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Writers and publishers are all at sea under Brandis and the NPEA

Making a splash in letters may be harder under changes to Australian arts funding. Orange County Archives Follow

Writers and publishers are all at sea under Brandis and the NPEA

George Brandis is all loved up about literature. He self-describes as “Minister for Books”; he values his humble arts degree over his law colours; he was impressively unapologetic about his A$13,100 splurge of public money on a professional library and his A$7,000 spend on a splendid set of bookshelves – not to mention showing bald-faced stoicism when ribbed for reading bush ballads in Senate Estimates.

What’s more, Brandis’ taste in political writing is impressively even handed: JS Mill is there as a libertarian backbone – Brandis did an undergraduate honours thesis on Mill – and so are John Howard and Dick Cheney from the right, but then there is Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson and David Marr on Tony Abbott on the left.

Heck, the guy has even edited his own tome: a volume on contemporary liberalism with his best mate Don Markwell, Christopher Pyne’s higher-ed advisor. And yet …

And yet, it is hard right now to know what Minister Brandis, in his role as chief officer for the arts, has in mind for Australian writing and publishing: how he’d like to support it – whether at all, in fact – and, pressingly, whether he intends his new National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) to have any role in supporting Australian writing. Some of the signs aren’t good.

George Brandis’ last 12 months as arts minister have turned the nation’s arts funding on its head. Last July, he delivered the previous Labor Government’s restructure of the Australia Council and its programs; in December, his Prime Minister announced a A$6 million raid (over three years) on the Australia Council budget to establish a Book Council of Australia (giving to, and taking from, the arts on the same day); in May, the 2015-16 budget flagged a further A$29m cut to the Australia Council’s annual allotment, or A$104.8 million over four years.

We know now that A$20 million or so of that figure – each year for the next four – will be given to the NPEA for distribution from inside of the Ministry of Arts. Brandis has suggested the NPEA’s role is as an alternative or competing funding source to the Australia Council to support the kinds of “excellence” (always the watchword in arts funding) that the Council doesn’t.

Radical challenge to independent arts practice

The establishment of the NPEA is, of course, the most radical of these manoeuvres. In some sense it is the biggest change to the principles and mechanisms of national arts funding since the establishment of the Australia Council in stages from 1967 through 1975.

The Council is both much-loved and long-criticised, but Brandis’ raid on its budget is the most audacious change to a four-decade bipartisan consensus about the best way to fund non-government arts activity.

Australia was one of a number of nations in the 1960s and 1970s (along with Scandinavians and the USA) that set up arts councils at arm’s length from government (following the United Kingdom’s post-war example) in order to fund the kind of independent arts activity seen as appropriate to a modern western state.

While some other western nations maintain direct ministerial control or overview over such funding programs (Austria, for example), the arts council model provides a comforting structural separation between government and the arts.

This arm’s length separation supports the illusion or reality of a sphere of arts practice that is unpenetrated by the state, by government, or by party political interests. This space of free discourse and practice is a powerful (western democratic) liberal ideal.

Mostly, we all agree it is good to have such a sphere, and so paradoxically we see it necessary for the state act to protect or create such a space and to subvent the actions and voices of non-state interests operating there. Art can be considered a kind of privileged speech: first, often we see it as having its own kinds of claims to truth or knowledge (equal to but different to the truth claims of science or philosophy); and second, we privilege it by acting as a polity to ensure that art is then produced (that art happens) and that art’s particular kind of cultural and truth work is undertaken.

The independence or quasi-independence of this sphere of arts practice has been ensured, or at least imagined as ensured, by putting the artists themselves in charge of decision-making. This artistic autonomy is in some sense a modernist conceit. Why assume that artists and arts workers, of all of us, best know art when they see it? But then who else should decide? If not artists, who? In some sense, surely politicians and governments are the least fit alternative.

We arrive thus at the general endorsement of peer assessment of arts projects at arm’s length from governmental and party political influence.

Interestingly, where culture concerns whole populations (such as library services for the entire nation or an entire state) we let government in and are more comfortable with shorter-than-arm’s-length governance mechanisms. But where art is concerned with exploring the differential politics and identity questions within the community and between sections of the community, we prefer for government to act at arm’s length.

Arts and politics

One reason, then, for Minister Brandis’ entry into direct arts funding is that he correctly perceives that funded independent arts practice (if funded independent arts practice is not an impossible thing) has its own politics. And these politics do not necessarily represent, or seek to represent, the interests of the government or of the wider community.

Partly these politics are organised around the pursuit of a freedom for artists to speak. This is generally a given, although it is complicated by a desire or demand from artists that they be funded to do so. Funded “arts-speech” has been seen as an end in itself.

This straight demand for funding support for artists to speak (or to operate as some kind of community barometer or political touch-paper) is further complicated by arts funding being tethered to other kinds of cultural policy interests. As well as creating and supporting a space for arts-speech, the nation-state has an economic interest in developing sustainable cultural industries building and social policy interests in, say, developing universal literacy and specific cultural literacies.

The other politics of the funded independent arts, beyond speech-rights, are the politics of the artistic works and of practice itself. Brandis doesn’t seem to have much quibble with the politics of the major performing arts and of the heritage arts – and has funnelled cash that way – but the politics of individual and radical arts practice – more left wing, more concerned with identity, more post-structural, less obviously audience orientated – seem to leave him cold.

However, because Brandis’ NPEA is not supported by new government money, but by a cut to the Australia Council funds that have been used to support independent arts practice, the minister’s NPEA initiative is perceived by many in the sector as rewarding his own allies and supporting his own politics at a cost to arts practice and arts politics that he doesn’t support.

As a badge-carrying libertarian and fan of John Stuart Mill, Minister Brandis is pursuing a strange path if he wishes his and the government’s actions to be seen as free from political bias and meddling. I am sure Brandis sees the NPEA as a reasonable redress of the systemic left-wing politics in funded independent and in small-to-medium arts practice. But as a ministerial instrument, the NPEA will never be seen as independent of governmental interference.

While it might be defended as another instance of government acting to ensure a diversity of voices are heard, it is hard to argue that the voices Brandis seeks to sponsor – conservative, normative, and popularist – don’t already get a pretty fair go. It is a problematic way of addressing a relatively small problem – even a non-problem – that of a funded independent arts sector that tends to speak against the government and against the present government’s politics.

In the end, limiting rather than encouraging independent arts practice – even if such practitioners bite the Minister’s hand as he reluctantly signs them a cheque – is something we might expect of a much narrower democracy than our own.

The NPEA and writing

The draft NPEA guidelines – released earlier this month – do not seem to have been created with literature and publishing in mind. In fact, they don’t mention literature, writing, writers, or publishing at all.

The guidelines are drafty rather than fulsome, but various things are ruled as fundable: performances, exhibitions, tours, new work and festivals for a start. And elsewhere various other things are ruled out: individuals (so no writer’s grants, I presume), interactive games, prizes, training, and, blessedly, eisteddfods.

That would seem to leave the possibility of support for writers’ tours, writers’ festivals, publications perhaps, maybe workshops, international writer visits and residences; but in the end, I suspect not much NPEA cash will be coming the way of the writing sector.

The NPEA’s most significant impact on writing and literature will likely come from the cuts to the Australia Council’s grants budget. The Council’s six–year funding program for major organisations has already been suspended. Thirty or more writing organisations that have been previously funded as key organisations were candidates for six-year funding.

Together, those publishers, journals, festivals and writers centres constitute the bulk of the significant NGOs in the literary sector. Literature is a mix of writers working as freelancers, profit-seeking publishers, bookshops, government-funded libraries and these small but important NGOs.

Also endangered are the continuation of funding for individual writers (a key role for the old Literature Board) and project grants for small presses, smaller journals and magazines, and for literary events in regional areas away from the major festivals.

Sensibly enough, the Australia Council Board, which is rumoured to have considered resigning en masse following the announcement of the NPEA, seems to be biding its time, leaving necessary policy and funding changes until after the establishment of the NPEA.

The Council will likely adjust its own guidelines and focus in light of the NPEA’s activities and the bite-sized chunk that the Minister’s new program has eaten up. Brandis might see the Council and the NPEA as competitors in the funding landscape, but eventually they are likely to be complements.

The bottom line for literature is that, even if the sector maintains its modest share of the Australia Council funding (around 3%), it will receive a smaller overall serving of government funding.

Book Council of Australia

The other cannibal at the Australia Council feast is the Book Council of Australia (BCA). First mooted four years ago and announced late last year, little is known about it.

There was a squall of complaint from the arts sector last December when it was revealed that the BCA is to be funded by cuts to the Australia Council, but no-one knew then that this was just the entrée before the NPEA sat down at the table.

Maybe, under Brandis, we are to witness the Australia Council being eaten bit by bit.

The Book Council’s immediate brief would seem to be to support publishers and reading rather than the supporting more radical elements of literary practice. This reflects a government interest in the sustainability of publishing industry and encouraging young people to read. These are both laudable goals.

The risk is that they will come at the expense of two other categories of literary activity and funding: grants for individual writers and grants for political forms of writing in magazines and journals.

The riskiest grant investments by government in the literary sphere tend to be the A$1.5 to $2 million spent each year on individual grants (last year there were 42 grants). About 50% of such grants bear fruit as published works down the track, but these schemes are not beloved by government.

Who wants to fund an obscure poet or novelist for an unwritten work, when government literary prizes, the real growth area of the past decade, ensure only the best are rewarded and the politicians get to hand out public money while out in their best frocks?

Prizes are useful income for writers and are useful for symbolic signalling to readers, but addressing the generally penurious circumstances of writers means individual grants to create new work are important too.

A genuine target of this government, and one that might need to be most in the mind of Australia Council and the Book Council, is funding for literary journals and magazines. Going back to the politicisation of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in the 1940s and 1950s, and most recently complaints about the funding and de-funding of Quadrant, funding for small magazines has been an ideological sore-point with both the left and right.

In 2012, Quadrant, the largest right-wing journal, received a haircut from the Literature Board. But now the funding for the left wing of the small-press magazines – such as Griffith Review, Meanjin and particularly Overland – is less certain.

As a spectator on literary policy and funding, I’d suggest the biggest casualty of Labor’s restructure of the Australia Council, including the demise of the Literature Board, the subsequent Brandis cuts to the Australia Council, the arrival of an NPEA and the tardy emergence of the Book Council of Australia, is the idea or possibility of sensible and co-ordinated policy-making.

Policy-making for the literary sphere has always been a bit haphazard, but one advantage of the old Literature Board was the existence of a single expert body that had some overview of the development needs of the entire writing sector.

The Board could seek to spend its relatively modest A$5.4 million budget in light of what it saw. Our best hope for this kind of overview is now from the still-to-arrive Book Council of Australia.

But the last 18 months has seen first Labor destabilise literary funding and policy in its re-invention of the Australia Council and now the LNP Government turn the boat right over in the water. Maybe it was time for radical change, but at the moment it seems to be change for change’s sake with no point on the horizon marked out and no charts drawn for how we should get there.