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The arts minister has wrenched our culture away from the artists

George Brandis shocked the arts sector – and particularly the Australia Council – with his overhaul of the allocation of arts funding. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Budget: The Longer View. The dust has begun to settle on Tuesday’s federal budget – and some key issues and themes are emerging. What are they? This long-read essay is part of a special package intended to answer that question.

Marx correctly summed up the situation: “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them – well, I’ve got others”. That’s Groucho Marx – not Karl.

Last year’s federal budget was, er, last year. This year’s budget appends another kind of reality. The winners and the losers are different too. After three days of picking over the details, the results for most commentators are clear: the arts lost out.

That is particularly true for the Australia Council, subject to a A$7.2 million efficiency dividend, removal of three core programs, and the reapportionment of 16% of its operating budget to a Minister-led National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

The “boring” budget is not only about money, however. It is also about trust. At the time of the last election, talk of austerity was a godsend for the Right of the Liberal party, who saw in our changed national circumstances the cue for what they call “further economic reform”. This is only partly economic. The other part is a political vision of Australia in which market deregulation, lower taxation, reduced social services, and transnational trade agreements play an ever more dominant role.

Last year, the wheels fell off the austerity roller coaster big time. The irony is the arts did well out of the situation, at least according to the Minister for the Arts, George Brandis. They were “protected” from austerity’s financially flattening effects. This year, with the roller coaster in for repairs, they are less “protected”.

Artists and arts ministers

Like the warning cackle of ancient Roman geese, the complaints of artists let you know how close to the gates the barbarians have come. Even those who couldn’t give a stuff about cultural policy should pay attention to the changes because how the sector is treated is indicative of the government’s deeper attitudes.

Tone is crucial, as is sound thinking, and flair – important for an area where the goods supplied (art) are heterogeneous and sometimes controversial.

Many people who want to be artists later discover they are not suited to the role. The same is true of arts ministers. Since taking on the portfolio, Senator Brandis has seemed uncomfortable being Australia’s Medici-in-chief, stroppy when dealing with its paradoxes and challenges.

He appears to want to shape the arts agenda but has offered no positive vision for the future, no articulation of what kind of national culture he hopes to see. He sends mixed messages at a time when clarity of purpose and institutional stability are at a premium.

It is through the lens of Ministerial confusion the recent changes to the arts budget should be viewed. The confusion is not all the senator’s making – there are some systemic issues, which I will touch on in a moment. But his time in office isn’t helping these, and seems to be making them worse. He means well (yes, really).

But his attempts to circumvent his own cultural agencies in pursuit of an inchoate idea of “excellence” only reflect the underlying inconsistencies in the government of which he is a part.

The systemic issues

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the importance of the “arms length principle” in the Council’s disbursement of its annually allocated funds. But the principle isn’t unequivocal.

Is the Council at “arms length” from the government – or from the cultural sector? Or from both? Is it a “double arms length principle”? Does it represent the views of artists to the government or the government’s to artists?

These questions have haunted the Australia Council from the beginning.

In 1975, the Whitlam government granted the agency statutory independence. The very next year, it was the subject of no less than six official reviews, while its then-CEO, Jean Battersby, was deposed in the ugliest of Canberra-induced coups.

Since then the Council’s history has been one of incessant restructure, culminating in the recent 2012 Trainor Review, whose recommendations were actioned last year as part of its new Strategic Plan. The Australia Council’s lot is not an easy one. The arms length principle is more like a convention, requiring trust and good faith on all sides.

Added to this are the complications of peer review. One person’s expert panel is another’s closed shop. It is not at all obvious that artists are the only ones capable of making decisions about arts grants. Over the years, this has been another area of controversy for the Council.

Again, the most recent reforms flow from the Trainor Review, which gives increased powers of oversight to the Minister under a new arrangement of assessment committees. Again, to be effective there must be a shared understanding between stakeholders, a collective awareness that the operation of cultural subsidy in modern democracy is a difficult and contradictory process.

The personal issues

It is unimaginable that a federal Arts Minister with a mind for his portfolio wouldn’t know this history; wouldn’t know that the Council has been harried and hurried by successive governments of all persuasions and requires a period of calm to recover and redeploy.

Yet Senator Brandis has furnished the opposite, inaugurating another “shake up” and springing it on the agency out of the blue. Apart from anything else, it is shabby way to treat the Chair, Rupert Myers and the CEO, Tony Grybowski, not to mention their no-doubt thoroughly demoralised staff, who must be wondering when the nightmare of arbitrary change will end.

Both Ben Eltham on The Drum and Ben Neutze at the Daily Review have drawn attention to the illogic of some of the statements ensuing from the Minister’s office.

That the majority of arts funding goes to projects “favoured by the Australia Council”, in the words of one of these, is surely no surprise given the Council is responsible for handing the majority of arts funding out.

Nor does Senator Brandis’s desire to “respect popular taste” marry with the core purpose of cultural subsidy, which is presaged on “market failure” arguments. And with good cause. In the last century, it has often happened that work later lauded as “excellent” has been publicly traduced on first appearance.

It is the gap between art’s present reception and its future value that provides the Council with its raison d’etre.

And finally, how will the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts work in practice? There is nothing wrong with a Ministry model of arts funding in theory. But Canberra’s public service has few of the bureaucratic features (size, stability, authority) that make arts ministries viable in Holland or France, for example.

Indeed, the reason the last Labor government transferred the Playing Australia and Festivals Australia programs from the old Office of the Arts to the Council was because of their potential to be pork-barrelled by politicians in marginal seats.

The more the 2015 arts budget is examined the less sense it makes. The changes contribute little strategically – the majority of funding remains locked up by the major organisations. They do nothing politically; just make an entire sector nervous by providing no operational plan.

And they do nothing culturally; save perpetuate uncertainty about which art and artists to support. Not the sort the Council likes to fund, apparently, which is a sizeable cross-section of work and people.

Senator Brandis is a thoughtful man, a true liberal in the Deakin and Menzies mould. He has written eloquently about the tension in his party – a party that under John Howard and Tony Abbott has moved emphatically to the Right – between conservative and liberal traditions.

He reflected on that tension when delivering the 2009 Deakin lecture:

It is easy […] to forget what it is that makes us liberals, and […] the Liberal party has sometimes forgotten it too […] Menzies said it best in five simple words: “We have stood for freedom”. That is our legacy. That is our purpose as a political movement […] And that is our path to the future.

This sentiment abrades sharply with the autocratic aura of the 2015 arts budget changes. In both the way they have been rolled out, and in their consequences, they do not speak of freedom. They speak of control.

And here the cackling of artist-geese gets louder. This is a government that says one thing and does another. It is a government with iron in its soul, fighting for a view of the world that goes beyond asset write-offs and bankers’ bonuses. Something I suspect that is also true of Senator Brandis, under the sway of a leadership whose motivations he surely does not share.

To amend Groucho: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful budget – but this wasn’t it.”

Further reading:
A budget to rebuild trust – but not trust in the Australia Council
Post budget, we need strong cultural leaders more than ever
There’s money for the arts in the budget – but with strings attached
Arms length? Forget it – it’s back to the Menzies era for arts funding

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