread more evenly. As Nugget Coombs had observed this would be more in keeping with the spirit of legislation which reserves underground minerals for the benefit of the whole nation or Commonwealth of Australia. In addition the nature of work itself needs to be re-defined to recognise the underpaid contributions of Australia's cultural workers.

The only other possible alternative to maintaining a society underpinned by social exclusion without creating full employment is to share the burden of inflation-controlling policies among all sections of Australian society. This means rationing the decent jobs so that even the socially privileged receive their turn of unemployment. Then the precariat would have social mobility ensuring no one suffers economic hardship from underemployment for more than a few months in their lifetime. This way the adverse effects of managing inflation wouldn't only fall on those without class connections but be rotated equitably.

A more practical way to bring about social inclusion would be to employ Australia's disadvantaged within all publicly funded private enterprises and the public service. To this end I wrote to then Minister for Social Inclusion, Tanya Plibersek, both as a member of her electorate and as a person living with disabilities. I also spoke to her office staff and contacted the Australian Social Inclusion Board through The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website. I proposed that the government as part of its social inclusion initiatives establish affirmative action for taxpayer funded service providers to ensure people with disabilities are given priority in employment within these organisations.

As a first step whenever government departments issue new service provision contracts they should include contractual obligations to employ suitably qualified disadvantaged jobseekers such as those with disabilities and the long term unemployed. This may require employment quotas of at least 10 to 20% and a compliance regime of issuing exemplary damages against companies and NGO's that fail to comply (particularly in cases of nepotism for example where better qualified jobseekers with disabilities are being passed over in favour of hiring those without disabilities who are less qualified).

Independent oversight could be provided with a well-resourced Ombudsman to defend the rights of people with disabilities seeking part-time work. It could be financed by a levy on private sector organisations that benefit from taxpayer funding. Current anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws are too onerous for jobseekers with disabilities; instead the onus of proof should be on government-subsidised employers to prove that they are employing enough Australians with disabilities through positive discrimination. Publicly financed charities and non-profit groups should not be exempt from the requirement to provide affirmative action in their internal hiring practices. The government is already talking about a regulator and reform of publicly funded non profits so it wouldn't involve much more effort to ensure disadvantaged jobseekers are given every opportunity to participate as paid workers within them rather than as volunteers. I also asked if there have been any costings done around such proposals before or whether there had been any cost/benefit analysis for implementing such a proposal.

At the time of writing I am still waiting to hear back from either the Social Inclusion Board or my parliamentary representative regarding this proposal for affirmative action. Although there has been a dearth of official information on truly effective ways to bring about social inclusion a relevant online article was published in Cathnews in April last year by Frank Quinlan head of Catholic Social Services. He suggested one place to start employing people with disabilities was in the Australian public service and seemed to shift the blame for the lack of employment opportunities for the disadvantaged on to the public sector. However in my experience the biggest barriers to employing people with disabilities lie in the ever expanding private sector.

At least in the public service there is an independent public service exam and government departments are required to publicly advertise job vacancies. Whereas private sector service providers funded by the public purse have no requirement to ensure merit-based employment in their internal hiring practices and nepotism is rife. People with disabilities have no recourse to freedom of information laws in that regard as commercial confidentiality clauses are inevitably invoked to avoid scrutiny. Rather than a mature age teacher, retrenched office worker or qualified jobseeker with disabilities being given a chance at these jobs you are more likely to find a well connected Young Liberal gap year kid working as a client supervisor in the privatised job or disability service sector. Often sham job training for clients is provided in-house by staff who are not even required to have teaching qualifications while jobseekers that do are denied the opportunity to work there.

Frank is right on the money though when he informs us: “Like other major employers, the Catholic Church could also lead the charge to ensure there are opportunities for those experiencing disabilities and other barriers.” There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of adult survivors of clergy abuse in Australia most of whom are given very little help to move on with their lives. Former Catholic survivors are left with debilitating traumas yet face discrimination in employment at Catholic schools. Any job applicant must show their academic and school record as part of the selection process and former Catholic school pupils identified as 'Catholic' on their school record are automatically expected to supply a reference from their parish priest showing they are in good standing within the church. For survivors of clergy abuse who have been sexually assaulted as children by their parish priest or figures of authority within the church, obtaining a reference is too traumatic and raises an impossible bar.

Paradoxically a jobseeker brought up as a Protestant or Muslim stands a better chance of being employed within Catholic institutions than abused former Catholics, as they are not required to provide a reference from their parson or imam. This accounts for why Catholic schools have never before had such a high proportion of non-Catholic staff because a generation of clergy abuse survivors are effectively locked out.

After the pope's World Youth Day apology one such survivor asked a local bishop to exempt clergy abuse survivors from the requirement to provide a reference from their local parish priest when seeking employment at diocesan schools. Since his diocese was one of Australia's clergy abuse epicentres it would have been a practical gesture of reconciliation but his answer was: “Well go to Job Network!” (Or to be precise Centacare job agency). But Centacare like most other job service providers is making headlines for all the wrong reasons for using jobseekers as pawns in their game of rorting taxpayer funds. Cold Comfort Farm there.

Relying on the charitable instincts of churches, charities and businesses is not a particularly effective way of employing disadvantaged groups so rather than self-regulation, the government must ensure publicly funded institutions don't discriminate against people living with disabilities and others. Public subsidies for non-government service providers should be tied to affirmative action obligations to employ the disadvantaged within their organisations. Australia will never be an inclusive, fair society without equitable distribution of paid, secure employment for people living with disabilities and the long term underemployed.

more photos at

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Focus on our DISability - Reviewing Social Inclusion Initiatives

For years the Ageing, Disability and Home Care Department (ADHD) has run a Don’t DIS My Ability campaign to celebrate International Day of People with Disability. In partnership with Accessible Arts an arts program has been designed to supposedly boost and foster arts and disability practice within New South Wales. These initiatives coincide with the momentum building at the national level for social inclusion policies targeting those classed as disadvantaged in the workforce. The federal government would appear to be setting ambitious goals for greater participation and integration into the workforce. It remains to be seen though whether there will be any tangible benefit for people with disabilities without guaranteeing their right to appropriate work or funding the necessary support. Beyond the hype is the possibility that the government’s real intention is simply to dump people with disabilities onto the harsh regime of New Start allowance involving tough love breaching and pernicious activity agreements as happened to mothers during the Howard government’s Welfare-to-Work reforms.

International Year of People with Disabilities comes around every year leaving us with feel-good motherhood statements and plenty of spin but not enough substance. Rather than slick advertising campaigns, people with disabilities prefer to be properly consulted and treated as part of the decision-making process affecting our lives. I fear such public relations exercises may conceal a return to paternalistic policies that disempower those of us with disabilities, reinstituting the ‘we know what’s best for you’ rule from above. A lack of true inclusiveness can marginalise those living with disabilities as the other. What people with disabilities need is acceptance and accommodation rather than trivialisation of disabling conditions that make it harder for us to compete in a tight job market.

Let’s start with advertising slogans such as ’don’t diss my ability’ or ‘focus on ability’ which can have positive effects in raising self esteem and social acceptance particularly for children with disabilities. The message is important but without concrete measures to support adults with disabilities entering or re-entering the workforce it becomes meaningless. Because there is no affirmative action legislation to back up the fine sentiments many adults with disabilities find such slogans empty and hypocritical. Alongside slogans we need say 10% of all taxpayer funded part-time jobs reserved for appropriately qualified job applicants with disabilities. This would not only provide genuine assistance and social inclusion, but paradoxically also help to secure merit-based employment in the private sector. In particular, wherever service provision contracts are paid for by the public purse then governments need to ensure private employers don’t discriminate against jobseekers with disabilities by implementing a quota if necessary. In the disability service sector, affirmative-action employment measures should be at least 20% to guarantee qualified jobseekers with disabilities get a fair go.

Employing a significant proportion of disabled workers in the disability service sector would provide encouragement and positive role models for all those living with disabilities who access their services. This would help those living with disabilities to reach their full potential and allow us to contribute to society without the shameful social apartheid of sheltered workshops. The wider community would also benefit from coming into contact with a more inclusive workforce. Additionally it would help stem the tide of nepotism which currently deprives this sector of a more diverse, better qualified talent pool in the increasingly privatised disability services. There are also hidden dangers in treating the privatised disability service sector as a safe haven of cronyism and jobs for the boys. Take the following example.

As an artist living with disabilities who has a Bachelor of Art Education and a Master of Fine Art qualifications, I have been an arts practitioner and educator for over 30 years. Yet when I tried to get part-time work as an art facilitator at a taxpayer funded private company that provides art training services to the disabled I was told they would welcome my unpaid contributions only. When I asked this company’s art facilitator whether his job had been advertised or if there had been any public call for expressions of interest for his position he told me no. He said he was a recent art school graduate and had no formal teaching qualifications. I then explained my qualifications and experience and asked him how I could obtain paid part-time work as a disabled art facilitator at companies like his. He told me that Accessible Arts had a website where I could put down my particulars and any employer who needed my skills could contact me from there. I asked him if that was how he got his job and was told : “ No I was lucky, because my cousin works here.”

I’m not suggesting this is improper because unlike the public service there is no objective examination to guarantee merit-based employment in the private sector even when they are financed by the public purse. There is also less accountability towards clients and jobseekers than in the public sector because they are not subject to Freedom of Information laws and can always claim commercial confidentiality. However it is not just disabled job seekers without connections who are disadvantaged by the privatised disability service sector. When I looked at their website I was horrified to see a photograph showing homeless youth being trained to silkscreen printed Tshirts, without any protective gloves, breathing mask or eyewear. As a four-year trained high school art teacher I knew that this presented a huge occupational health and safety issue but apparently if you are homeless and unemployed, then life is considered very cheap indeed by these private sector job trainers. Just like convicted prisoners the government has legislated to ensure that unemployed people are unable to sue job service providers or Centrelink if they are harmed by their negligence. Will this discriminatory legislation also be extended to people with disabilities?

One suspects that behind all this talk of focusing on ability is a hidden agenda to deny full acceptance and respect for people’s disabilities, brushing aside individual needs and failing to enable supported workforce participation. Why treat people with disabilities as second class citizens by refusing to listen to what we need and even failing to include us in the anti-villification laws that protect other minorities? When it comes to social inclusion initiatives policymakers are still not on the same page. Professor Corinne Mulley, Sydney University’s Chair of Public Transport has proposed not allowing welfare recipients to travel on Sydney’s public transport during peak hours to solve congestion. Considering that most people with disabilities cannot work full-time and must access welfare payments to survive then this divisive proposal if implemented will cause further disadvantage. It is dehumanising and denies us any hope of social acceptance and full workforce participation. Whatever happened to all the hoopla about social inclusion? The silence from relevant government departments and the disability services lobby over this proposal has been deafening. It just shows that the ’Don’t Dis My Ability’ publicity campaign lacks credibility.

If policymakers are serious about focusing on ability then they should recommend quotas for employing disadvantaged jobseekers in all publicly funded positions such as the job service sector, the creative industries and promised new green enterprises. Either that or change the policy settings for the economy away from controlling inflation towards controlling unemployment as was done from the end of the second world war until the mid 1970s. Most economists believe its harder to control inflation if unemployment falls below 4.75% so Reserve Bank and government policies now ensure there is never full employment. But if unemployment is so important for lowering inflation and guaranteeing the health of our economy then why not rotate under/unemployment and give everyone a turn at being employed? The unemployment queue is perhaps the only queue, where the longer you wait your turn for a job, the less chance you have of reaching your destination. Why should the burden of under/unemployment be placed exclusively upon disadvantaged Australians such as the long-term unemployed and people living with disabilities or those with insufficient class connections? Why not advance Australia FAIR?

also published in the Green Left Weekly