After the heist: actions by Brandis, the Opposition and the arts sector

Post by , August 13th, 2015

The public hearings for the Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts are underway. Artists and arts organisations are telling members of the committee that the impact on them is, or is likely to be, calamitous. Some organisations fear that they will have to close their doors.

Arts Minister Brandis has raided the Australia Council budget to set up a new grants fund which he personally can control. Mostly, he has been vague as to the purpose. But in one statement in Senate Estimates, he said that he wants to give more support to the orchestras. This is a zero sum game and he is well aware that as a consequence individual artists and small arts organisations will lose funding support. He has even deliberately excluded individual artists from his own fund, after saying in Estimates that he is not interested in supporting them because they care only for themselves and not for their audiences.

That is a ridiculous proposition. But even were it not, it is the artists, not Arts Ministers, who are indispensable in creating the art that we support as a public good.

In more than 30 years, the writer has not seen such a concerted response by the arts community. A peak body of representative arts organisations instigated the Senate inquiry. More than 2,300 submissions have been received and the small number already published are overwhelmingly negative. Artists’ criticisms are being published in the media. They have little to lose, after all. The Australia Council, as an organisation within Brandis’s portfolio, has confined itself to presenting factual consequences in a formal submission. They are sobering.

Assessments of the new arrangements would normally confine themselves to policy objectives and potential outcomes. But Minister Brandis has taken these steps abruptly and without any clear policy discussion. He earlier subtracted half of the Australia Council’s budget for literature, already parsimonious at about $4 million a year, to give to an as yet non-existent Book Council. Eight months later he has given no clear description of purpose or operation.

These seem to be poorly explained decisions having mostly to do with Brandis’s personal tastes, proclivities and thought balloons. The ball is lost in the rough and there is not much else to play but the man.

In an interview published in The Australian (August 1), Brandis says “I’ve received extremely strong endorsements personally for this program from a number of the major performing arts companies. I haven’t seen a single word of criticism about this proposal from any of [these] companies.” But it is clear that they are to be the main financial beneficiaries and rumour says that some of them were advised by his chief bureaucrat to stay silent. The statement is somewhat dishonest.

Of the criticism by artists, he said: “I’ve found it entirely predictable. Whenever a group of people have a cosy arrangement that they’re comfortable with and a reforming minister comes in and proposes to change those arrangements, the loudest screams come from the protectors of the status quo.” So no need to worry about them.

What about the artists who are not screaming? Brandis as Arts Minister hears complaints from artists who have failed to get Australia Council funding. Given the amount of funds available, the number of applicants who do not succeed in getting funding is four times larger than the number that succeed. And guess what. The best artists last year are likely to be the best artists this year. They do not achieve and lose their skills annually. The membership of the selection panels can change each year but successive panels are likely to give high ranking to many of the same artists.

So the Minister hears from the others. Come on George. Do you think you and your own fund will not in due course receive the same criticisms from the many many applicants it rejects? Whose fault is it that you don’t recognise their genius? Not theirs! To whom will they complain? Not you, but your enemies. Arm’s-length funding protects the Minister as well as freedom from political interference.

The article in The Australian puts the Minister’s proposition that his fund will provide an alternative for projects that the Australia Council will not fund. Examples: the Australian World Orchestra could not get Australia Council funding and Brandis came to the rescue with a grant of $600,000 – to tour India! Is this a silly idea? Well no, not at all, but given the available funds, what priority should it have?

The Australia Council situation is that it has a set budget for the major orchestras and its allocation is tied up through formal agreements with state governments. It would have had to reduce funding to those orchestras to support the AWO; the alternative, the Music Board, had a budget of about $5 million so funding to about one in eight of its grantees would have had to be terminated.

Brandis gave $275,000 to the Melba Foundation for its recording company. For the Australia Council, that is over 80% of its entire budget for recording and questions of merit aside, there is no way it could go to one company. The Council must have a concern for sustaining the entire arts sector, and for balance, merit and equity. Brandis’s fund apparently will not have this worry. Having stipulated that it will avoid ongoing commitments by not giving “operational funding” (“operational” is a handy word for this government), it will have maximum freedom to cherry pick, give generously to a few spectacular projects, and be a hero.

When the Inquiry gets down to business, it is bound to give the Minister a hard time. It is in the hands of Labor, the Greens, the independents. One can only assume the motivation will be political. So everyone can have a jolly good time skewering the Minister.

Brandis has presaged his response in the interview with The Australian. Opponents are members of a comfy in-group motivated only by self-interest. The inquisitors are the same old opposition, making hay. His cause is noble. Get lost.

What then happens for the arts in the 2016 budget? The Minister has been derogatory about and damaging to most of his arts constituency so now there is open warfare and he is held in low regard. He has the means of retaliation and the excuse that the national budget is still in deficit.

When the skirmish is over and Labor et al have had their shot at the Minister, what will be their position? Presumably they will criticise him for undermining the arm’s-length principle in deciding arts funding, for the lack of consultation and considered policy, for self-indulgence and the power grab, they will defend the Australia Council, they will note the importance of individual artists and SME organisations and their need for more, not less, support.

All this will have integrity if they take to the election a well-founded policy that commits them to reversal of the Brandis decisions, support of arm’s-length funding and the Ozco, and at last, realistic financial support for the small end of arts-town. We can live in hope. Shadow Minister (and what do you know: Attorney-General!) Mark Dreyfus must have a first-hand understanding of the arts ecology. His father is a leading composer, his mother a talented piano teacher.

As for the arts sector, it may have found its voice. Of course, it should use this to defend and promote itself and its needs, as does any industry group.

But if it is to seek wider relevance, it should go beyond this self-interest. There are broad principles around which the sector could rally: for instance freedom of expression, freedom of information, truth in government, an effective and equitable education system. At election time, it could use its immense talents to give campaign support to candidates who agree with its principles. It becomes a player.

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