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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 131


Senator BRANDIS (9:17 PM) —Yesterday the government received the report of an inquiry announced on 28 May last year by the Minster for the Arts and Sport, Senator Kemp, into the funding and operation of Australia’s orchestras. The report, A new era—report of the orchestras review 2005, was prepared by a committee under the chairmanship of Sydney businessman Mr James Strong. By its terms of reference, the principal task of the Strong inquiry was to ‘make recommendations on ways in which the orchestras and governments can work together to ensure the long term vibrancy and sustainability of Australia’s orchestra sector’. The review is not an assessment of artistic standards.

Australia presently has eight orchestras: six symphony orchestras, one in each state, together with two pit orchestras—the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, based in Sydney, and Orchestra Victoria, based in Melbourne, whose function is to support the opera and ballet companies based in those states. The symphony orchestras were originally operated by the ABC, however in recent years they have become largely autonomous. The current shape of Australia’s orchestras is the result of some consolidation in the sector as a result of mergers—notably, the merger in 2000 of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra into the new Queensland Orchestra.

The Strong report makes some 20 recommendations for the future direction of Australia’s orchestras—most of which, in my opinion, are excellent. They include recommendations concerning the introduction of proper corporate governance standards, industrial relations reform and a proposal that the Commonwealth should, as a one-off, assume and write off the accumulated debts of a number of the orchestras. However, there is one recommendation which I cannot support and which has already raised much justifiable concern among my parliamentary colleagues and in the broader community. That is the recommendation that the symphony orchestras in three states—South Australia, Tasmania and my own state of Queensland—should be substantially reduced in size. In the case of Tasmania, it would mean, in effect, the conversion of that orchestra into a large chamber ensemble. In the other states, it would mean the substantial shrinking of the ensemble size—in the case of Queensland, from a quadruple-wind ensemble to a triple-wind ensemble. This would make it impossible for the orchestras to perform, without augmentation from musicians who do not form part of their establishment, many of the great orchestral works such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Fifth.

The justification for the recommended reduction in the size of these orchestras is ‘sustainability’. Yet the sad fact is that, if sustainability means the capacity to operate on an ordinary commercial basis, there is no orchestra in Australia which is sustainable. As the figures tabulated in the Strong report show, every Australian orchestra is heavily dependant upon public funding; in fact, there is no orchestra for which public funding is not the single most important revenue source. Even the most commercially successful orchestra in the country, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, relies primarily on government subsidies—to the extent of 45.6 per cent in 2003. In 2003 the Commonwealth contributed $43,973,000 of the total government funding of orchestras of $57,389,000, which represented 61.2 per cent of all the revenue of those orchestras. The extent of reliance upon government funding ranged from 45.6 per cent in the case of the SSO to 80.8 per cent for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

To ask whether an orchestra is sustainable and then to conclude that, if it is not, it should be cut back is to ask the wrong question. Since no Australian orchestra is sustainable in the sense of being commercially self-sufficient or even close to being so, the real issue, given that reality, is whether the government nevertheless accepts that orchestras are a sufficiently important part of the infrastructure of our community and of the social capital of our nation that they should be supported. It is my very firm belief that the answer to that question is yes. To cut back the size of orchestras in the smaller states not merely reveals a disturbingly Sydney-centric prejudice but also will do lasting harm to Australia’s social and cultural heritage. As the visiting conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Matthias Bamert, said last weekend, the question is not the cost of orchestras but their value.

Let me pay my tribute to the Queensland Orchestra. I have been an admittedly occasional patron of the orchestra and its predecessors for more than 20 years. Indeed, I can boast of a very old family connection. My great aunt, the late Mrs Evelyn Jones, a violinist of considerable distinction, was, as Miss Halligan, the leader of the Queensland Orchestra’s ultimate predecessor in Brisbane shortly before the First World War. Several other members of my family have been deeply involved in the musical life of Brisbane over the years as participants, stalwart patrons and, most recently, chroniclers, with the publication last year by my cousin Joan Priest of her biography of Queensland’s three most famous divas: Margreta Elkins, Marilyn Richardson and Lisa Gasteen.

The Saturday before last I had the pleasure of representing Senator Kemp at the Queensland Orchestra’s first concert for 2005. Anyone who heard their stunning performance of the great Mahler Fifth Symphony under the baton of their former chief conductor and now principal guest conductor, Muhai Tan, would have been left in no doubt that they were witnessing the work of a superb orchestra. After the concert I spoke with Muhai Tan, now one of the leading conductors on the European circuit. He told me with passion and deep conviction that he considered the Queensland Orchestra to be one of the most exciting orchestras with which he had ever worked.

This is no parochial boast. No doubt, a patron of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra could recount with justifiable pride that orchestra’s internationally acclaimed performance of the Ring Cycle last year, and others could speak the praises of other Australian orchestras. Artistic excellence in Australia does not just reside in Sydney and Melbourne, whether in music or any of the other performing arts, and no assessment of Australia’s rich musical achievement should ever lose sight of that fact.

This makes the treatment of the great Queensland Orchestra by the Strong report so disappointing. In particular, the Strong report either completely disregards or pays scant attention to three important considerations affecting the Queensland Orchestra’s financial performance and future sustainability. First, it takes as the baseline for its financial assessment the three years from 2001-03, in each of which the QO reported an operating deficit. Yet these were the years immediately following the merger of the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The merger of two long-established orchestras was always bound to be difficult, and I think it is now acknowledged that this merger was perhaps even more difficult than expected. But what the Strong report does is take a new orchestra in its early and most difficult stage and use that as a baseline for future projections. It disregards the fact that, by 2004, after the initial postmerger period, it turned an operating deficit of $445,000 in 2003 into a modest surplus. Strong reports that ticket sales were flat in 2001-03. He disregards the fact that, in 2004, ticket sales increased by 6.9 per cent. In 2005, based upon subscription payments, they are projected to increase by another six per cent.

Second, there is little appreciation of the fact that the Queensland Orchestra is, as its name implies, an orchestra for all of the people of Queensland, not just for the musical public of Brisbane. It undertakes much more extensive touring responsibilities than any other state orchestra, reflecting the heavily regional character of the state. Those activities are invariably loss-making, but they fulfil a vital role in the culture of Queensland. Disappointingly, that activity is dismissed in a few words. Yet, as I pointed out earlier, if the sustainability of an orchestra is to be assessed purely from the perspective of a cost accountant, there would be no orchestras in Australia. Finally, the report takes absolutely no account of the fact that south-eastern Queensland, the orchestra’s principal market, is both the fastest-growing and fastest-changing part of Australia.

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism. I welcome the indication in question time today by the minister, Senator Kemp, that the government is not disposed to agree to a reduction in the size of the Queensland, Tasmanian or Adelaide orchestras. I trust that that will be the government’s final position after it has considered the Strong report carefully. In closing, I want to record my appreciation to Senator Kemp, who has been very generous with his time in seeing me, Senator Mason, and the member for Moncrieff, Mr Ciobo, on several occasions in the last few months to discuss these issues and hear our representations on behalf of the great Queensland Orchestra.