The Brandis Heist

Post by , June 2nd, 2015

At budget time, Arts Minister Senator George Brandis seemed unwilling or unable to describe the purpose of taking $104.8 million from the Australia Council budget and placing it in a new fund, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) in his own Department.

However, on May 27, there was a Senate Estimates review of the arts portfolio in which Brandis, as Minister, was obliged to respond to questions from Senate committee members. Much was revealed, much more was not – mostly because rationale and policies seem to be following in the wake of the decision rather than giving rise to it.

So there is room for speculation and also some examination of the limited past public statements by the Minister.

The Australia Council is at “arm’s length” from the government of the day. This means that law prevents the Minister from giving the Council direction in the making of a decision in any particular case, eg whether or not to give a grant.

But otherwise the Minister has very broad powers indeed. S/he can instruct the Council in matters of policy – e.g. whether to fund a particular type of activity. The Council has to prepare an annual Corporate Plan and this plan comes into force only with the Minister’s approval. The Minister appoints all members of the governing Board – the decision makers.

George Brandis: "makes no apology".

George Brandis: “makes no apology”.

So it would seem that the Minister can exercise all the same powers over the Australia Council as he does over programs set up in his own Department – except one. Only in the Department programs can he personally decide on who will be funded and for how much money.


Senator Brandis informed the committee that “there are three streams that we propose. One is endowments, one is strategic projects and one is international touring and international cultural programs.” In the Estimates hearing, the Minister often handed over to the Department’s First Assistant Secretary, Sally Basser, to give detail:

Endowments. Ms Basser: “We anticipate that the endowment stream will be open to a wide range of projects that may include examples such as supporting a small-to-medium arts organisation that is established as a foundation by providing an investment into the foundation; supporting a regional museum or gallery to realise an infrastructure project; investing in the development of new Australian works of significance and scale or providing support to a foundation or arts organisation to deliver a fellowship program.”

Sally Basser

Sally Basser

The Ministry has taken $5.3m from the Australia Council and given it to Creative Partnerships Australia (previously for many years called the Business Arts Foundation). This organisation has expertise and longevity in assisting arts organisations to secure private funding.

Why then begin an entirely new program in the Ministry? What is there in the principle of this “endowment” program that could not be managed by the already expert Creative Partnerships? We don’t know.

International touring. The Australia Council Corporate Plan gives high priority to support Australian in achieving international success. What part of that plan does the Minister find inadequate and if there is inadequacy, in approving the plan, has he discussed it with the Council before creating a new program in the Ministry?

The Minister is setting up a partnership with DFAT in its “cultural diplomacy” activities: international touring by Australian artists to present “Australia to the world as a culturally accomplished, culturally sophisticated nation”. The Minister notes that there is a “double benefit”: “It is also very good for the companies. It is good for their morale. It is good for the dancers or the singers or the players … to be able to develop their arts practice by international touring…”

This is true. Senator Brandis gives the example of Ministerial support for a Queensland Ballet tour to London. This will be a great fillip to the company.
But there is possible a much more purposeful objective: to establish a company in the international market through an expert strategy of artistic development, repeat touring and marketing. This outcome will not result from a single tour. The artists selected for this purpose should be our best and would be bound to serve DFAT’s needs.

The Australia Council has a track record in this area. But despite the priority it gives to international projection, appears to be peripheral to these negotiations with DFAT. Why?

Strategic projects. Ms Basser responds to a question: “Strategic funding is a key mechanism for driving outcomes against planned and developing priorities and to respond to new opportunities, challenges and issues, and that is the direction that we will be developing.”

Of course it is, but to what purpose will the Minister apply such strategies? At this point, Ms Basser though “working hard”, cannot say. Much of the Estimates discussion attempted to find out. The Minister gave general responses, some of which partly answered the question.

Brandis: “What does an applicant with a worthy, supportable and publicly well-accepted policy do if the Australia Council says no? Well, under the previous arrangements, there was nowhere else to go, at least within the Commonwealth; now there is.”

(It should be noted that the usual reason that such an applicant would fail is that it would not be among the 20% that succeed before the money runs out. Shifting the money to another agency will not help, overall.)

So on this formulation the NPEA is intended as an alternative for those who did not succeed at the Australia Council. They cannot so much appeal the decision per se as try to get the Minister to provide the funds they missed out on. There are some recent successful examples: an $80,000 windfall to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, and $275,000 to Melba Records via the Melba Foundation. They no longer had to compete with the successful 20%.

When Senator Brandis suggested this justification, which he calls “contestability”, he frequently asked Ms Basser then to provide details and she, inferentially, would contradict him. The Department was working very hard with the Australia Council to avoid duplication and achieve complementarity. It figures, then, that applications rejected by the Australia Council would not be eligible for funding from the Department. It’s just logic.

The Minister speaks of the desirability of having “contestability, diversity, making arts funding available to a broader variety of organisations, festivals, individuals, groups” than are able to fit within the Australia Council’s current guidelines. Senator Collins asked what now does not fit and he cannot answer. Collins asks for one or two specific examples. He gives the example of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation’s attempt to get Australia Council funding for a concert of cantorial music. It failed and an approach was made to the Minister. It is not clear whether it failed because it was not eligible or was not competitive.

Here is an example of an application that would not have fallen within guidelines. The Melba Foundation was unable to get funding of $1 million to start a record label, because the entire budget of the then Music Board was about $4 million and the amount assigned to assist recordings was less than $200,000. So the then Arts Minister, Helen Coonan, bypassed the Australia Council and provided the funds.

Legally, she could not instruct the Australia Council to fund Melba. However, she could have set up a $1 million dollar fund and directed the Council to apply it in the support of record companies releasing discs of classical music. But there were small, experienced, expert companies who were used to getting say a $10,000 grant. They would have competed and Melba may not have been successful.

Minister Brandis has just given Melba a direct grant of $275,000. Same story. Budget for recordings, $670,000 over two years, about $40,000 per company, $10,000 per recording. Melba would have taken an amount nearly equal to the recording budget for a year.


Anecdote. I was Director of the Music Board in the 1980s, and Barry Conyngham was Chair. We used to say wryly to each other: “They all hate us. Either we don’t give them any money or we don’t give them enough.” From that point of view, it was a crap job, especially since our intentions were pure as pure.
Barry Cohen was the Minister at the time. Senator Brandis reckons he was Labor’s best ever Arts Minister, which is a worry. At Estimates, he quoted a speech by Cohen:

“Many of my critics are enthusiastic and uncompromising supporters of the “arm’s length principle”, as they proclaim it, when it suits them, yet have no hesitation in demanding my direct intervention when it does not. By far the greatest number of representations to me about the arts involve groups or individuals seeking my intervention to reverse a particular decision of the Australia Council or of one of its boards.”

Cohen’s description rings true. Artists mostly have little idea about how the Australia Council works. Some do know about peer assessment in which case, consider this: their application is rejected not by a bureaucrat who can be pictured as a know-nothing interloper, but by other artists – ten times as hurtful. So who is at fault? Their art? Or the assessments by the peers? Well naturally…

Since the paucity of funds results in four rejections for every success (and in those circumstances, many, many others don’t even both applying but still have something to say at the pub), there are a lot of unhappy artists harbouring dark suspicions about the acuity or motivations of their peers.
So by and large, if you were deciding on the fairest, most productive model for arts funding, I am not sure you would depend upon a vote by the artists.


When my interview for the job at the Australia Council was scheduled, I was working in the USA. I decided it would be a good idea to talk to the then head of music at the Canada Council. He was a bureaucrat who apparently made the funding decisions personally. He spoke as the Baron of Music. It was his to play with or at least, he seemed to think so. Distasteful, and wrong. It certainly coloured my views.

Senator Jacinta Collins: “Can I ask, though: will peer review be retained as a component for those funds?”

Senator Jacinta Collins

Senator Jacinta Collins

Ms Basser: “Senator, within the ministry we have a range of different ways of assessing grants. Some are done by the professional officials who work within the ministry. Others… have a creative advisory committee. Previously when we managed the touring programs we had professional assessment. At this stage, as I said, we are not settled on whether there are areas of the new program that may have professional assessment or not.”

But there is a big difference between the Australia Council and the Ministry, whatever procedure it adopts. At the Australia Council the artist peers decide the grants; at the Ministry, the bureaucrats or “creative advisors” advise the Minister. As Brandis says, he does not assess. But he decides.

It’s a bit like mentioning the Nazis, but remember Queensland premier Jo Bjelke-Peterson. He used arts advisors. Against their recommendations, his government terminated funding to a number of organisations with whose politics it disagreed.

Senator Brandis: “There are those who take a very purist view and say that no arts dollars should be spent except at arms-length from government by a peer reviewed process through the Australia Council and there are those who take the opposite view and say that every dollar that is spent by government should ultimately bear the impress of the minister’s endorsement so the minister can be answerable for it but, as in most of these debates, the sensible position I think lies in the middle. What we have tried to do is reflect the fact that the Australia Council and the arms-length process is a good model, which is why 88 per cent of arts expenditure will continue to be directed through the Australia Council, but also to accommodate the alternative view that there ought to be some ministerial responsibility for arts funding by providing for about 12 per cent of funding in the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, for which the minister is directly responsible, so those who favour the Australia Council model have their views fully accommodated and those who are critics of it also have their view accommodated. That is why I said all along that the principle underlying this new model is contestability….”

While arm’s length independent statutory authorities are actually created by politicians, other politicians don’t like them.

Senator Ian Macdonald

Senator Ian Macdonald

Chair (Senator Macdonald): “I have long had a view that, in a representative government, the government gets the criticism where arts funding is not appropriate—when in fact the government had absolutely no power whatsoever to do anything about it. [Congratulates minister.] I think it is a wonderful initiative. It means that you will respond to urgings by all elected representatives who are indeed contacted by their local constituents about it.”

Are you sure this is what you want, Minister? And is this not part of the situation that statutory independence is intended to avert? To which importuning pollies will the Minister accede, and why? Will he everchoose on the basis of what is the best art, or what is best for the arts or even, what is best for that electorate?

The title National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), to which will be applied the $108m transferred from the Australia Council, surely implies that there is a need to support excellence that the Australia Council is not fulfilling. It could be not-funding excellence or funding non-excellence. But no evidence or examples are given. The pursuit of excellence in the arts has been a key objective for the Australia Council, stated in its legislation, since its inception 40 odd years ago. There have been disputes mounted in particular by those who believed the concept of excellence was being defined so as to exclude all but the traditional high arts. This has led some to a more contextual view.

One of the reasons given by Senator Brandis for establishing the new fund is to offer opportunities for funding to those who are excluded by the Australia Council. It is difficult to believe that the Australia Council refuses to fund a project because it is too excellent, and especially if the excellence is of the type that the Minister seems to favour. If he wishes the NPEA to support activity that is excellent and is not supported by the Australia Council – and neither I nor he seem to know what that would be – then he may have to amend his concept of excellence to include, e.g., the excellence of community arts programs in regional communities even though they do not produce art of an excellence that is ready e.g. to be tested in the international market.

Senator Brandis: “We want to spend more on developing our arts companies, which is why we have created this new fund.” He means the 28 major companies funded through the Australia Council: orchestras, opera, theatre, dance, circus.

Brandis: “All the talk has been about the small to mediums and I understand that. But let us not forget that the major performing arts companies are the heart and soul of the performing arts sector in this country. They are the big employers of artists and arts workers. They are the people who undertake most of the touring, including the regional touring, as well as the international touring.

“They are the people who provide the performances that the great audiences of Australia enjoy. As I have always said, one of my misgivings about the exclusive peer-to-peer funding model is: who represents the audience around the table? The minister, being the responsible officer in charge of taxpayers’ money, has to be the voice for audiences. What are the shows, what are the performances, what are the concerts that the audiences go to? Primarily, they go to the performances of the major performing arts companies, whether it be drama, music, opera, ballet, dance or whatever art form it may be. It is very important to remember that their interests, and therefore the interests of the great audiences and the arts public of Australia, have been protected. I am glad you support that.”

I reckon, duck when pollies start using the word “great”, as in “this great country of ours”. But what does the Minister mean when he speaks of “great audiences”?! An arena show – “Y’all have been a great audience! Thank ya thank ya thank ya.” Probably not.

What does the Minister as hero-protector of the audience actually plan to do? Brandis: “What are the shows…that audiences go to?” Primarily, he says, the drama, music, opera, ballet, dance presented by the major performing arts companies.

Well, no, they don’t. Live Performance Australia collects attendance data from the major performing arts companies and large scale venues and events. For instance, music’s share of the total is as follows: opera, 2.9%, classical music 4.8%, contemporary music 42.5%.

So the Minister is really speaking of the audience for the major companies and he will advocate for its interests by raising his voice in support of the shows it wants to see. Perhaps he hopes for two seasons of La Bohéme a year instead of a stingy single season. This audience speaks softly but it has a big stick: it buys tickets or it doesn’t. It is strange to think the companies do not program with this in mind.

What we need the Minister to do is understand the entire ecology. We need to build audiences not only for the performing arts canon, but the arts of our time and place. The small companies are the incubators, the risk-takers, the innovators, a training ground. Even the major companies acknowledge this. An informed arts minister finds ways to support audience building, perhaps for crowd-pleasers but especially for the art that finds the way forward.

The Minister has initiated a National Opera Review – a review of the companies funded by the Australia Council: OA, and the state companies of WA, SA and Qld. It would be surprising if the report does not recommend more funding. There is a particular problem with the Queensland Opera, which is operating in the red; there is speculation about the review as a cover for more funding to Queensland either through the state company and/or for Queensland tours by OA.

Responding to a Dorothy Dixer from Senator O’Sullivan, Senator Brandis accuses Labor of discriminating against regional Australia in arts funding. “We have tried to restore the balance…” He announced additional funding of $1m at a regional arts conference.

Senator Barry O'Sullivan

Senator Barry O’Sullivan

We might then expect the NPEA to direct funding to the regions. But this will run into issues of excellence as Senator Brandis understands it. For instance, if you want to establish an excellent and viable string quartet, it will be impractical to base it in Tamworth or Townsville. You need to be in a centre with a large population base and plenty of contact with high level professional musicians. Head for the city (and teach a lot).

Senator Brandis helpfully provided the state breakdown of Australia Council funding. These are the percentages of total grant funding going to each state; in brackets are the state populations as a percentage of the national population. NSW 35% (32%); Victoria 23% (25%); Queensland 9% (20%); South Australia 7% (7%); Western Australia, 6.7% (11%); Tasmania 4% (2%). Total 85%. Oh well. Brandis omitted the territories (population 2.7%).

Brandis: “Those figures, I hasten to add, are a little misleading because the Australia Council funds the national companies like Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, for example, which are located in the bigger cities [Sydney and Melbourne]…. Those companies, of course, tour to other states, but nevertheless, Senator O’Sullivan, you might think it a little strange that only 9% of the Australia Council’s grant funding was spent, for example, in Queensland, and only 6.7% of it was spent in Western Australia.”

Indeed. It raises all sorts of questions about Australia Council monitoring, about what these statistics really tell us, and about arts development in the various states. But I suggest that one reason for the low funding for Queensland is that the population is more dispersed regionally than in other states.

The financial report on expenditures by Senator Brandis’s portfolio can be found online. It includes the funding for the National Gallery and other institutions but also a number of grants to individual organisations that presumably are at the Minister’s prerogative. These went to the Australian World Orchestra, the Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Darwin Symphonies, the Australian Brandenburg, Australian Youth and Queensland Youth Orchestras, State Opera of South Australia, Pacific Opera, Queensland Ballet, Australian Festival of Chamber Music (Townsville), Bangalow chamber music festival, Brisbane Baroque festival, and FBi radio (Sydney).

So a total of 15: Sydney 6, Melbourne 1, Brisbane 3, Adelaide 1, Perth 0, Hobart 0, Canberra 1, Darwin 1, regional 2. Regional restoration is apparently not urgent.

Louise Adler, head of Melbourne University Press, proposed that the Minister create a Book Council. He agreed. Under the Act, he could not instruct the Australia Council to fund this single entity, so he simply took the money out of the Council’s budget, put it into his Departmental budget, and in December 2014 issued a decree: Let there be a Book Council. If he had tried to persuade (not instruct!) the Australia Council that it would be a good idea to divert $2m of its $4 funds for literature to a single entity, a Book Council, there would be all sorts of tiresome probing and argument, questions about whether this was the most productive way to support literature and writers and readers and so on and so forth.

Louise Adler

Louise Adler

More than five months after the decree, in a Senate Estimates hearing, May 27, he was not yet able to say exactly what this Book Council would be nor what it would do. Senator Brandis: “We have been doing a lot of work on this since it was announced on 8 December last year.”
Would it not be better to have thought about that before making the decision?

Brandis: “What you need to understand, Senator, is that this is about more than writers. It is about everyone involved in books, whether they be writers, editors, publishers, retailers: the entire industry.”

The Australia Council website says: “We support the creation and development of new work through grants directly to writers and to the publishing industry, literary magazines and journals.” The activity may result in a book or magazine, but also a play, a film… What is omitted by whom?

A question for the Ozco
Responding to a question, Mr Grybowski explains that the Australia Council will still give literature grants. He could not say to what dollar value. The new structure has a “centralised grant program… where all art forms would be catered for but with no predetermined budget allocation.”

Tony Grybowsky

Tony Grybowsky

That’s very interesting! So everything is tumbled in together. It’s in principle easy to see how it could be decided that one jazz group is better than another but how do you compare apples and turnips? How do you decide whether this sculpture is better than that play or orchestra? But that’s for another article.

The efficiency dividend is a percentage reduction from Departmental or program budgets, imposed on everyone except where it isn’t.

Senator Jacinta Collins: “Will the new fund be exempt from the efficiency dividend?”

Ms Basser: “It will be; it is an administered fund, so it is exempt from the efficiency dividend.”

So the Australia Council is not an administered fund?! Perhaps it does not have a Ministered favour. This is old ground. The efficiency dividend to the Australia Council should apply only to admin funds (as it has in the past). The grants go to artists and arts organisations many of which are on the edge of survival. They are efficient; they have no choice.

Senator Brandis might try Labor’s trick. Subtract the efficiency dividend from the Australia Council allocation, add it back as an announceable increase in arts funding and bask in the praise.


TRANSCRIPT of the May 27 Senate Estimates hearing into the Attorney-General’s portfolio. Go to this address and then click on the little pdf icon on the left of the page.;query=Id:%22committees/estimate/1691f703-a181-45c6-b912-4e571972691e/0000%22

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