Santos to end Darwin festival sponsorship as anti-fossil fuel backers emerge

A group of philanthropists, artists and First Nations representatives have offered $200,000 if the gas company is dropped by the festival board

Santos has backed out of its sponsorship of Darwin festival, preempting a move by a cohort of philanthropists, artists and First Nations representatives, who were offering a $200,000 funding deal on the condition the festival cut ties with its fossil fuel partner.

The deal was scheduled to be discussed at a meeting late on Tuesday, but earlier in the day, Jane Norman, Santos chief of staff and vice president of strategy, contacted the chair of the festival board, Ian Kew, to inform him the company would not be seeking to renew its sponsorship deal, which expires at the end of the year.

The festival has declined to disclose how much the Santos sponsorship was worth. The Guardian has sought comment from the festival board, and it remains unclear if the $200,000 offer is still on the table.

The meeting between the delegation and festival board still went ahead later on Tuesday. It included a representative from the five philanthropic organisations offering to put up the money: the McKinnon Family Foundation, the Graeme Wood Foundation, the Lenko Family Foundation, the Oranges & Sardines Foundation, and the Ethinvest Foundation.

Anna Weekes, spokesperson for Fossil Free Arts NT, who also attended the meeting and only learnt of the Santos decision at that point, said afterwards: “The Darwin festival board is yet to commit to meeting the conditions on which the money is being offered and the foundations await response to their letter.”

On 12 October the philanthropic coalition sent a letter to the festival board making the formal offer of $200,000 spread over two years, designed to allow the festival time to develop a “new, ethical, sponsorship framework which excludes fossil fuel companies”.

This means the festival must also sever ties with Japanese oil company Impex to comply with the terms of the offer. It also included a proviso that the festival board gift the naming rights of its opening night concert in Darwin amphitheatre, currently rights held by Santos, to the Larrakia nation, the traditional owners of the greater Darwin region.

Santos would not comment on its decision to cease its sponsorship deal, but provided the Guardian with a copy of the letter emailed to the festival board’s chairman earlier on Tuesday.

“As we understand it, the board now have alternative sponsorship options for the Darwin festival, which had not been the case in previous years and as such Santos advises that it will not be seeking to renew or extend the sponsorship contract beyond the current terms,” the letter said.

Fossil Free Arts NT described Santos’s decision to pull out as a “huge win” for traditional owners and local communities impacted by Santos projects.

“[This is] a clear acknowledgement that its attempts to greenwash its gas projects no longer wash with artists, audiences or the wider community,” said Weekes in statement.

“It’s now time for Darwin festival to show leadership and make a clear commitment to end all ties with fossil fuel money and develop an ethical sponsorship policy to avoid these controversies in the future and set an example that prioritises first nations culture, local communities and a safe climate in the territory.

“It’s also time for a shake up of the current board which has allowed these risks to our festival to persist for so long, with more artists and cultural workers appointed to engage and listen to our communities and our sector.”

Santos has been a major sponsor of the Northern Territory’s annual August arts festival for more than 20 years.

Vocal opposition against the partnership was reignited in June, several months before this year’s festival. Since then, almost 300 artists and creative producers have signed an open letter calling for the termination of the Santos sponsorship, describing it as “artwashing” and calling for more ethical alternatives.

Santos’s withdrawal comes amid renewed scrutiny over fossil fuel partnership with major events. Earlier this month, Perth festival announced it would cease its decades-long sponsorship deal with Chevron, after being subjected to similar grass roots pressure.

On Tuesday, Netball Australia publicly stated it would address and resolve with “absolute priority” concerns raised by Noongar team member of the Diamonds, Donnell Wallam, after the organisation signed a multimillion dollar sponsorship deal with Gina Rinehart’s mining company Hancock Prospecting last month.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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