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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 3873

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (12:00): I rise today to support this legislation. It has been a long time coming, and I am now glad to see the Australia Council Bill 2013 and the Australia Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 before the Senate. I look forward to their passage before the election.

The Greens are great supporters of the arts. We value the arts, because not only do we see the arts as the ability of people to practise creative expression but it is essential to the wellbeing of our community that we have a capacity to see ourselves through the eyes of the arts community. Artists look at what is happening in the world and they make art about it that reflects the values of a society. They challenge us about who we are and they provide enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. They bring communities together to talk about what is happening around us. I think the arts are incredibly important as we recognise that this century is going to be about creativity and innovation. The best way to get people thinking outside the square is to get the arts involved, and that is why I have always supported putting artists on boards, for example: because they enable other directors to see problems differently. We need to see the world in a different way if we are going to survive this century, and the way to do that is by looking outside the square and taking on that creativity.

Having said that, I say that the importance of the Australia Council is central to tapping the creativity of Australians and providing a platform for that creativity to be displayed and to be accessed throughout the broad community and through all the regions in Australia. The Australia Council Bill will reform the structure of the Australia Council so that, instead of set art form boards operating strictly within their areas of expertise, there will be one main board with the ability to set up a multitude of committees made up of diverse members for diverse purposes. Art evolves more quickly than legislation, so it is important that the Australia Council have the capacity to respond to popular and emerging trends. The inflexibility of the art form boards meant that emerging artist projects that did not fit neatly into any practice area had a much harder time obtaining funding.

One example of that that I know you are familiar with, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, is Big hART. They work across many different art forms and, because their projects often help the disadvantaged in society, they work across government departments and agencies as well. So the funding model that was in place did not suit the development and opportunities. One example of that is that Big hART moved in to offer a project in north-west Tasmania through schools to challenge the idea of binge drinking, which is a critical issue for teenagers to confront. Through this work with schools on artistic expression in film and video, Big hART were able to really engage with a group of students at Wynyard High School in Tasmania. They have also done projects on teenage pregnancy, disadvantage and a range of issues. Of course, they presented that magnificent play Namatjira, if any of you had the opportunity to see it. That is an example of a company that provides all different kinds of challenging, interesting opportunities, but it did not fit in the conventional model.

This will now enable the differing way that the arts are now being developed in Australia to be funded appropriately. The Greens are very proud to have improved the bill in the House of Representatives to ensure protections for artists in the day-to-day operations of the Australia Council. This would not have been possible without the arts community's enthusiasm to secure these amendments and the government's acceptance that these changes needed to happen. I want to thank the arts community for working with us and then working to influence the government to accept these amendments, which I believe seriously improve the bill and which the arts community wanted.

First and foremost, the purpose of these amendments pushed by the Greens is to recognise and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to our national artistic identity. This goes to the heart of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, and, when we talk about the apologies and acknowledgements, we are recognising the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. I think it is appalling that Senator Brandis is moving an amendment to delete that from the bill—I think that is most regrettable. Trying to take out recognition and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art as central to our national and artistic identity is a throwback to a bygone era, and I certainly will not be supporting any amendment from the coalition to do that. It is a very, very bad move and it would just show the threat to progressive thinking in Australia if that kind of amendment were to be successful. Hopefully, nobody else is going to support it.

Secondly, a new function of the council is to guarantee the freedom of artistic expression. I am glad to hear Senator Humphries say how important freedom of artistic expression is. But make no mistake: Senator Brandis's amendment seeking greater ministerial control over funding decisions is absolutely contrary to freedom of artistic expression. Artists must be free to express opinions that might sometimes embarrass or challenge politicians and established norms. That is what the arts do. There must be no fear of funding retribution if they do so. The amendment that the Greens have secured to guarantee freedom of artistic expression is clearly there, but Senator Brandis's amendment to try and bring in much greater ministerial control over funding does away with it.

I would like to give you an example, Madam Acting Deputy President. When the Howard government had control of both houses here, we had a situation where Ros Horin's play Through the Wire—about incarcerated refugees—was sought by 22 regional arts centres to show to regional Australians so they could talk about this issue. They applied for tour funding to meet the demand, but they were rejected. To give another example, there was a time when Michael Agzarian had an exhibition, No more lies, at the Wagga Wagga Gallery and the gallery received a threatening phone call from a ministerial office here in Canberra telling them that their funding would be threatened if they continued with that exhibition. What was in the exhibition? No more lies featured three ministers with their lips sewn shut, and the Howard government took exception to it because it was the arts community challenging the policy of locking people behind razor wire. That is why we are determined to support and guarantee freedom of artistic expression, no matter the subject matter or the political context. Popular art should not be stymied just because it gets up the noses of politicians. This amendment securing freedom of artistic expression does that and sends a clear signal that we want funding based on merit, not on content that might make some parliamentarians feel awkward. That is why I am totally opposed to Senator Brandis's amendment for greater ministerial control over funding decisions. We all know whoever controls the money controls what the arts community can do, what shows can be toured and so forth.

Our third amendment ensures that funding must also be delivered in a way that reflects the diversity of artworks and is not focused too narrowly on any one area of artistic expression. That is why, also, we do not support Senator Brandis's next amendment, which is seeking to remove diversity of funding matching diversity of artistic expression. It is very clear that the coalition are intent on having the arts funding go to established bodies and restoring funding to politically aligned institutions. If that happened in Australia, that would be disgraceful. For example, there is the Melba Foundation. Its funding was cut recently, but Richard Alston is the chair and they recently hosted an event in Jeanne Pratt's mansion in shadow minister George Brandis's honour. When you get to the point of talking about the arts, it should be without fear or favour and based on merit, not political alignment of any particular foundation, any particular gallery, any particular anything. It should be based purely on merit, and that is why I do not support Senator Brandis trying to remove the amendment that the Greens secured with the government to secure diversity of funding matching diversity of artistic expression. Surely that is a fundamental principle that without fear or favour we should support in the arts.

Fourthly, the Greens have recognised the importance of community participation in our recognition that art projects are no longer simple passive experiences for the audiences, but that community members are often actively involved in the process of developing the piece—whether street theatre, an exhibition, or whatever it might be. It is not a question of the arts just being a matter of the audience coming in, sitting down and watching the performance; it is an interactive engagement which makes the art more significant. So when the art projects involve the community they are so much more potent in shifting ideas in thinking, or opening up new perspectives in the audience, and art and our society are better enriched as a result. This amendment recognises this important cultural value.

As an example, a film has been made in Tasmania called Mary Meets Mohammad. It is a terrific documentary which traces the development of community attitudes towards the Pontville Detention Centre and the detainees at Pontville. It actually traces the public meeting in Pontville before the detention centre was opened and then the attitudes in the community through the eyes of a knitting group and through the eyes of those women who eventually get to visit the Pontville Detention Centre. I cannot speak about it highly enough. It goes to the heart of how communities engage. These are real people; these are not actors. This is a documentary film made by a young filmmaker, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hope that if there are any knitting clubs listening around the country, they will take the opportunity to screen Mary Meets Mohammad.

In the end, needless to say, a 72-year-old woman from Tasmania goes into the detention centre and befriends a young man from Pakistan who has had to leave his wife and family, and of course she ends up thinking of him as her grandson. On the opening night in Hobart they had both Mary and Mohammad on the stage at the end of the film to talk about their experiences. It was a really heartfelt journey, not just for the two of them, but for all of the women engaged in that knitting club and in the community. That kind of interactive engagement of a filmmaker and a community group is an example of positive engagement with a very real issue in the local community. That is why it is essential that community participation is recognised.

One of my great disappointments with the government's arts funding is that it has completely ignored regional arts funding. I laud a lot of these changes. They are great and I am glad to see the culture policy, but I am very sorry that regional arts have been badly done by. The Greens have a very strong policy to put $10 million into regional arts—$6 million to bring us up to the 2008 level of funding and an extra $4 million to take us through to 2016. I do think regional arts need to be supported in Australia.

There was concern that artists might lose influence over the committees established to decide on funding policy direction. Because this new body is structured like most other boards of statutory corporations, there was a fear that business and legal advisers might be able to dominate decision-making at the expense of practising artists. We recognised that that was a real issue, and we have ensured that the committee making funding or policy decisions must contain people immersed in that particular art form to ensure quality peer assessment continues. It is important that you do have people practising in the field involved in the decision-making. I agree, once you get business heads in a room they are not going to see the arts in the same way as people practising arts or in the community do or recognise the value of the arts in challenging our thinking, in assisting us to enjoy our lives and in getting a real appreciation of what the arts can do. I am pleased to say that the government has agreed that there will be at least one person on these committees from the arts community.

Having said that, I recognise that Senator Brandis wants to increase the number of members from the arts to two. I have had real difficulty with this because, while I support the idea of putting two people in that category on the committees, the problem is that any amendment would jeopardise the passage of this bill before the election. If that amendment were passed by the Senate, the bill would go back to the House and I am not confident we would get it through. I would be pleased to say to Senator Brandis and the coalition that in the event the government changes I will be very happy to see that amendment introduced very early in a new period of government. I am not prepared to jeopardise the passage of this legislation in order to secure an extra arts member and lose the lot. I am not prepared to see that happen but I do indicate to the coalition that the Greens would be supporting it in the event that they formed the government and we would be making sure that it happened.

We will not be supporting, either, another amendment that Senator Brandis has put forward. He does not want the Australia Council to seek markets and audiences for Australian art; he does not want them to advise government or to commission research. He seeks to remove those as functions of the Australia Council. Why would you remove them as functions if you did not think they were appropriate things for the Australia Council to be involved in?

Finally, Senator Brandis wants the Australia Council's decisions to be influenced by state premiers or state governments. Take Premier Newman, for example. He destroyed the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards before the ink was even dry after his swearing in as Premier of Queensland. Queensland had started to get a real reputation for literary excellence because of those awards, but those awards were destroyed by the Premier before the ink had dried on his appointment. Chasing after the whims of state premiers when making Australia Council decisions would be a very bad idea. George Megalogenis has said:

Here's the risk in an economy-wide context. Queensland delivered just under 16 per cent of the book … trade when Joh Bjelke-Petersen won his last state election in November 1986. That figure peaked at just over 27 per cent in 2009. Today, the share is still 21 per cent—five percentage points above the Joh benchmark. Does Newman really intend to wind the clock back to the 1980s?

I would suggest that when it comes to literary awards that is clearly his intent. Having said that, I indicate to the Senate that if anyone here has an opportunity to see the latest exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, it is a fantastic exhibition. It is a marvellous gallery and a wonderful exhibition. If you happen to be in Brisbane, I recommend it. If you go along you will not be disappointed.

The Greens are very pleased to support these Australia Council bills. We look forward to the changes that are being brought about. We want to make sure that the arts are on a footing able to respond to the challenges of this century and that the structure we are setting up is able to respond to the differing art forms and different engagement with the arts that is occurring now. Who could have imagined 20 years ago the extent to which installations would now find their way into exhibitions? The video format was something not even thought about 20 or 30 years ago and yet, in the exhibition that I just talked about, the Richard Bell piece Scratch an Aussie is a very powerful piece. It just shows how the arts have changed. So I am glad we are now moving to get the framework in place to support the arts in a big-picture context, to support community participation in the arts and to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art as central to our national identity. I absolutely will not support the changes Senator Brandis has indicated he will propose. (Time expired)