Congratulations to the board of the Sydney Biennale, who have this week made a tough decision in choosing to cut ties with Transfield, the company that runs much of Australia’s offshore immigration detention, which was a major sponsor of the festival.
The connection between the Biennale and Transfield became the subject of much attention recently when the company was awarded a $1.2 billion contract to run the Manus Island detention centre, just days after an outbreak of violence resulted in one death and dozens of serious injuries in an event the government is yet to come clean on the details of. Numerous artists due to perform at the festival cancelled and handed back their fees, while many members of the public, myself included, decided that as a matter of conscience we couldn’t attend the event. See my media release on the issue for more information.
Since then, the news has emerged that the Biennale has chosen to break its ties with Transfield and that the festival board’s chairman, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (who is also the executive director of Transfield) has resigned.
While it isn’t yet clear exactly what this will mean for the festival in terms of funding, the decision to take this course of action was a brave and ethical one. Transfield’s decision to take up their new contract means they stand to make an unbelievably large amount of money, funded by Australian taxpayers, to run a program which explicitly aims to inflict misery on some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The program of sentencing asylum seekers to indefinite detention on remote and impoverished islands without trial has already killed one person and is likely to claim more lives if the government doesn’t drastically change its course – something I’m not confident will happen as it mercilessly cultivates and exploits people’s fear of ‘the other’ for political gain.
I also want to praise Mr Belgiorno-Nettis for his decision. While I never personally called for his resignation his decision to step aside leaves a clean slate and means that the people of Sydney can enjoy the wonderful smorgasbord of art and culture that the Biennale represents without worrying that their attendance at events represents a tacit endorsement of the government’s cruel policies. While I obviously disagree with the work he does in his role with Transfield, he and his family have made an important contribution to the arts scene of Sydney over the years by supporting the Biennale and that should be recognised.
While this matter has caused a shakeup in the Biennale that I imagine everyone would have been happier without it has also revealed a spirit of compassion and fairness amongst the Australian people that much of our right-wing media would have us believe doesn’t exist. While we are repeatedly told that a sizeable proportion of the Australian population agree with the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and some even want them to become crueller occurrences like this show us that these loud xenophobic voices are not in the majority and that these actions by the government are not carried out in our names.