Volume 9, Issue 1
An inquiry into the 'Business Improvement Program' at the University of Melbourne
On April 11, 2015, the People’s Tribunal met in the Brunswick Uniting Church to address and critique the University’s “Business Improvement Plan”, or BIP. The location was an evocative one. The church, dominated by an enormous wooden crucifix and stained glass images of the apostles, was not a legal forum, and the Tribunal was not a legal institution. Nevertheless, it was intimately concerned with older notions of right, natural law and natural justice. It goes without saying that University representatives were invited to the Tribunal to explain their own position. None took the offer up.
The Tribunal’s purpose was, above all, to provide a place in which those affected by the BIP could detail how they were affected by it. This was of vital importance because the University systematically stifled the voices of its employees under cover of a managerial process of “consultation”. The University skilfully co-opted its employees and made them complicit in the BIP process by forcing them to compete against each other for their own jobs. As a result, anybody who survived the BIP process was--in the most perverse sense imaginable--a beneficiary of the redundancies imposed on their colleagues.
Testimony at the Tribunal incorporated the anonymous statements of employees detailing the harm they suffered as a result of the BIP, as well as testimony from academics and other individuals who, despite not being formally affected by the BIP (the University had worked through their ranks several years earlier) spoke in solidarity with the academic support staff who make their own jobs possible. Much of the testimony focused on the consulting firm hired to implement the BIP, Booz & Co. Booz & Co was formed after Booz Allen split into two companies: Booz & Co, and Booz Allen Hamilton. Booz Allen Hamilton has worked to help the United Arab Emirates form an NSA-equivalent organisation and was involved in metadata analysis as part of the American government’s covert surveillance program.
The Tribunal was assisted by legal counsel drawn from the student body of Melbourne Law School. It was also presided over by Aunty Janet Turpie-Johnson, who sat on the Tribunal itself. Aunty Janet is an Anglican vicar and Aboriginal leader, and her prominence in the Tribunal process reflected the fundamental Aboriginality of the Tribunal. Aboriginal men and women were represented on the Tribunal itself, as counsel, provided evidence, and sat in the audience. In his opening statement, Aboriginal academic Philip Morrissey drew out the links between the the University’s authoritarian implementation of the BIP and the managerial attitude towards Aboriginal people reflected in successive government policies such as the Stolen Generation.
Some may ask what purpose the Tribunal served, if its pronouncements had no legal effect. To this it can be said that the very act of speaking back is itself an act of resistance. This principle is reflected in the following quote from a recent paper on neoliberalism, cited in the recently published book summarising the Tribunal’s findings: “The case for the desirability, viability and sustainability of progressive alternatives will not make itself. Rather, it will have to be advanced in an environment deeply structured--not to say distorted--by several decades of cumulatively entrenched neoliberalism.” The Tribunal’s purpose was to make such a case in such an environment, and it succeeded in doing so.
The People’s Tribunal: An Inquiry into the ‘Business Improvement Program’ at the University of Melbourne can be purchased at www.discipline.net.au.
John Morissey graduated from the Melbourne JD in 2015