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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3011


Senator MARTIN(1.17) —An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald this week headed 'Loud noises heard offstage' stated:

Once again voices of alarm are being raised about the arts funding policies of the Federal Government and the Australia Council. This time the voices are those of Australia's major theatrical bodies, and in particular the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet.

In recent weeks the annual reports of both the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet have been released. They have contained statements which have contributed to the publication of some views of fears for the future of the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. For some months now apprehension has been felt about the attitude of the Australia Council and what pressures the Federal Government may be putting on it in respect of our national opera and ballet companies. That apprehension has indeed grown to the point of alarm. It is not only the opera company and the ballet company that are feeling alarm. The rumours, as they have grown stronger, have fed public debate and a real concern at the possibility that we will see in Australia a downgrading of the standards of the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet because of funding cuts. I believe all Australians who take any notice at all of things cultural are very proud of the standing that these two companies have both within Australia and overseas. Both companies have toured overseas with great success. All Australians who have read in the newspapers of their success have felt very proud that we have in our country companies of this standard. Of course, they are not the only artistic standards which receive international acclaim, but they are two which have received particular acclaim.

In the 1983 Budget the Hawke Government determined that the Opera and the Ballet were no longer to be funded by one line appropriations; the money for them was to be included in the appropriation for the Australia Council. Of course, that was part of the Australian Labor Party's arts policy. It was something that I, and also Senator David Hamer, had advocated in the Senate on a number of occasions. Our reason for advocating it was that we believed the 'arm' s-length' principle ought to apply to funding of the arts. We did not believe that not having arm's-length funding particularly advantaged the Opera or the Ballet, and I think facts and figures show that out. There is a perception that as a result of one-line funding the Opera and the Ballet had a very lush time indeed with Government grants. Those are not the facts, and I will refer to some figures on that later. However, much as I supported the inclusion of funding for the Opera and the Ballet under the general funding of the Australia Council, I and others who supported it never dreamt that this would become what appears to be a way of getting at the Opera and the Ballet. The amount of money transferred into the Australia Council's vote was the money that those two companies were previously receiving, plus an allowance for inflation.

Recently the Music Board published a report on the funding of music in Australia. In that report the Music Board points out that 79 per cent of the funds on which the Music Board made recommendations for 1983-84 went to the Australian Opera. I have not seen anywhere a statement that those are funds that the Music Board would not otherwise have had available to allocate if it had not been for the decision to put the Australian Opera's funding under the Australia Council. A similar position applies to the Theatre Board which has responsibility now for making recommendations for the Australian Ballet.

In this context it is interesting to note the attitudes of the Music Board and the Theatre Board in the past towards State opera and ballet companies. During the 1970s when there was pressure on the Boards and on the Australia Council to find areas to cut and for a rearrangement of priorities of funding of different artistic organisations, the Music Board and the Theatre Board took quite different lines on the subject of State companies. The Music Board recommended to the Australia Council, which recommendation was accepted, that there be no funding through the Australia Council of State opera companies. The Theatre Board took a contrary view and recommended to the Australia Council, which recommendation was accepted, that in allocating the funds for theatre there should be some funding of State ballet companies. For whatever reasons, the Music Board and the Theatre Board have therefore given, in my belief, different priorities to opera and ballet.

This is not to say that the Australian Ballet is sanguine about its fate at the hands of the Theatre Board in its deliberations, and the Australia Council; it is not. It has reason to be apprehensive. What is the source of the apprehension ? As part of the Labor Party's policy on the arts it said that it would raise the standard of community arts. It is in that context that the debate about funding for our national opera and ballet companies has been taking place. For the Australian Labor Party to implement its policy in relation to community arts , I do not see any necessary incompatibility with the principle of arm's-length funding of the arts. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial, however, makes this statement:

The Federal Government is entitled to expect that the Australia Council, although an independent statutory authority, would take the ALP arts policy seriously, especially since the policy was put together after extensive consultation with the arts community.

But what is open to question is whether this emphasis on community arts should be at the expense of the established arts organisations.

For a variety of reasons the impression is strong that that is this Government's intention and the intention of the present Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Cohen). A debate has been stimulated on the issue of excellence in the arts versus elitism in the arts. This is a phoney argument. I argue strongly that we should support excellence in the arts. I argue strongly that this is not an elitist policy. If it is necessary to justify that, the Australian Opera can make an excellent justification. It can point out that through such things as its free concerts in the park and its simulcasts, it has reached millions of Australians in areas where they are easily reached and without the expense of high cost tickets. The Ballet could point out that its problem is not one of support from the community, but a very practical one. Last Thursday the Australian Ballet opened its Canberra season. There was not one empty seat in the Canberra Theatre. The tickets cost $35. One would think that $ 35 would be the price limit of a single ticket but, as I said, there was not an empty seat. The Ballet could have sold more tickets for that performance; nevertheless, it performed at a loss, the reason being that the Ballet does not have venues which enable it to perform at a profit.

The Australian Ballet will be transferring its Melbourne performances from the Princess Theatre to the new and very splendiferous Arts Centre. The Princess Theatre is hopeless for performing ballet. The Arts Centre will be excellent for that purpose. However, the Ballet will pay something like three times as much rent a week. Yet still that great Arts Centre does not have enough seats in its theatres to enable the Australian Ballet to put on performances at a profit. That is the bind in which the Australian Ballet is caught, and not because of a lack of community or public support. We face a hard decision on whether we want national companies with a standard of excellence. I refer to a letter that was written to the editor of the Australian, as this issue has been debated during recent weeks. It was written by Phillip Edmiston, who is the Artistic Director of the Queensland Marionette Theatre, a theatre organisation with which I am familiar. I also know well the value of its contribution to the arts. Mr Edmiston says:

I am part of one of the smaller Australian arts companies (unfunded by the Federal Government, despite lengthy and costly submissions to the Australia Council) who battles on giving performances throughout Australia.

To cut funding to the Australian Opera and Australian Ballet is madness. These companies don't need less, they need more.

Access and participation in the arts by all sections of the community is a fine thing, but at the expense of our flagship companies it is a bizarre nightmare.

The nightmare has been posed by inciting phoney rivalry between flagship companies and community arts groups. I reiterate: The Labor Party is entitled to implement its arts policy. That policy is to stimulate community arts. Well and good. But if it faces a situation, as I believe it will, whereby community arts do not receive the level of funding the Government would like under the present general level of funding, the Government must face the hard issue of either increasing funding to the Australia Council or putting pressure on the Australia Council to downgrade the Opera and the Ballet. It is my belief that the Government has chosen the second option. There is a need for excellence in the arts today. If the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet are put in a position where they must decline we will once again see a talent drain of our most talented and inspired singers and performers overseas. We will lose the inspiration that those people give to younger, aspiring performers and the general standard of performance of opera and the dance in Australia will decline . The Chairman of the Australian Ballet, Sir Robert Southey, said:

Any slackening in real terms of that support--

that is, Government support-

must have most damaging effects, not only on artistic standards but also on employment within the company and in the orchestras and theatres throughout Australia on which we depend.

The Australian Ballet and Australian Opera find themselves in a financial bind because they are labour intensive. During the last decade, the Ballet's total expenditure has increased by 310 per cent. Its earned income has increased by 360 per cent. Government support has increased by 170 per cent. The reasons that the Ballet cannot run at a profit and is still in deficit-a point I made before- are firstly, the lack of venues that would enable it to get enough people in its audiences to run at a profit and, secondly, that it is labour intensive. During the last six years the Australian Opera's total expenditure has increased by 118 per cent. Its box office takings have increased by 128 per cent. Contributions have increased by over 300 per cent. Any improvement has certainly been due to self-help. Government support has increased by only 47 per cent. So the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera have not received lush Government treatment. They have tried very hard indeed to do the best they can. Of course, they have been further hindered by the absolutely inexplicable decision of the Victorian Government to cut out funding to both of them. In conclusion, I reiterate: The alarm that is felt at the prospect of the possible downgrading of those two great companies is not confined to members of the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. My final words are a quotation, once again, from the Sydney Morning Herald editorial, which states:

The artistic standards achieved by the major companies over many years are too great a cultural heritage to be put in jeopardy by a sudden change in funding emphasis.