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It may make you feel better but ...

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By Benjamin Haslem

The recent decision by the Biennale of Sydney to reject private sponsorship from Transfield is another example of doing something because it makes you feel good and not because it will deliver any tangible benefits.

I've lost count of the number of times I've cautioned a client against taking a particular course of action with the words: "It may make you feel good but...".


When planning any communication activity it is important to understand who your stakeholders are, their interests in an issue, their expectations, their level of influence and how they are likely to react to particular actions.

Last week the Biennale of Sydney announced it would no longer accept generous corporate sponsorship from "founding partner" Transfield Holdings (reported to be worth $600,000 annually).

Nine artists boycotted the event because the company has a minority shareholding in Transfield Services, which has contracts to operate the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, which house and process asylum seekers who have attempted to reach Australia.

Biennale chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is Transfield Holdings executive director, had no other choice but to resign.

As The Australian newspaper reported: "The Belgiorno-Nettis family was instrumental in establishing the event 40 years ago, and remains a significant patron for other arts institutions including the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Australian Chamber Orchestra".

The decision to reject the sponsorship followed an open letter in February from 28 Australian and international artists urging the Biennale board to abandon Transfield.

"We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers," the letter said.

Last month, a violent riot broke out on Manus Island leading to one asylum seeker dying, one being shot and more than 70 injured.

At the time, G4S Security was responsible for securing and guarding the detention centre, not Transfield, which takes up the contract at the end of this month.

Those supporting the Board's decision defended its principled stand.

But critics warned the decision could spell the end of the event and would potentially scare other corporations off sponsoring the arts.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he hoped the Biennale would survive "But I think the artists that have done this have potentially driven a stake, not through the asylum seeker policy, I can assure you of that, but through the heart of the Biennale itself," Mr Turnbull told ABC radio.

"There wouldn't be a Biennale without the Belgiorno-Nettis family.

"Franco, Luca's father, was one of the great patrons of the arts, a sort of latter day Medici.

"I think it's an extraordinary ... the sheer vicious ingratitude of it all."

The Federal Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, went further, signalling a significant shake-up of arts funding to avoid political "blackballing", in the wake of what he described as the "shameful" decision.

The Australian's Chris Kenny reported: "Senator Brandis has issued an indirect threat against ongoing funding for the Biennale and other arts funding recipients that reject private sponsorship because of political pressure".

What the protesting artists apparently hadn't thought through was what the outcomes of their actions would be.

Did they seriously think their stand would influence how the Federal Government deals with asylum seekers? Transfield doesn't set asylum seeker policy, the Federal Government does.

Did the artists hope their actions would force Transfield to withdraw its services from Manus and Nauru. Possibly, but how would that help asylum seekers? Another provider would simply step in to take Transfield's place.

And what reaction had they anticipated from the Federal Government, especially given the at times fraught relationship between the conservative Liberal Nationals Coalition and the arts community?

It reminds me of the old high school debating topic: that principles are for dreamers.

All the artists have achieved is to put the future of the Biennale  in doubt, threatened future government funding of the arts and potentially frightened corporate Australia into avoiding arts sponsorship.

Meanwhile, on Manus Island and Nauru nothing has changed.   

It is true the artists have focussed attention on the conditions of asylum seeker camps but that was already well and truly in the public spotlight. 

They didn't need to undermine philanthropic and taxpayer support of the arts to raise awareness.