‘It makes us chumps’: Tim Winton speaks out against fossil fuel sponsorship of Perth festival

Speaking at the festival, the author took aim at the event’s ‘embarrassing’ financial arrangements that come ‘straight out of the big tobacco playbook’

Tim Winton has used his closing address at Perth festival’s Writers Weekend to voice his opposition to the ongoing reliance of Western Australian arts organisations on sponsorship from the fossil fuel industry.

Taking aim specifically at Woodside Energy – which is a sponsor of one of the festival’s key events, the Saturday 5 March performance of John Luther Adams’ Pulitzer prize-winning work Become Ocean – Winton, one of Australia’s most highly recognised writers, said that the “arts-washing” fossil fuel companies continued to engage in on a major scale was “straight out of the big tobacco playbook.”

The work – described by the composer as a response to the effects of global warming on the world’s oceans, and set to be performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) and Western Australian Youth Orchestras (WAYO) – has already become the target of protests, with the activist group Fossil Free Arts WA calling on the festival to drop the event from its program because of Woodside’s involvement.

Other artists calling for the funding arrangement to be dropped included Fringe World performer Noemie Huttner-Koros, Kuruma Marthedunera woman and Murujuga traditional owner Josie Alec, and Nick Allbrook, lead singer of the band Pond, who allowed their opening night performance to be interrupted by climate activists. Stella Donnelly also spoke out against the Woodside sponsorship during her sold out Perth festival show on Friday.

On Sunday evening, Winton added his voice to the protests, arguing that the arts sector’s captivity to sponsorship from giant companies such as Woodside and Chevron (a major Perth festival sponsor for almost two decades) had become “so internalised it feels normal”.

“In fact, half the time we’re so punch drunk, it feels right,” he said.

Winton noted that unlike the WA arts sector, the state’s financial institutions, super funds, shareholder groups and banks were severing their relationships with the fossil fuel industry in droves.

“I do want us to acknowledge how things still work here … how captive [the arts and cultural sectors] are,” he told the Writers Weekend audience.

“I suspect that to some of the folks who were involved in decisions around that production, all of them good people I’m sure, the dissonance just wasn’t audible. And that just shows you how normal it is, how safe the fossil giants still feel here in the wild west.”

“For who else in the corporate world, sailing so close to reputational oblivion, could feel that safe and so confident? You reckon a brewery would put itself forward for a show about foetal alcohol syndrome? How about the tobacco industry sponsoring ventilators for lung patients?”

Winton said he was not “sledging” the Perth festival, WASO or WAYO for its involvement with Woodside, and was not calling for a boycott of the concert.

“I’m not interested in denouncing or shaming anyone in the beleaguered arts community,” Winton said.

“Funding is a nightmare, and I know from long personal experience just how hard it can be to raise cash for good work, and I’m fully sympathetic.

“But I do think this matter needs to be addressed, and it’s way past time, especially in this town.”

Winton also pointed to the irony of Perth festival’s 2022 theme – ocean – and its longstanding sponsorship arrangement with another fossil fuel company, Chevron: “Awkward. And to be honest, really embarrassing,” he said.

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“Whether you’re having an oceans theme or not … Chevron? Really? With a record like theirs?” he continued. “It also shows how far and how wide and how deep we’ve let the influence of fossil capital seep through our culture, and also how bloody hard it’s going to be to extricate ourselves. Because they’re everywhere.

“But what I take personally and find most disheartening is the knowledge that my own industry, the arts caper, is still so thoroughly co-opted. Just step back a moment and think about this. Artists and the companies that support them are supposed to be the guardians of the champions of the imagination … You’re falling for this old soft power ploy. It doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us chumps.”

Guardian Australia has sought comment from Chevron, the Perth festival, WASO and WAYO.

In a statement, Perth festival said they were “proud” to have Winton appear at the Writers Weekend, and that “artistic freedom of expression is paramount”.

“We receive support from a wide range of partners – including corporate sponsors, government supporters and philanthropists – that represent the scope of the Western Australian business sector,” the festival continued. “As a not-for-profit arts organisation, this support allows us to provide hundreds of thousands of Western Australians with world-class cultural experiences that otherwise would not happen. It also helps us to make the arts accessible to as many people as possible while delivering huge employment, social and economic benefit to WA.”

A Chevron spokesperson said: “Tim Winton is a cherished Australian author and we respect his right to express his opinions … The arts community has experienced particular challenges throughout the Covid-19 pandemic due to the postponement and cancellation of events. At this difficult time, we are pleased to support Perth Festival.”

A Woodside spokesperson said the company had been a “committed supporter of Western Australia’s talented young musicians” since 1991 and that 30-year relationship reached “new heights” last year, when the company connected WAYO to WASO for Dreams of Place, a series of concerts and workshops.

“Through the partnership, WAYO musicians are provided with unique opportunities to learn from Western Australia’s professional state orchestra,” the spokesperson said.

“A complete program of interactive workshops and rehearsals culminating in annual side-by-side performances … is helping develop our local talent, creating pathways for the next generation of gifted musicians.”

Though Perth’s fringe arts festival Fringe World appeared to have divested itself from Woodside last year, it instead transitioned the sponsorship to its parent company, Artrage. Woodside also sponsors Perth theatre companies Barking Gecko and Yirra Yaakin.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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