How we will rule the world: a strategy for arts advocacy

Post by , August 22nd, 2015

Arts Minister George Brandis’s funding raid on the Australia Council will result in major damage to individual artists and smaller arts organisations. Faced with issues of survival, artists and arts organisations have spoken up and the ArtsPeak alliance has instigated a Senate Inquiry into the changes. The Inquiry is now engaged in public hearings around the country and presumably will shortly call upon the Minister to testify. It has received an unheard of 2,300 submissions, largely from the arts sector.

Despite this, the major print media is mostly silent. There is attention from a few online publications like Crikey and The Conversation but the subject is as often the Minister as the arts. The circumstances of the arts rarely attract interest from the media nor politicians nor, by implication, from the public. The writer fears that the Minister will retaliate on the arts sector at budget time, there will be articles in a few media outlets and it’s all over.

Advocacy for the arts is mostly ineffectual. Personal interests aside, politicians do not see arts advocacy as influencing the vote. They have to withstand storms greater than have ever been created by arguments about arts subsidy. How could arts advocacy ever be effective?

Here is a proposition.

There could be an arts organisation that is an effective advocate in non-arts issues of importance to politicians. It could establish profile and influence in those matters and use this status to achieve outcomes for the situation of the arts.
And here are some thoughts about the proposition.

Who does this advocacy?

It is interesting that big advocacy groups such as GetUp avoid being vulnerable to governments: they do not seek government funding and so need not fear that criticism of the government will result in termination of support. They do not have tax-deductibility as charities. They remain issue-orientated with no allegiance to any political party. (The Howard government “gagged” funded organisations. See appendix.)

The existing organisation that to my knowledge is closest to speaking for a broad sweep of the arts sector is ArtsPeak, an informal alliance of national artform membership organisations. It is not incorporated and not funded, therefore is not beholden. But its members are funded and so they are vulnerable to retaliation. As instigator of the current Senate inquiry by opposition parties into the effects of Brandis’s budgetary and funding decisions, ArtsPeak has already in a sense burnt its bridges with this government. But that does not have to be permanent.

An advocacy group which is not beholden and is not vulnerable to the fears of beholden members would perhaps avoid having funded organisations as members. Its members would best be individuals, probably some of them directors of arts organisations but joining as private persons.

Could it then be seen as representative? Should it?

There are arts advocacy groups that do not claim to represent anyone other than themselves and choose issues that seem important to their members.

But there could be advantage in finding acceptance broadly in the arts sector as representing its views. That could lead to greater support, more bodies at the ramparts. Issues would be chosen, then, with regard to broad opinion in the sector. That could be a good thing, to be discussed here later. Perhaps members could be invited so as to achieve wide representation. And of course, this proposal depends upon adopting a broad agenda some of which is not specifically about the arts.

What is the agenda?

It is crucial that the advocate gain status and gravitas through the power and integrity of its arguments and its influence on the public discussion. Regardless of membership, that is the indispensable ingredient.

We are passionate people. At our best, our beliefs have integrity and compassion. We can hope for wisdom. Choosing among the multitude of possible causes, the advocate will be guided by such values.

One of our strengths is that we may be able to recruit famous artists as advocates and use the great creativity within the sector to present them in a striking way.
At core, the advocacy organisation would seek to support the health and vitality of the arts. But much of the work would go into non-arts advocacy as per the strategy in the Proposition. It would be important, then, to keep at heart the core purpose even when not directly pursuing it.

If the idea is that this is an arts voice, even when not advocating for the arts per se, these things occur to me:

1. That it would choose for advocacy arts-related broader issues – eg it could advocate for free speech / freedom of expression not just for artists but for everyone, and oppose acts of suppression in any sphere. Usually this is not much of an issue in Australia, but under this government it suddenly is on the front page.

2. That it would not take on issues on which the arts community is strongly divided. The arts community could generally feel agreement with its positions.

The arts issues will be relatively easily apparent. But what, other than freedom of expression, could be the more general issues?

This will be the subject of a second blog.



The “gag” legislation

The Howard government passed “gag” legislation to forbid organisations funded by the Commonwealth from advocacy concerning Commonwealth government policies. In 2013, the Labor government brought in new legislation that restored the right to advocate. However, Howard demonstrated that restrictive legislation is possible and this government’s attitude to free speech is tricky, to say the least.

From the Parliamentary website:

Under the Howard Government, confidentiality clauses were included in many of the purchaser provider contracts that were drawn up between the Government and NFP service providers.[7] These clauses carried with them the requirement that the organisation could not make public comment about their service or program without first obtaining the approval of the relevant department or minister. The clauses were widely seen by the NFP sector as a means for the Government to prevent or reduce their advocating on behalf of the groups to whom they provided services.[8] They were also regarded as a mechanism for reducing criticism of the Government and its policies.[9]

In 2013, Labor repealed the Howard legislation with this Act:

Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act 2013

“An Act to prohibit Commonwealth agreements from restricting or preventing not for profit entities from commenting on, advocating support for or opposing changes to Commonwealth law, policy or practice, and for related purposes.”

The intention of the Act was stated in Digest for the Bill:

“The Bill prohibits agencies (defined to include Commonwealth departments and Ministers) from including ‘prohibited content’ in Commonwealth agreements and voids any prohibited content that exists in such agreements before, on or after the commencement of the Act. ‘Prohibited content’ is any requirement that restricts or prevents a not-for-profit (NFP) entity from advocating, commenting on, or opposing Commonwealth actions or policies. In basic terms the Bill seeks to prevent the use of ‘gag clauses’ in NFP funding agreements entered into by the Commonwealth.”

The Digest refers to this UN document to which Australia is a signatory:

Relevant articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

Freedom of expression

Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

Right to take part in public life

Article 25(a) of the ICCPR provides that:
Every citizen has the right and the opportunity … to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

Right not to be subjected to arbitrary interference with privacy

Article 17(1) of the ICCPR provides:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour or reputation.

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