The Biennale boycott and lessons for refugee activists

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Last month refugee rights advocates celebrated a small victory when Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, CEO of Transfield Holdings, was successfully pressured into resigning as chairman of the Biennale of Sydney. His departure, and Transfield’s defunding of the arts event, was the direct result of pressure from refugee rights activists and the threat of boycott from participating Biennale artists.

Transfield Services, of which Transfield Holdings is a stakeholder, recently announced it had signed a contract with the Federal government worth $1.22 billion to provide services at Australia’s offshore refugee detentions centers on Manus Island and Nauru.

In response 51 of the 91 participating Biennale artists signed a joint letter calling for the Biennale board to “withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.” Nine of those artists announced they would withdraw their work from the arts event when Biennale organisers failed to take action.

This pressure, as well as plans for refugee rights activists to protest Biennale events, led to Belgiorno-Nettis announcing his resignation, stating that he “had no choice [but to resign] in the sense that [he is] intimately linked with Transfield.” Belgiorno-Nettis’ father, Franco, was the founder of both Transfield and the Biennale, with the family contributing $600,000 to the $10 million Biennale budget for 2014.

Following Transfeild’s withdrawal a number of politicians have expressed anger at the artists and their boycott. Invariably these attacks have served to further highlight the close ties between government policy and big business interests, and the corporate domination of cultural institutions.

Arts Minister George Brandis wrote a letter to the arts funding peak body calling for government funding to be withdrawn from artists and institutions that reject corporate funding for political reasons. Fellow cabinet member, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also came out in support of Transfield and labeled the artists actions ”vicious ingratitude”.

These comments sum-up the attitude of the rich and powerful; that economic domination should bring with it cultural and political influence. What the Biennale artists demonstrated is that collective action and solidarity with those exploited by this system can force the hand of even the most pervasive corporate figures. Now, refugee rights activists are asking how far such actions can be taken.

Some have a drawn the conclusion that highlighting the connections between human rights abuses and corporate interests can embarrass institutions that rely on corporate funding or corporate investment to draft better social responsibility policies that exclude involvement in offshore processing and mandatory detention.

A campaign strategy that consists of picking and choosing the ‘lesser-evil’ corporation is starting on a slippery slope. It will quickly put refugee rights activists in a position where they are essentially championing some corporations over others, inevitably (though unintentionally) ignoring swathes of environmental abuses or workers rights’ abuses while ranking companies on their connection to refugee rights’ abuses. It would not take long for these boycotters to come into conflict with those campaigning around different issues.

Such a strategy also ignores the aspect of the Biennale boycott that was most powerful; the collective withdrawal of the artists’ work. What the Biennale board feared most was that the event would not go ahead if the boycott spread, more artists withdrawing their work and staff refusing to work the event. After all, those on the Biennale board are not the one’s who make the art, paint the walls, hang the lights and sell the tickets.

This is true too of the boards of Transfield, Serco, G4S and the countless other companies that turn the government’s refugee policy into the horrible living reality of offshore prisons. If those who do the work that makes the governments cruel refugee regime function decided to stop work, the policy would be immediately annulled. The power of these workers, those in the same industry and their trade unions, is even greater than that of the Biennale artists.

The most powerful form of boycott is a workers strike. That is why socialists recognise ordinary working class people as our main allies in the fight against racist divisions and the profiteering off human misery. There is, however, still much work to be done in convincing the majority of working people that the political scapegoating of refugees is a trick designed to pull the wool over their eyes.

In order to win the support of ordinary workers the campaign for refugee rights needs to cut across the divide and rule tactics of the government. We need to highlight the huge amounts of wealth that exists and explain that far from fighting over the crumbs, if wealth was distributed more equally there would be more than enough to go around. Instead of letting them pit refugees against others we should demand jobs, homes and services for all.

While boycotts can play a useful role any campaign strategy capable of ending the attack on refugees must keep in it sights the goal of taking economic and political control out of the hands of the wealthy elite and into the hands of ordinary people. This is what socialists are fighting for.

By Mel Gregson