Refugee activists show how to focus an issue campaign

A small human rights advocacy group has shown that quiet, behind-the-scenes pressure on carefully selected targets can achieve more than high-profile stunts and street demonstrations which feature on the nightly news.

Until recently the general public had never heard of No Business in Abuse (NBIA), a new group formed by veteran Melbourne activist Shen Narayanasamy to campaign on behalf of asylum seekers – especially children and vulnerable women – sent by the Australian government to offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

But unlike other groups, which have been attacking the government on a broad front over its refugee policy, NBIA turned its laser focus onto the corporate giant Transfield Services, which has earned about a billion dollars running the camps on behalf of the Federal government and is in the process of negotiating a contract extension for a further five years, worth an estimated $2.7 billion.

Working away from media and public attention over recent months, NBIA met with dozens of the country’s most influential investors, banks, superannuation funds and institutions to highlight what they claim is Transfield’s ‘complicity’ in human rights abuses, and to argue that this poses a potential legal, financial and reputational threat for the company and its shareholders.

Now two of Australia’s biggest superannuation funds – HESTA and First State Super – have dumped their shares in Transfeld, amid reports that a host of other major fund managers are also reviewing their investment in the company.

Predictably, HESTA CEO Debby Blakey said their decision was based on financial rather than on ethical considerations. And equally predictably, Transfield Chair Diane Smith-Gander said the company was an essential service provider and not a political campaigner.  “We do not influence government policy in this area, so we think the activists’ attention to us is misplaced. . . . It’s the politicization of the work we are doing that is a challenge for us.”

Of course Transfield don’t make policy. But as the Australian Financial Review pointed out, in reality the company has no choice but to join what has become an intensely political campaign. “The line between the commercial and the political is becoming ever more blurred in an era where consumer power has changed so much, so quickly.”

Setting aside the merits of the debate, what we are seeing here is classic issue management in action, with Transfield’s business and reputation as collateral damage. The activists’ attention is far from ‘misplaced.’  It’s a proven strategy set out as long ago as 1971 by the pioneering activist Saul Alinsky in his famous manual Rules for Radicals. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.”  Or as hardball American crisis expert Nick Nichols wrote more recently: “Locate your target, lock onto it, villainize it, strike hard and don’t let go.”

The divestment campaigners have clearly locked on to Transfield, and are well on the way to ‘villainize’ them. If the company win their long-awaited contract renewal early next year, they had better get used to the new reality.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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