Scrutinising the Scrutineers: A Senate Boys’ Club

Post by , May 22nd, 2015

Politicians may not instruct the Australia Council on its grant-making. It is protected by its legislation, giving “arm’s length” independence from government and political favours or prejudice towards individual applicants for funding.

How would things be, without that protection? The question is especially relevant as Arts Minister George Brandis takes funds from the Australia Council and places them in his own department where he could, as he wishes, decide who is to receive funding. Have a word to the Minister…

Last November, the CEO of the Australia Council, Tony Grybowski appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for a routine estimates hearing. This rather unlikely venue for an inquiry into the operations of the Australia Council is a consequence of the fact that the Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis, is primarily the Attorney General.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that three of the five Senators on this committee were lawyers and one was a policeman. They were Senators Brandis QC (Liberal) as Minister, Wright (Greens), a lawyer, McDonald (Committee Chair, Liberal), a solicitor, O’Sullivan (Nationals), formerly a police officer and presumably still a grazier and company director. The fifth, Senator Collins (Labor), formerly a union leader, made only one comment at the very end, commending the decision to close the hearing – whether from distaste or boredom we cannot know. The assembled legal skills were applied with energy and tenacity to examine and it seems to the author, at some times intimidate, Mr Grybowski. The Hansard for the entire hearing runs to 30 pages.

The misfortunes of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music

The focus in the second half of this hearing was on the funding to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM), located in Townsville. McDonald’s electoral office is in Townsville, O’Sullivan’s in Toowoomba and so both are regional, and Brandis is from Brisbane; Wright is from SA. Wright pursued appropriately some matters of principle in the first half of the hearing and did not participate in the AFCM discussion.

AFCM had had a three-year funding commitment from the Australia Council for 2009-11 – something of an honour – but beginning in 2012 had had annual extensions while the Australia Council decided how it would manage its festivals funding. In 2014, AFCM was not approved for funding; its competitors were judged to be more deserving. That was what instigated the committee’s discussion.

Challenged on the decision, Grybowski explained the peer process that selects among funding applicants. He noted that the Council was giving AFCM a lot of assistance to maximise the possibility that its next funding application would be successful. (That’s interesting. Does the Council now coach applicants for funding? Who is eligible for such assistance and who is not?)

Grybowski spoke from deep within the processes of the Australia Council at a time of major government-imposed reorganisation. To the uninitiated, much of what he said could have been somewhat impenetrable even if they were interested. The Committee members’ interest seemed confined to pursuing their own agenda by searching for fault with the Council’s process.

The Australia Council (regrettably) is at arm’s length from government

The case was prosecuted mainly by the Townsville-based Chair. (Is that normal?) The Minister is not there to examine his own Department or authorities; indeed, he could himself be questioned.

But Brandis made that unlikely:

Senator Brandis: I do not want to interrupt, but as a Queensland senator and as somebody who has taken a close interest in Townsville Chamber Music Festival having attended it twice now, including this year [2014], I have made my view very clear to the Australia Council that it is the government’s wish, and it is my wish as the minister, that that music festival continue to be supported. Now under the Australia Council Act, the government, the minister, cannot give a direction to the Australia Council in relation to any particular funding proposal, so I cannot direct the Australia Council to approve an application…The Townsville Chamber Music Festival … is plainly the principal chamber musical festival in Australia, it is one of the principal music festivals in regional Australia and it will be completely untenable for it to not continue to be supported by the Australia Council.

Is this the government’s view because it is Brandis’s view, or did he take a vote? And what exactly is this Minister’s view of arm’s length funding? (The wise people who set up the Australia Council gave it statutory independence in order to minimise political pressure on its selection of funding recipients.) His recent decision to shift $104.8 million out of the Australia Council to the Department of the Arts where he can personally direct grant funds might suggest his real opinion.

Since the Senator is willing to make the judgement that the AFCM is the best chamber music festival in Australia, could he list the others and tell us which he has attended?

The discussion had earlier revealed that the committee Chair, although heading a committee overseeing the Australia Council’s activities, had no knowledge of some fundamental facts:

CHAIR: [Questioning Minister Brandis] Does the Australia Council have the independent authority to make these deals or do they make recommendations to you?

Senator Brandis: The Australia Council is constituted as an independent agency, and therefore it is the decision maker; but, of course, as an agency within this portfolio it is answerable to me and, ultimately, to this committee.

CHAIR: But do you make the grants or does the Australia Council?

Senator Brandis: Mr Grybowski is speaking of grants made by the Australia Council.

CHAIR: They are not just recommendations to you?

Senator Brandis: No. The Australia Council makes grants, but it does not require the consent of the minister.

The Chair responded to Brandis’s statement in support of AFCM: Regrettably, as you rightly tell us, the decision is not yours, but thank you for making your view and the government’s view known.

Has the Chair put words in Grybowski’s mouth?

So the Chair for the moment of this Senate committee also disapproves of the Australia Council’s statutory independence, further confirmed as the Chair continues:

Mr Grybowski, you said that the application is coming and is going to be assessed, but you are going to guarantee they are going to get it anyhow—which I am delighted about. Assuming that it is around the same amount that was given in previous years—that is around $60,000 I think—I will perhaps say to the festival that they can take your public guarantee here that they will be funded as a guarantee of funding so that they can commit themselves now to that expenditure for a special event or a special thing or whatever they do—a special person—for their 25th anniversary [in 2015]. Do I assume that it is going to be in the order of what they applied for, which I think was $50,000?

Grybowski had not given any guarantee of funding. Neither the word “guarantee” nor a synonym had been used by anyone in the discussion until now. At most, he had said that AFCM was being assisted to produce a competitive application and expressed optimism about the outcome.

Grybowski : I have not personally reviewed the application as yet, but part of my discussions with the organisation last week was about encouraging the highest ambition for their application to the new funding programs next year as well.

CHAIR: So why did they not succeed this year in the application for their 25th anniversary celebrations? Who makes those decisions—the board, is it?

The Chair is also unaware of peer assessment, a fundamental aspect of the Council’s operations since its inception 40 years ago.

A new funding criterion: an organisation is having its 25th anniversary

Senators McDonald and O’Sullivan make considerable play of the fact that AFCM will have its 25th anniversary in 2015. There is the very strong suggestion that it therefore must be funded. A new funding criterion is being invented in front of our eyes. But should an anniversary be a reason for an applicant to be funded at the expense of better applicant(s), in this zero sum game? And if the 25th anniversary, the 10th? 12th? 21st? 30th? Should it be funded for its 25th year even if it were found in its 24th year to be undeserving or uncompetitive?

Grybowski responds to the questions: There is a panel of music experts. Funding sought from us is incredibly competitive.

CHAIR: I appreciate that.

Grybowski: We have an average success rate of about 18 per cent to 25 per cent.

The Chair goes on to discover again the peer process by which this particular funding decision was reached. Grybowski says that it was made by a national panel of six classical music experts, two of whom were from Queensland. Others might question why Queensland, with 19% of the population has 33% representation, but not this Chair.

Brandis, music historian

Brandis intervenes. One of the grounds advanced was that there was not a sufficient weight towards new work. Given that there are not too many 17th or 18th century composers still producing new work, that did seem to me an odd reason.

Very droll, Minister. Apparently the Arts Minister thinks that no chamber music has been written since the 18C.

The festival should be funded because it is regional

The Chair closes in on a broader constituency: I suspect, after seeing a list of your other grants, that the other competing grants are all based in capital cities. Would that be a fair assumption?… with the festival, certainly, a lot of [artists] are visiting and come from Australia and from many capital cities, but there is a substantial local element in regional Australia… [If the organisations that tour to festivals] are based [in the cities] then that is where their performers come from—principally… Surely, just because you live in regional Australia you are not prevented from—

There had been no suggestion that regional organisations or citizens should be of lower priority.

Organisations should/should not be funded because they always were funded

The Chair says that he is delighted that the competing Queensland organisations received funding buthe asks: how many of them have always got funding?

What is the point at issue now? That if an organisation has always got funding, it should get funding into the future? Or that it should not?

Organisations should be funded because they have international recognition

CHAIR: [AFCM is] world renowned. I was recently overseas and someone said, ‘Where do you come from?’ and I said, ‘Townsville.’ ‘Oh, that’s where that festival is.’ It has world recognition.

One foreigner in 11 billion knows the festival exists and therefore it is world renowned and must be funded.

If the AFCM is funded, Tony Grybowski will be a hero

Thanks for that. Can I just be clear on your guarantee. I do not want to embarrass you or hold you too much to this—well, I do, actually.

Grybowski says he looks forward to experiencing the festival personally in 2015. That is an unfortunate slip but who can blame him.

The Chair says: Well, Mr Grybowski, if you went there in the current situation, you would probably be hung, drawn and quartered! I appreciate you are not the only decision maker. But I hope that, by next year, you will be everyone’s hero and much loved because you have done the right thing by that organisation. I cannot ask you to prejudge applications, but you are saying that you feel fairly confident that you can give a solid indication to the festival that they will be considered in the February grants?

Grybowski: Yes. [That is normal procedure.]

McDonald now shows that he recognises the peer decision-making process but continues to try to oblige Grybowski into giving a guarantee, which he cannot do.

Perhaps the AFCM decision resulted from conflict of interest by peers or influence of Australia Council staff?

Senator O’Sullivan takes up a new line of questioning. Surely the peers must often have conflicts of interest. Does the Australia Council have processes to manage this? Grybowski says they are excluded from those decisions. (So we can assume that peers with a bias against AFCM were not permitted to vote.) O’Sullivan asks for the records showing all statements of conflict of interest by peers.

He asks whether the peers for the AFCM assessment had attended the Festival. He thinks that would be a good idea but does not conceive of the scale and costs of setting up peer attendances at the events presented by every applicant.

O’SULLIVAN: What part do you play in this, Mr Grybowski? Do you sit with the empanelled group?

Grybowski: The staff of the Australia Council do not make grant decisions.

O’SULLIVAN: You know what? There are only so many hours in the day. I would like you to concentrate on the element of my question. We can dispose of some of these very quickly. Do you sit on the panel?

Grybowski: No.

O’SULLIVAN: Do any of your staff sit on the panel? I do not mean in a voting form, but as a resource for the panel.

Grybowski: Yes.

O’SULLIVAN: They do. Do you sit as a resource for any of the panels?

Grybowski: No.

O’SULLIVAN: You do not. What is their resource role? Do they provide advice; do they answer questions; do they conduct research? Is there a preparation brief that goes beyond the application itself?

Grybowski: The role of the staff is extensive. They receive the applications, ensure that they are eligible against the criteria and ensure that all the applications go to the peers for assessment and for scoring. They then facilitate the live meetings—coordinating the actual assessment—and then ensure that the meetings are actually run according to our governance guidelines.

O’SULLIVAN: In the ‘briefing notes’, we will call them—

Grybowski: They do not receive briefing notes.

O’SULLIVAN: Give me a name, and I am happy to go with your name—the package of resources that the peers receive. There is an application—

Grybowski: The resources are the applications from the artists making the application.

O’SULLIVAN: With zero intel provided from your organisation?

Grybowski: There is no assessment.

O’SULLIVAN: No, that is not my question.

Grybowski: Other than, ‘Yes, this meets the selection criteria.’

And so on…

So the AFCM decision was not made by peers with a conflict of interest nor the influence of the Australia Council staff. Could it have been made on merit?

Major performing arts organisations are based in the cities.

The Chair goes on to inquire about funding to major organisations. Who are they, how were they chosen? He establishes that there are 28 of them, the smallest receiving just under a million dollars in subsidy; unsurprisingly, all are based in major population centres.

And where is Senator Brandis on this issue of funding to the regions? When the $104.8 million is wrested from the Australia Council and moved to his “Programme for Excellence”,,, can we expect that Townsville will get a symphony orchestras or an opera company under his new regime?

A few final comments.
• Nothing in the above is intended as a criticism of or comment on the AFCM. We understand that it makes a valuable contribution to music and its community and that its funding application failed only in competition with others.
• I acknowledge that the Senators who spoke appear to have a personal interest in the type of music presented by the AFCM and in the provision of arts services in Australia’s regions.
• Tony Grybowski noted that the success rate of funding applications to the Australia Council is 18-25% presumably depending upon the grant category. Decisions by this Minister/government have quarantined the 28 major city-based companies from cuts when overall cuts to the Australia Council have probably, in two budgets, halved the funds available to small organisations like AFCM. It will find itself in an even more competitive funding environment unless Brandis, as Minister, quarantines it also.
• Based on the above account, we could all consider whether we would prefer funding issues to be settled in Senate estimates hearings by members seeking personal or electoral advantage or through an orderly process in the Australia Council intended to put all applicants on a level playing field.

You can read the Hansard at;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees/estimate/77cf2410-e68a-4aa3-bf67-1539b655e07e/0002;query=Id:%22committees/estimate/77cf2410-e68a-4aa3-bf67-1539b655e07e/0001%22

Richard Letts, May 25 2015



The Parliamentary Education Office explains Senate estimates committees
Senate estimates hearings, also known as estimates committees or simply ‘estimates’, allow senators to scrutinise (closely examine) how executive government is spending taxpayers’ money. Senators focus on how government has spent this money and on the government’s future spending plans. The hearings are called ‘estimates’ because they examine what the government estimates it will collect and spend in the financial year (1 July to 30 June).
Estimates committees consist of eight senators – four from the government, three from the opposition and one minor party or Independent senator. A government senator runs the meetings of each committee.
One of the functions of the Parliament is to scrutinise the work of the executive government. While the government is responsible for raising and spending public money, it cannot legally spend money without the approval of the Parliament. Through estimates hearings, the Parliament ensures that it knows, in detail, how the government plans to collect and spend money. On this basis, the Parliament may approve government spending across many areas.
In the annual Budget speech to the Parliament in May, the Treasurer explains spending plans in each minister’s portfolio (area of responsibility) – for example, defence, education or the environment. Following this, the estimates committees scrutinise the Budget statements. These documents have been presented by the Treasurer to the Parliament and contain details of all the main income and spending for the financial year.
After the committees have scrutinised the Budget statements, committee hearings begin. Ministers and top-level officials from government departments and authorities must explain government spending and how government programs are run. [More…]

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