Newcastle Students Against Detention (SAD) culture jammed the University of Newcastle’s rebranding launch on May 15, putting pressure on the administration to cut ties with Broadspectrum which runs Australia’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
The students were leaked the designs which they parodied to better reflect the University of Newcastle’s (UON) odious business ties, and stuck them over the official ones.
The rebranding focused on the word “New”, so SAD made posters stating: “New Abuses. New Human Rights Violations. Lose Your Ethics at UON.”
Social work student and member of SAD Keira Dott told Green Left Weekly how it was done. “We rocked up at the internal launch and put up all our posters on billboards. We welcomed people in saying this was the new design and asked them if they wanted to get their picture taken with our billboards.”
Dott had also advertised her student profile: “As a social work student, social justice and wellbeing of other people is very important to me. I really disagree with my student money going towards a company that contributes to the abuses of vulnerable humans fleeing their countries from war, persecution and violence. As someone who cares about other people I can’t sit back and be silent, knowing it is my student money going to this company.”
The next day, UON announced it would cut ties with Broadspectrum. Students and staff have been campaigning for a few years for the university to cut ties with this private company which is complicit in the abuse of asylum seekers and refugees.
The campaign began in 2014–15 when students learned that UON had contracted out some management and maintenance tasks to Broadspecturm, in an $88 million deal.
Tim Buchanan, another student activist, told Green Left Weekly: “When we came saw [the university’s] links to offshore detention people began to organise.”
Students and staff held a protest in early 2015, although the campaign really started after the release of the Guardian’s Nauru Files in 2016 which exposed thousands of cases of child abuse, sexual assault, beatings by guards, people denied medical treatment and other crimes on Nauru.
Around Australia, within one week of the files’ release people began protesting outside MP’s offices and thousands turned out to “Bring Them Here” rallies.
This is when Dott first got involved: “Tim [Buchanan] pulled a few of us together. We held our first action on campus and as we were pretty well received we decided to keep campaigning. We then formed Students Against Detention.”
Buchanan said that after the Nauru Files “any event where the university was in the public eye, we would rock up and let the public knew.”
The first major public event SAD interrupted was a UN flag-raising ceremony in Civic Park, in central Newcastle, where UON’s Vice Chancellor Caroline McMillen was speaking. “She was postulating how great and ethical the university was and we were there with a banner seven metre’s long and 2.5 metres high the entire time.” The banner read “UON: Stop Abusive Businesses”.
Next came UON’s open day at the Great Hall. “We decided to stand outside it with a big banner saying ‘University of Newcastle: No Business in Abuse’. A few of us sat in cages holding signs saying, ‘Stop the abuse of asylum seekers’ and a few of us were handing out flyers,” Dott said.
Security tried to move them on but the students stood their ground, saying they had a right to there.
Dott took the message to a “Bring Them Here” rally organised by the Refugee Action Network Newcastle, saying it was “a really good opportunity to speak about the university’s contract because not many people were aware of it.”
More banner drops, film screenings and snap actions generated new activists and bigger organising meetings. It was a campaign that just kept growing.
“As someone involved in many issues, this campaign got traction really quickly”, Buchanan said. Asked why, he replied that it hit a nerve: people were already supporting refugee rights and so “there was no need to explain the ethics, people already knew what was happening on the Nauru and Manus”.
Buchanan said the campaign really took off when SAD pushed the idea that students could do something on campus for those locked up in detention. Our call out was: “‘Hey, we’re at uni and there are people on Manus. We can’t physically get there; we can’t even get media on there. [However] we could actively shut down the business here on campus.’
“We talked about Broadspectrum having no ‘social license’, how you can take out certain parts of an industry without having to tackle the whole industry.”
1000 cuts campaign
Buchanan said the “1000 cuts idea” was empowering for many. Instead of targeting the actual detention centres, the campaign was directed against companies that profit from the detention system. He said grassroots autonomous protests, which shut down businesses to effect change, like the Westpac campaign against Adani, has had a real impact.
The 1000 cuts campaign was aimed at brand-bashing the university. “As students we are responsible for our university and our university represents us. If it’s involved in unethical practices, especially if it has links to a company that has overseen child molestation, murder, rape — the most heinous crimes we know of as a society — it’s clear that students must stand up,” Buchanan said.
Dott said the campaign has empowered students with a sense of self-belief. “When people stand up together we have a lot of power. As students we have a lot of power at our universities and, whether we realise it or not, we can invoke real change. We used every opportunity we had to hold the university accountable for this contract.”
SAD is organising a celebration party while organising for when the UN visits campus. Buchanan believes the win has been “really empowering but there is always more to be done”.
SAD is still active and Dott said they have still got a lot to do. “We are going to continue so our university never again employs, or does business with, a company that detains refugees.
“We are going to continue to demand that the [administration] reworks the university’s policy and ethical framework so that they will never ever employ or do business with companies involved in refugee and asylum detention.”