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Transfield next-gen hits out at boycotters who forced brother’s resignation

The next-gen director of an Australian family construction firm has hit out at artists who boycotted contemporary art festival the Biennale of Sydney, due to the family business’s sponsorship of it, and forced his brother, who was chairman of the event, to step down.

In a speech this week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, an executive director at second-generation business Transfield Holdings said the biennale had been targeted by activists and artists in a "destructive way rather than finding a more creative way”.

The Biennale of Sydney, which was founded by Belgiorno-Nettis’s father, Franco, 41 years ago, was this year boycotted by a group of artists when Transfield Services – 12% owned by the family holding company – was awarded Au$1.2 billion (€791 million) to manage detention centres for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, part of Papua New Guinea and Micronesia respectively.

The artists wrote an open letter explaining that they did not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, calling it “ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights”.

Biennale chair Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also a director at the family business, announced his resignation as a result, and Transfield Services also ceased its association with the event.

Asylum seekers are a particularly sensitive political issue in Australia, where anyone without a valid visa is indefinitely detained, and last year the UN Human Rights Council criticised this practice as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Detention centres are known for their poor conditions, and in February a riot at the Manus Island detention centre claimed the life of 23-year-old Iranian asylum-seeker Reza Berati, while 76 others were shot or otherwise wounded when local security guards responded to a protest with violence.

But in his speech, Belgiorno-Nettis said he thought Transfield Services would have a positive effect on the two detention centres. ‘‘Transfield Services has taken on tough challenges all over Australia and the world and has a strong reputation for professional and engaged service delivery.”

He described the decision of his brother to step down from the helm of the event as a “huge gesture” and said it had been a “painful step”.

Luca resigned from the biennale earlier this month, saying in a statement at the time that a “dark cloud” threatened the event, and he hoped his resignation would end that.

He said: “I wear two hats: one as chair of the Biennale of Sydney and the other as a director of Transfield Holdings; both organisations conceived by my father and nurtured by my family over many decades.”

Following Luca’s resignation, biennale organisers said in a statement: “We gratefully acknowledge the personal contribution of Luca as chair over the past 14 years. We also acknowledge the enormous contribution of the Belgiorno-Nettis family over 41 years.”

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