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The Arts

Mar 17, 2014

The highly selective artistic fury of Biennale boycotters

Sydney Biennale critics are being inconsistent in attacking Transfield while ignoring other sponsors with far worse records. Just take a look at Deutsche Bank ...

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A strange inconsistency besets the critics of Transfield Holdings and the Belgiorno-Nettis Family’s support of the Sydney Biennale.

Whether Transfield’s 12% involvement in Transfield Services is sufficient to deem that it, its staff and the Belgiorno-Nettis family have “blood on their hands” because Transfield Services successfully tendered to operate the Manus Island immigration detention facility is an arguable point. Even if you deny the legitimacy of the facility, re-established by Labor last year (Transfield Services also runs the facility on Nauru), 12% is a low threshold. On that basis, anyone working at the facility, even providing much-needed services for detainees, similarly has blood on their hands, unless they’re doing so on an unpaid basis. Still, it’s arguable.

But the fury of artists toward Transfield looks very selective given the corporate record of some other Biennale sponsors. Deutsche Bank is a major partner of the event, and even a brief look at that company’s record just over the last few years (it has a long history, reaching back to the Nazi era) suggests far more substantial grounds for concern than 12% of a detention centre manager.

Deutsche Bank is one of 16 banks sued last Friday by US regulators for manipulating the Libor interest rate, causing “substantial losses” at a number of banks sent into liquidation during the financial crisis. Several banks have already been fined for rigging Libor by the European Union, and Deutsche was the biggest, paying just less than US$1 billion for what the bank admitted was a “gross violation of Deutsche Bank’s values and beliefs”. The bank has set aside $6 billion to fund settlements with regulators.

Deutsche Bank was also one of the big sellers of credit default swaps before the crisis and continued to push them even when its executives were telling favoured clients that they were “crap”. In January, it agreed to settle with US shareholders for its role in pushing mortgage securities, after agreeing to compensate US institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac nearly $2 billion in December. Along with Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank was singled out by the US Senate as having played a “key role in the financial crisis“.

If that cuts no ice with Biennale artists, they might be more concerned that the bank’s “corporate security division” undertook extensive spying on 20 of the bank’s critics, including shareholders and board members. And in December 2012, the bank was raided by German police over tax evasion.

By its own admission, Deutsche Bank engaged in truly remarkable levels of corporate malfeasance that helped inflict misery on hundreds of millions of people across Europe and the United States and is now buying its way out of responsibility for it. But artists who baulk at Transfield’s 12% shareholding of the Manus Island service provider are, presumably, relaxed about it.

“It’s a little hard to avoid the sense that Transfield has been targeted because asylum seekers and offshore processing is a totemic issue …”

There are other Biennale partners with mixed histories — although none of the scale of Deutsche Bank. PwC, as one of the world’s biggest auditors, has been involved in several financial scandals, such as AIG, as well as co-operating with the Putin regime in the sham prosecutions of Russian oligarchs. And what about “distinguished sponsor” Etihad Airways? It is owned by the Abu Dhabi government, a hereditary dictatorship within a federation of hereditary dictatorships where both local and foreign women can be imprisoned if they report sexual assaults and foreign workers are subjected to systematic abuse and discrimination. Last week, the United Arab Emirates government demanded the United States change a critical human rights report that noted a wide range of human rights abuses, including the abduction of a foreign activist transiting the country.

You could possibly argue, using a kind of reverse protectionism logic, that it’s OK to differentiate between Transfield and Deutsche Bank, PWC or Etihad on the basis that those are foreign companies and there’s no benefit from protesting against their sponsorship. But the Transfield boycott related not to what the company had done — it had not sold dodgy securities, or spied on critics, or manipulated a key interest rate, or worked with a human rights abuser — but to the government policy it was implementing; in the eyes of critics, Transfield could be an outstanding manager of the Manus Island facility and still require boycotting because the policy itself is the problem — a policy for which most Australians, incidentally, voted last year.

There’s no requirement for consistency in activism, of course, any more than there is in politics. Nor is inconsistency purely a problem for the artists leading the charge against Transfield — the reaction of Attorney-General and Arts Minister George Brandis typified the puffed-up hypocrisy of a man who professes to be all for freedom of speech but is now busying himself trying to find ways to cut funding from boycott proponents (when he’s not implementing the copyright industry’s internet surveillance agenda, that is). The reaction of others like Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, moreover, resembles nothing so much as that of an organ grinder enraged that his performing monkey has turned and given him the finger.

Even so, it’s a little hard to avoid the sense that Transfield has been targeted because asylum seekers and offshore processing is a totemic issue characterised by unthinking adherence to simplistic formulations. “We will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights,” the artists said in their letter of protest. Australia has had mandatory detention for over 20 years; it was introduced by the Keating government; mandatory detention in itself is not automatically a breach of human rights, the Human Rights Commission has stated, though it may lead to them; and it is ethically defensible if it leads to fewer people dying, which is the goal of current policy (in fact, mandatory detention doesn’t lead to fewer people on boats, but mandatory offshore resettlement clearly does).

None of those points of dispute on the complex issue of deterring people from drowning, of course, made it into the campaign against Transfield. Nor, clearly, any objective comparison of its contribution to the net level of human misery in the world with that of other firms.

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