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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 3878

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:21): I am very disappointed to hear that the Greens will not be supporting the amendments which I have moved on behalf of the opposition and which the arts community want very badly out of this process. I have heard in the years I have been in the Senate many ignorant speeches. But I have never in my life heard a speech which revealed such a depth of invincible ignorance of a subject as the speech that has just come from Senator Christine Milne, whose knowledge and understanding of cultural policy is non-existent.

Let me outline the opposition's attitude to the Australia Council Bill 2013. We welcome the review of the functions of the Australia Council. The Australia Council, in its current form, was created by the Whitlam government, although the form in which it was established by the Whitlam government built upon an entity established by the Gorton Liberal government—a fact often overlooked by those who choose to rewrite history so as to favour the preferences of the left. So this is a legacy of the Gorton government, expanded by the Whitlam government and maintained with bipartisan support by both sides of politics in all the years since.

I was at an arts function in Sydney recently. I hope Mr Hockey is listening to this. I was flattered to be reminded by one of the most senior arts practitioners in Australia that the government that was most generous to the arts in terms of arts funding was the Howard government in its final year and that the minister who had been most generous to the arts in terms of funding was me. The canard that the Labor Party looks after the arts and the Liberal Party does not is just that. It is a lie. It is a falsehood. As with so many other things, when it comes to cultural policy the Labor Party owns the rhetoric and the Liberal Party delivers the outcomes.

Let me make a comment on the timing of this bill. The review of the Australia Council was a long and detailed one. When the draft bill was published and issued for public consultation, a negligible amount of time was made available for feedback from the various sectors of the arts community—something like a fortnight. So there was, in fact, after the draft bill was published virtually no opportunity for feedback from the sector, something the sector well knew and deeply resented. Nevertheless, the government charged on, and now, in the dying days of this parliament, three days from the end and with about an hour and a half of debate allowed, we are expected to deal with the most significant set of renovations to the architecture of Australian cultural policy that the parliament has dealt with since the act which this bill would replace, the Australia Council Act, was debated all those years ago in 1975. After 38 years, the most important series of changes to Australian cultural policy is vouchsafed an hour and a half of debate in the parliament. That tells you how seriously the Labor Party takes cultural policy and that tells you how serious is the Greens' commitment to both proper parliamentary process and cultural policy itself. There is no need to deal with this bill now. If it is hurried through, guillotined through, as the government and the Greens propose to do, it will not command the bipartisan respect that it ought to. We know why the government wants to rush this bill through in the absence of any necessity—because this is a government that is determined to lay minefields for any future non-Labor government, and we do not treat that with respect.

Let me turn to the opposition's amendments and let me deal with the three topics which they principally address. When the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives, the most revealing and indeed shocking aspect of it was that, from clause 9 of the bill, there was removed the provision in the Australia Council Act 1975 that one of the core functions of the Australia Council would be—this was in subclause (f)—'to uphold and promote the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts'. It tells you everything you need to know about the contempt this Labor government and the Australian Greens have for freedom of expression that, when they rewrote the Australia Council Act, they removed as one of the core functions of the Australia Council the obligation to protect freedom of expression. It was relocated elsewhere in the act, to an inferior criterion, an inferior set of considerations. But it was removed as one of the core functions of the act. Why would you do that? If you believe in freedom of artistic expression, why would you, as a matter of deliberation and careful thought, decide to remove freedom of artistic expression as one of the core values of Australia's principal arts funding body?

There was a Senate inquiry into this bill, and the Senate inquiry recommended that freedom of artistic expression be reinstated into the bill. That is why, in clause 9, we have some non-sequential alphanumeric provisions so that clause 9(1)(bc) would now include 'to uphold and promote freedom of expression in the arts'. That is fine. But why did you take them out in the first place, Minister, and why did you, Senator Milne, connive with the government in doing that?

What the opposition has decided to do, having—

Senator Milne: Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Under standing order 193, it is improper for Senator Brandis to imply things that are untruthful. It is the Greens amendment that has restored that through the government's amendment to the act.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Stephens ): Thank you, Senator Milne. There is no point of order.

Senator BRANDIS: You were shamed into it by the statements made at the Senate committee by the opposition, and you know that, Senator Milne. Please do not mislead the Australian people.

What the opposition has decided to do is to reinstate as the core functions of the Australia Council the language of the existing act, the language of the Australia Council Act 1975. At the Senate hearing, we received no compelling evidence from anyone that the definition of the core functions of the Australia Council that has underlain the basis of its activities for 38 years is no longer appropriate or sufficient, so the course we have adopted is to reinstate them. That means that, among other things, not only would we reinstate 'upholding and promoting the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts' as one of the core functions of the Australia Council but we would reinstate the objective 'to encourage the support of the arts by the states, local governing bodies and other persons and organisations'. We would reinstate 'the promotion of the knowledge and appreciation of Australian arts by persons in other countries'. We would reinstate 'the promotion of incentives for and recognition of achievement in the practice of the arts'. There is no good reason why those should cease to be core functions of the Australia Council.

I am not sure if it was rhetoric or ignorance, and perhaps it was an unhappy combination of the two, but Senator Milne suggested that by preserving the existing provisions of the Australia Council Act the opposition did not wish core functions of the Australia Council to include certain of the new core functions which are put forward by the bill—such as, for example, to conduct and commission research into and publish information about the arts; to evaluate and publish information about the impact of the support the Council provides; to undertake any other function conferred on it by this act or any law of the Commonwealth; or to do anything incidental or conducive to the performance of any of the above functions. Senator Milne, I know you have sat in upper houses, both here and in Tasmania, for longer than I have. But it has evidently escaped your notice that such functions are among the powers that all bodies corporate, including statutory bodies, already have. We are not stripping the Australia Council of any power that it does not already have. We are restoring to it functions and objectives about certain core values that you would gladly see it lose.

I will now turn to the subject of the grounds of ministerial intervention. The opposition has always accepted that an important principle of arts funding is that arts funding should be at arm's length and that individual decisions in relation to arts funding should not be dictated by government. That provision appears in the existing act and it is preserved by clause 12 of the bill, which the opposition does not propose to amend in any respect material to this issue. Clause 12 of the bill by subclause (2)—taking up language from the pre-existing act—says:

(2) The Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee).

That has always been part of the law, Senator Milne, if you did not know, which obviously you did not. The opposition does not propose to amend that provision.

Subclause (1) of clause 12 of the bill says—and you apparently support this, Senator Milne:

(1) The Minister may, by legislative instrument, give directions to the Board:

(a) in relation to the performance of functions, and the exercise of powers, of the Council; or

(b) requiring the provision of a report or advice on a matter that relates to any of the Council's functions or powers.

The opposition supports that and would add another clause in relation to the formation and terms of reference of a committee. So, Senator Milne, regarding concern that you have about inappropriate ministerial intervention, that has always been prohibited by the act and would continue to be prohibited by clause 12(2) of the bill, and the opposition does not seek to alter that. The appropriate scope of ministerial direction to the Council is provided for by clause 12(1). It always has been and would continue to be, although the opposition offers an additional amendment in relation to the new committee systems proposed by the bill.

Let me say a word about the appropriate relationship between the Council and the minister. Having been the minister, Senator Milne, I am able to inform you about this. There is one very important stakeholder in the arts community not directly represented on the Council or on any of its committees, and that is the taxpayer. Within that category, which includes all of us, there is one particularly important stakeholder in the arts community not represented on the Council or on any of its committees—at least not directly represented—and that is the audience. Every dollar that the Australia Council distributes is a dollar of taxpayers' money, money compulsorily acquired from citizens.

The trustee of the public interest, in ensuring the taxpayers' money is spent wisely and appropriately, is ultimately the parliament and, immediately, and answerable to the parliament, the minister. The Australia Council should never be entirely autonomous, nor has any chair of the Australia Council ever said that it should be, because if it were then there would be no supervision of the way in which the taxpayers' money is distributed, and there would be, most particularly, no guarantee to ensure that the interests of audiences—so far as a large proportion of the Australia Council's dollar is spent in the field of the performing arts—were looked after. In a democracy the interests of audiences, in my view, are a very important consideration.

The interests of artists, and in particular the right that you would take away, the right to freedom of artistic expression, are very important values. Undoubtedly, that is why we moved to reinstate it. But the interests of audiences to ensure that their taxpayer dollars are being reinvested so as to produce programs, concerts and shows that they actually want to watch rather than programs and performances that appeal only to a tiny few are respected. Ultimately, that is for the parliament and the minister to have some say in—not to be the arbiter but to have some influence over it. I do not run away from that core position for a moment.

In the time left I will touch on one other matter that the coalition's amendments would restore but the government's proposed bill removes, and that is an obligation to take into account the interests of the people in the various states and the people in regional Australia. Not all excellence in the arts in Australia resides in Sydney and Melbourne. Not all excellence in the arts resides in the metropolitan capital cities. We have some of the great arts companies of the world, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, but we also have excellent arts practice in the smaller capitals and we have excellent arts practice and loyal, enthusiastic audiences in regional Australia as well. One of the purposes of the opposition's amendments is to ensure that the Australia Council, in discharging its statutory function, pays due regard to the interests of practitioners and audiences in the smaller capital cities, in the provincial cities and towns, and in regional Australia as well—something that I am sure, Senator Christine Milne, is very far from your thinking.

We want the arts to be excellent. We want them to be world standard. But we want them to be accessible to all Australians, not a chosen and self-selected few.