Vanessa Powell has been visiting the Villawood detention centre for three years, and helped to organise a large visit at Christmas last year and a Persian New Year's celebration recently.
When she heard asylum seekers housed there were being forcibly transferred to detention centres in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, she decided to join others in blockading the front entrance to stop the transfers on April 4.
During the protest, Powell, along with many advocates, took photos of refugees handcuffed inside darkened buses and uploaded them to Facebook.
The next day, Powell was contacted, via Twitter, by the department of immigration over an “offensive remark directed at a staff member” that was posted on her Facebook wall underneath a photograph of a coach transferring asylum seekers. George Georgiadis, also a regular visitor to Villawood, made the comment. The department demanded that Powell remove the post from her Facebook wall.
In the tweet, the department threatened: “If you do not remove your Facebook post with immediate effect, we will consider our options further”. Other Twitter users shared the intimidating tweets widely and showed support for Powell.
The comment by Georgiadis has since been deleted, but two days later, it was reported the federal government has introduced new guidelines for public servants to dob each other in if they express anti-government sentiment on social media.
Georgiadis is a public servant, and on April 6 posted a Facebook message which read: “I am a public servant. The witness of my conscience is more important to me than my employment. I'm hereby dobbing in myself. I publicly proclaim that what this government and the previous governments of the past 20 years have been doing to asylum seekers is morally reprehensible.”
The Federal Court has already ruled against a public servant criticising the government in August last year. Michaela Banerji, a public servant who was working under immigration department spokesperson Sandi Logan, was dismissed after using her anonymous Twitter account to condemn the immigration department.
She applied for a stay on her dismissal and the Federal Circuit Court rejected her application.
The spying and intimidation against advocates' and public servants' right to criticise government policy comes just as the federal government proposed changing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act so that it is no longer an offence to “insult, offend and humiliate” someone based on their race, nationality or ethnicity. This position was backed up by Attorney General George Brandis, who told the Senate: "People do have a right to be bigots, you know ... in a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted."
Powell told Green Left Weekly: “This was an attempt to scare me and other advocates. I did feel intimidated. I was shocked and surprised. I was surprised that my Facebook account was being monitored.
“The changes to the Racial Discrimination Act seem hypocritical. On the one hand it is OK to freely express your bigotry, but when it goes the other way, and George [Georgiadis] expresses his disgust regarding the cruel treatment of refugees then that is offensive. I plan to continue to support asylum seekers, and I think more people should get involved with the protest movement.”
A movement against the government’s anti-refugee policies is developing, as shown by GetUp's 20,000 strong vigils in response to Reza Berati's murder inside the Manus Island detention centre, the 100,000 people who rallied in March in March protests and the support for actions of protesters outside Villawood.
The courage of ordinary people like Powell, Georgiadis and Banerji shine a light on mandatory detention and the lengths the government is prepared to go to cover up the torture within the system. They show we will not be cowed.