Radio National Books and Arts program

SUBJECT/S: Arts funding; Funding cut to Australia Council; Section 18C of Racial Discrimination Act

THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL

SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ARTS

MEMBER FOR ISAACS

 

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

RADIO INTERVIEW

RADIO NATIONAL – BOOKS AND ARTS

MONDAY, 18 MAY 2015

 

SUBJECT/S: Arts funding; Funding cut to Australia Council; Section 18C of Racial Discrimination Act

 

MICHAEL CATHCART: So what's your take on these cuts to the Australia Council ?

MARK DREYFUS: We are very concerned, Michael, about this $110 million cut from the Australia Council; $104 million of which is going to go, as you have just accurately described it as a ministerial fund, to be run out of the ministry to provide an alternative source of funding for the arts.

It seems to us to be needless duplication, a compromising of the independence of arts funding and a complete retrograde step because the whole trend of funding in the arts has been towards greater independence and peer review. That's where the Australia Council was. You'd think the Minister understood that because last year he participated in the launch of the strategic plan - the new strategic plan of the Australia Council. That has now been thrown up in the air, I would have to say.

There is a very guarded statement from the Australia Council I saw about what the implications of this are for them. They are not really in a position to come out and criticise the Minister. But when they say that are giving... this is their press release....they are giving careful consideration  to how these changes will impact on our ability to deliver on the Australia Council strategic plan you know there is trouble afoot.

CATHCART: Well we know if we are listening behind the scenes, we know they are not happy. We don't need to read the press release. But let's look at the other way of looking at it. The arts community often say - "Oh so and so is the minister for the arts. He has just been given that, he doesn't really care about the arts." Here at last there is an arts minister who cares so much about the arts that he wants to have the arts within his own purview. He wants to control it personally. Isn't that a sign of a minister who is deeply committed to the arts ?

DREYFUS: It means a complete abandonment of independence and an unnecessary duplication. The Australia Council is now going to spend quite a deal of its time advising artists and arts bodies on how to apply for funding from the Minister. That's not what we want. We don't want duplication. We have got a perfectly acceptable, a good system which offers independence, offers peer review right now with the Australia Council. We don't know what criteria Senator Brandis is going to apply because he hasn't said. Disturbingly, we read in the weekend press that ministerial staff are to determine applications. They are his staff. That's the staff in his office. We are left in the dark as to what he intends by this $104 million taken from the Australia Council and put into his own ministry.

CATHCART: Well, we are hoping he will come onto the show tomorrow and clarify all this because I suppose one way of doing it is that the Minister could simply review people who got knocked back by the Australia Council. So you could say the Australia Council is the first port of call, if you get knocked back, you get a second go at it, the Minister will review you. But if, from day one, you have to fill out two application forms - one for the Australia Council, one for the Ministry, it is going to make the bureaucracy fairly onerous I guess.

DREYFUS: That's right. We just don't know because beyond making a fairly pejorative statement about the Australia Council in his press release announcing this national program for excellence in the arts we have no idea what criteria George Brandis has in mind.

CATHCART: Well the implication is, certainly, that the Australia Council is not doing its job, so he says the purpose of the national program for excellence in the arts - program I note spelt with a "MME", rather old fashioned way to do it, the purpose for the national program for excellence in the arts is to expand funding to artists and arts organisations who are presently unable to secure funding through the Australia Council. So the implication is at some level the Australia Council is not doing its job.

DREYFUS: Well that is news to me. The Australia Council funds an extraordinarily wide range of arts organisations and artists. I would want the Minister to identify what bit of the arts community - which artists, which organisations - he says are not getting funding and should be getting funding.

CATHCART: Now, as I understand it there are two grounds for objecting to this, at least two major grounds. that are emerging in the public debate. One is the one you have just put, which is the duplication of those two agencies. The other is concern of the Minister having such control over arts funding because this arms length principle - that is the Minister does not decide cannot decide, must not decide how money is allocated to specific artists and projects. That's been a kind of sacred principle in arts funding since the Australia Council was set up. But George Brandis is a great champion of freedom of expression and that is why he wanted to delete provisions from the Racial Discrimination Act which made it an offence to be hurtful, make bigoted racist comments about people. He has gone right to the wire on freedom of expression. He takes a fairly militant position on this.

DREYFUS: Well, we saw in 18C what he said about that - people had a right to be bigots. That's George Brandis' position and he ignored entirely in the section 18C debate that we have protections of artistic freedom, we have protections of free speech in the law already which Senator Brandis always used to gloss over. Happily, he has abandoned his attack on section 18C, which is a protection of racial vilification that served Australia well for more than 20 years now and I hope we will hear no more about it. However, I don't think he should be presented as some champion of free speech. If we think back to what he said about the Sydney Festival, for example.  If we think back to some other comments he has made. I think he is pretty selective in which speech he favours just like, I am assuming, he is going to be pretty selective in which programs or artists he is going to want to spend government money on.

CATHCART: Well, let's talk about that event around the Sydney Biennale last year. So you will remember listeners that certain artists said they wanted to boycott the Sydney Biennale. There were various moves against the Biennale because it had received money from Transfield, a company that was connected to another company which had an interest in Australia's offshore detention centres. They said they couldn't accept money, shouldn't accept money from that the source. And the Minister was very angry about this and so were other Liberal ministers. They thought it was very ungracious. Ingratitude was one word that was bandied around. So the Minister then directed the Australia Council that it should come up with a policy under which artists that refused to take money on ethical grounds - because they did not approve of the way the money had been earnt - could not then receive Australia Council money. If you said, “I won't take money from Peter, I won't be paid by Paul either I guess”. I don't know whether we ever saw those provisions. Did the Australia Council defy a direction from its Minister ?

DREYFUS: Well you'll have to ask the Minister about that. He has got quite a few questions to answer but that is one of them. With Sydney, we saw there the selectivity that George Brandis is prepared to apply. He is certainly not some champion of free speech, certainly does not think that artists are entitled to their own opinions.

CATHCART: Well was the Minister in a position to direct the Australia Council to draw up provisions,draw up guidelines which explained to artists that you have to accept private funding - you can't be picky and choosy about private funding if you are going to be subsidised by the state as well ?

DREYFUS: Well he certainly seems to have thought he was and it reminds me of Senator Brandis' own attempt from opposition to amend the Australia Council legislation to insert powers of ministerial direction which happily failed. This is at a time when we were embarked upon a reorganisation of the Australia Council. Those amendments failed but Senator Brandis is now going down another path to achieve the same end, which is - he directs. He is, it appears, going to be the supremo of the arts in Australia, and I don't think that's what we want. I don't think that's what should be the situation for arts funding in Australia. I think we need a system of arts funding that is independent, that is peer reviewed, that has clear published criteria  so people know where they stand.

CATHCART: Well hopefully we can get a response from the Minister tomorrow. Mark Dreyfus thanks for coming in.

MONDAY, 18 MAY 2015