From arts to politics

Before I got into politics, I worked as an artist, making large scale public artworks for museums and galleries around the world, drawing people into the conversation about how to create the world that we want to live in. 

In 2014 I was invited to exhibit in the Sydney Biennale. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. The grand final of the artworld. I had worked on a new commission for almost two years. One month before the show was due to open, I was shipping it to Cockatoo island on two 8 tonne trucks, when I found out that the major sponsor, Transfield, was negotiating a multibillion dollar contract with the Australian government to operate the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

I stood at a fork in the road. Fulfil a life-long career ambition, or follow my moral compass? And what would that even look like? How was I supposed to respond to this? Would anything I do make a difference? 

I came together with fellow artists, spoke with refugees and advocates, with Transfield, and with the Biennale. After deliberations and discussions, petitions and letters urging other people to make the right decision, I realised that nothing could justify my participation in a chain of associations that led directly to the the incarceration and torture of refugees and asylum seekers. I decided to withdraw my work. 

Malcolm Turnbull denounced my vicious ingratitude, while George Brandis, the Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, threatened to pull public funding to any artist who refused private sponsorship on ethical grounds. That’s when we knew it was working.

Over the next week, 9 artists withdrew their works until the Chair of the Biennale and the Director of Transfield resigned. But he didn’t just resign. He withdrew his 11% share in Transfield. Public pressure mounted, share prices plummeted, superannuation funds divested their shares. The Transfield name was trashed. So they changed the name and sold the company to a Spanish conglomerate which announced shortly after that they were pulling out of Australia’s immigration detention centres. 

This was a turning point for me. It made me realise that change is possible, and that together we are powerful. After that, I linked arms with my neighbours to stop the east-west toll road from ripping through our community. We barricaded Border Force in solidarity with the men imprisoned on Manus Island. We organised boycotts, protests and rallies. We shrouded Picasso’s weeping woman, ending the relationship between the NGV and Wilson Security. We dyed water fountains red, stopped trucks, crashed parties, wrote in the sky, occupied intersections. We disrupted and disobeyed. We negotiated change and held companies and governments to account. In my final exhibition in 2019, we mapped the thousands of connections between the fossil fuels industry and the arts, sparking a nation-wide divestment movement.

It would come as no surprise that I made a deliberate decision to leave the arts. I took up a Juris Doctor and worked as a paralegal to support refugees navigate our cruel immigration system. But what good is it, I wondered, helping people navigate a system that is designed to demoralise, dehumanise and eventually destroy a person?

Becoming a politician was never part of the plan, but I saw a problem – always calling from the sidelines trying to get other people in positions of power to make better decisions when I could see clearly that the politicians we were trying to influence had already been bought – bought by their wealthy donors, bought by corporate interests. And that this democracy is rigged in their favour. 

But I realised that these seats are not reserved for them – they are for all of us. And so in 2020, I put my hand up for local government and was elected Mayor of the first Greens majority government in the world. A majority young, majority women, culturally diverse council that led change in so many ways. 

We showed Victoria what real climate action looks like, transitioning community centres off gas and installing the first ever inner urban community battery, we got serious about equality with our first LGBTIQA+ strategy, we reformed discriminatory public drinking laws and we supported the arts, local businesses and public housing residents during the pandemic like never before.

But the problems that our community faces can’t be solved at a local level alone. The systemic changes we need are being held back by state and federal governments more concerned about holding on to electoral power than making sure that we have a climate-safe and equitable future. Every day, that future is slipping through our hands. More and more people are experiencing housing stress and homelessness for the first time. They are slipping onto the public housing waitlist which is 120,000 people long and growing. 

I‘ve seen first hand how this state government has abandoned our public housing residents with the lowest funding for public housing anywhere in the country. We hear from the people who bear the brunt of this everyday, desperate for help. I’m talking about Rosalie, a single mother forced to lift her disabled 10-yr old son up steps daily just to get in and out the house. Trapped in the holding cell of transitional housing for 10 years. I’m talking about Aunty Tracey living in an apartment block, where tenants lived with raw sewage spilling out onto their doorsteps and up through their shower drains for years. You literally had to step over shit to get to the childrens swings. I’m talking about Aisha – a child struggling to breathe night after night, as the black mould on her bedroom ceiling spreads. These stories are so common that their suffering has been normalised and internalised.

Make no mistake – none of this is their fault. This is a deliberate failure of successive governments who see housing as an investment opportunity for property developers, rather than a human right. And because of this, we are walking eyes wide open into a deepening housing crisis.

As the calls for maintenance and the desperate need for public housing grows this government is giving away public land to private developers. They’re giving away public housing open space in my electorate – the playground, the community garden and basketball courts at Collingwood’s public housing estate. The one place that public housing residents – living without balconies or air conditioning – can go during heat waves that are getting hotter and longer. This government plans to give all that to private developers for private profit. Meanwhile, 800m away at Fitzroy Gasworks site, they are selling off most of 3.9 ha of vacant, remediated public land to private developers. When they could be building public housing as they promised in 2018.

Decades of Government delay, of underfunding, the hollowing out of our public institutions has affected not just the people in my electorate, but the whole of Victoria. They’re building housing, but it’s affordable only by name – because people can’t afford it. They’re building schools, but running teachers into the ground, they’re building hospitals, but our nurses and ambos have hit a wall. They’re building a blockbuster gallery, full of lovely spaces for their corporate donors, but our artists can’t keep their heads above water. They’re promising renewables, but at the same time they’re drilling for gas.

The Victorian government funds a horse race that we don’t need. They log native timber that we don’t need. They’re funding prisons that we don’t need. And they subsidise fossil fuels that we don’t need. Meanwhile, this government funnels public money into logging, into prisons, into horse racing, into the fossil fuels industry.

People have told me they’re struggling. They’re struggling and they’re terrified. Terrified at how unprepared we are for what is coming. Because we know there is no social justice without ecological justice. Floods, fires, heatwaves, droughts. Food insecurity, displacement of people, infrastructure under strain. We all know that we are not doing enough. It’s coming sooner than we thought. 

And yet, this government is drilling for gas in our oceans, they’re extending the life of our coal fired power stations. They are still logging our native forests. They are pouring fuel on the fire. 

We’re terrified. But I’m hopeful. Because I have seen that urgent change is possible and we know that together we are powerful. Inside and outside parliament we are part of a powerful movement for change that is growing to the scale of the problems we face. With this movement behind me I’ll be fighting for First Nations justice, climate justice and rights for people with disabilities. I’ll be fighting for housing equality and renters’ rights. 

Gabrielle de Vietri is the State Member for Richmond, Victoria. Gabrielle was previously the Mayor of Yarra Council and an artist. 

Image credits. Gabrielle de Vietri in the centre, with fellow artists Nina Ross and Lachlan Anthony, circa February 2018. Photo by Luis Enrique Ascui.