Darwin festival under fire for ‘gag clause’ preventing artists from criticising Santos sponsorship

A meeting between the board, First Nations representatives and environmental activists fails to resolve tensions over the deal, which has been described as ‘artwashing’

Artists and event producers engaged for Darwin’s 2022 festival have been presented with a gag clause in their contracts, placing severe restrictions on what they can publicly say about the sponsorship of oil and gas company Santos.

The revelations follow an open letter and petition signed by more than 3,500 people which circulated earlier this month calling on the festival to dump the sponsor. The letter described Santos’s involvement with the festival as “artswashing”, making comparisons to the tobacco industry’s marketing model of previous decades.

Late last week, a meeting was called between First Nations representatives, environmental advocates and the Darwin festival board, but it failed to resolve the issue, with attendees describing the meeting as patronising and unproductive.

The Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation are involved in supreme court action over Santos’ proposed expansion of its fracking operations in the Beetaloo Basin.
The Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation’s chair, Johnny Wilson, said he was ‘disappointed’ the festival made no commitment to drop Santos. Photograph: Original Power

In contracts seen by Guardian Australia, artists and their producers are required to sign a guarantee they will not, for the duration of the contract’s terms, “make statements or representations, or otherwise communicate, directly or indirectly, in writing, orally, or otherwise, or take any action which may, directly or indirectly, disparage the festival and/or its corporate sponsors or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates or their respective officers, directors, employees, advisers, businesses or reputations”.

Anna Weekes, a spokesperson for Fossil Free Arts NT who attended last Friday’s meeting, said the festival board’s chair, Ian Kew, told the meeting the non-disparagement/no contact clause in the contracts was “standard”, but opponents say the restrictive clause is contradictory to the festival’s principles of free exchange of ideas, artistic expression and free speech.

The board has not responded to questions specifically concerning the non-disparagement clause in participants’ contracts, but said in a statement on Thursday: “We have met with the concerned group on multiple occasions and committed to a meaningful discussion on this matter after this year’s festival.”

A similar dispute over sponsorship non-disparagement clauses emerged earlier this year at Perth’s Fringe festival, with the event’s organisers, Artrage, subsequently promising to review future sponsorship deals with petroleum exploration and production company Woodside in 2023.

Santos defended its reputation, saying it was “a corporate leader in climate action with a clear climate transition action plan and a target of net zero scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2040”, and had been a supporter of the Darwin festival for more than quarter of a century.

‘They made it clear they weren’t going to change their minds’

Writer and Rembarranga and Tiwi Islander woman Marie Munkara, who attended last week’s board meeting with Kew, other board members and legal representatives, said the results of the meeting were disappointing.

“They said it’s lovely that you came to speak to us and all this other stuff but I think that it was all just platitudes,” Munkara said.

“They made it clear they were not going to change their minds, we had that feeling right through that meeting.”

Marie Munkara
Rembarranga and Tiwi Islander woman Marie Munkara was disappointed by the recent meeting with the festival board. Photograph: Original Power

Representatives of the traditional owners from Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, the Tiwi Islands and the Narrabri area in northern New South Wales have all lodged concerns with the territory government over Santos projects, citing a failure to engage with First Nations people and a lack of respect towards country, sacred sites and protection of the natural environment.

Santos is involved in action in the supreme court over a proposed expansion of its fracking operations in the Beetaloo Basin.

The chair of the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation who represents members from the Beetaloo Basin, Johnny Wilson, was present at the meeting with Darwin festival representatives.

“We are disappointed they made no commitment to give up advertising [from] Santos at this year’s festival,” he said in a statement.

“How can we take the festival board’s claims about respecting Indigenous culture seriously when they continue to promote this company while our communities suffer at their hands?”

Weekes said as festival chairman, Kew needed to “show leadership and cut ties with Santos, develop an ethical sponsorship policy and change up their board by again appointing artists to better represent the territory’s cultural life”.

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Weekes said the festival board’s links to fossil fuel industries should also be scrutinised.

Kew, who was the chief executive of Northern Territory Airports until 2020, gained his professional entre into the business world with ExxonMobil, going on to serve more than 20 years with multinational oil and gas company Shell. He also is the former chair of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, the Charles Darwin University Foundation and former board member of the Northern Territory’s museum and art gallery.

Another board member, Cathryn Tilmouth, is the executive director of Northern Australia’s branch of the Minerals Council of Australia, and the former senior government and public affairs adviser for Santos’s Australian operations.

The festival did not reply to the Guardian’s questions about its board makeup. Santos was contacted for comment.

Darwin festival begins on 4 August.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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