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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2703

Mr CREAN (HothamMinister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (09:02): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

When introducing the Australia Council Bill 1974 into parliament on 23 July 1974, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam proclaimed that upon passage:

… the Australian people as a whole will have new and wider opportunities to participate in the arts and enjoy the emotional, spiritual and intellectual rewards which the arts alone can provide.1

We can now reflect on that statement with the perspective that nearly 40 years on affords us and we see that day indeed was the 'historic development in the promotion of the arts in Australia'2 as Gough Whitlam proclaimed it would be.

The Council had five years earlier been created as a division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet by the then Prime Minister John Gorton, but this legislation sought to establish the Council as a separate agency, operating at arm's length from government.

Since its inception the Council has supported Australian artists and organisations with two guiding principles—the pursuit of artistic excellence based on peer review and funding decisions made at arm's length from government.

The Council has been critical to the shaping of Australia's cultural identity for nearly four decades.

Artists including David Gulpilil, Les Murray, Peter Carey, Tracey Moffatt, Dan Sultan, Thea Astley, Ross Edwards, Don Banks, Peter Tyndall and Peter Sculthorpe are among the artists and cultural leaders that the Council has supported over the years. The two most recent examples of this support and their success are Gotye and Tim Munro, who together scooped the pool with five Grammies just a month ago.

Now, each year, the Council delivers more than 1,900 separate grants, enables the creation of over 7,500 new artistic works and provides direct funding to more than 900 artists and 1,000 organisations. The significance of the new funding to the Australia Council—announced by me last week with the release of Creative Australia, the cultural policy for the future in this country—is that that additional $75 million will expand this already significant reach.

However, during the consultation process around the development of that same policy—the national cultural policy—it became clear that it was time to re-examine also the role and structure of the Australia Council. We now work with a sector that is globally engaged and confidently asserts Australian identity and creativity.

Back in 1975, we were emerging from the years of the cultural cringe and there was much work needed to build artistic practice and organisations in an emerging cultural sector. It was only a little time after the controversy about Australia's purchase of Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles—for which my father, as Treasurer, signed the cheque. It was initially seen as a major risk, but it is now seen as a wise and confident statement that Australia was aiming at the highest possible levels of artistic achievement for its cultural sector.

In response to the issues raised in the consultations around the development of Creative Australia, I established a review of the Australia Council in late 2011. The purpose of the review was to ensure that funding opportunities offered by the Australia Council reflected the diversity, innovation and excellence of Australia's contemporary arts and cultural sector, and that the council was well placed to support the goals of Creative Australia. It should also continue to meet the needs of the arts community and the expectations of audiences.

The review co-chairs, Ms Gabrielle Trainor and Mr Angus James, provided the review findings in mid-2012. Their report, based on further detailed consultations, confirmed that there is need for significant reform of the Council and the way in which it provides funding to the sector, including:

an updated purpose;

the introduction of a skills based governing board;

the reform of the Council's art form board structures to allow for greater funding flexibility; and

an updated and strengthened peer assessment process.

In introducing the Australia Council Bill 2013, the Australian government is delivering on the key recommendations of the Review of the Australia Council and bringing about the first significant legislative reform of the Council in nearly 40 years. While some things will change and need to change, there are some things that will remain the same.

Upon the passage of the Australia Council Act 1975, the core principles of the Council were enshrined in legislation. Namely, the principles of the pursuit of excellence and funding decisions made at arm's length from government, based on peer assessed artistic merit and free from political interference. These principles have been the central tenet of the Council's investments since day one under Nugget Coombs' leadership and have enjoyed the support of successive governments ever since. They remain core principles today. They are not only retained by this bill, they are given further emphasis with the Council's ability to self-determine its approach to that concept of peer assessment.

This importance of arm's-length decision making is supported by a new, clear and updated purpose for the Council—that it 'support and promote vibrant and distinctively Australian creative arts practice that is recognised nationally and internationally as excellent in its field'.3

This updated purpose has informed the drafting of the revised functions of the Council in this bill and sets the framework within which the Council will make funding decisions. The new functions enhance the Australia Council's capacity to collect and publish important data on the arts, the impact of its funding and the broader achievements of Australia's artists and arts organisations. The proposed changes to the Council's governance arrangements will facilitate more flexible arrangements and encourage longer term strategic planning, while entrenching the principle of arm's-length decision making.

A key reform is the introduction of a skills based board. This reform will bring council into line with other modern statutory authorities. Importantly, the new board will have strong arts expertise and will allow the Council to respond strategically to changes in the arts sector.

The responsible minister will appoint the chair, and then make all appointments to the board in consultation with the chair.

The transitional bill which accompanies this main bill provides for the continuation of the existing appointments of the chair and deputy chair of the Council to be carried over to the new board. Ensuring the continuity of key governance roles during the organisation's transition to a new operating environment will be important in the context of the implementation of the broader reform agenda. Mr Rupert Myer AM and Ms Robyn Archer AO are the ideal stewards of reform for the Council at this critical time. I see in them the right mix of skills that I envisage for the new board of the Council; that critical mix of business acumen, and professional and practical experience, combined with a deep a passion for—and commitment to—the arts.

The legislated requirement that only the minister can create and dissolve boards of the Council has been removed. The bill replaces the existing art form board structure and gives the board power to appoint committees. The Council can create advisory committees that it determines are necessary to deliver effectively on its functions and accountability requirements. This reform will empower the Council to appoint a greater diversity of artists as peers to help support strategic planning and assessment processes.

Existing art form boards were established before community cultural development emerged as an artistic focus, before the government moved to establish continuing funding for performing arts organisations, and before digital media, let alone the new work coming out of the fusion and the crossover between art forms. Currently, every member of the art form boards is appointed by the responsible minister. This bill devolves that power and gives the Council new flexibility to engage the expert peers in response to the demands of the sector, including those new demands that I have just outlined.

As such, it will allow the Council to become increasingly responsive to the changing needs and demands of the arts sector, including supporting emerging areas of artistic practice.

This will support the Council to become a more nimble and agile organisation—while retaining and enhancing the experience and expertise that the Council has grown over many years. In this regard, the bill embeds in the Council the flexibility and responsiveness that the sector so clearly called for in the consultation process around the review.

In response to the proposed reforms, the Council is proposing an evolution of art form boards into artistic advisory committees with a more flexible, responsive and scalable assessment model.

All art forms will benefit from the Council having the power to engage peers to match the specific genres in which artists are working. The opportunity to have peer panels directly matched to specific artistic genres, with artist peers involved in the process, will maintain essential and specialised peer assessment of grant applications.

I envisage that these reforms will support improved collaboration between established and emerging artists and arts organisations and better serve the demands of 21st century audiences. In short, the Council will be better placed to meet sector demands, to meet their needs, while firmly placing artists and support for existing—and emerging—arts practice at the centre of its activity.

Accountability standards will be strengthened through the introduction of corporate planning requirements. The Council will be required to identify strategic priorities and key performance indicators and submit these to the responsible minister for endorsement. This corporate plan, and any variation, does not take effect unless it has been endorsed by the minister. The reform of the Australia Council is a key pillar of Creative Australia: the National Cultural Policy.

Creative Australia makes the point that culture is not created by government but it is enabled by it. Its goals include support for excellence and the special role of artists and their creative collaborators as the source of original work and ideas, including the telling of Australian stories.

The modernised Australia Council will continue to play a critical role in the arts, so that it has an active role in the life of every Australian.

When I announced the national cultural policy on 13 March, I committed the Australian government to immediately implementing structural reforms to the Australia Council so that it is resourced, refocused and renewed.

This bill, and the new funding of $75.3 million over four years, delivers on this commitment. It heralds the most significant reform of the Council in nearly four decades and will bring the organisation into the 21st century.

I commend the bill to the House.


1 Second Reading Speech, Australia Council Bill 1974, 23 July 1974.

2 Ibid.

3 Review of the Australia Council, May 2012, p. 14.

Debate adjourned.