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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 3890

Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (13:21): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this debate because we are talking about a great Australian institution, the Australia Council. It is an institution that has, with bipartisan support, been around for about 40 years now. It has overseen the roll-out of funding across the arts. Notwithstanding the superstructure of a number of boards that have administered funding for particular sections or areas of the arts, the Australia Council has sat across the top of this and has been the great culmination of Australia's commitment to upholding important cultural values and holding up a mirror to the country and providing us with an insight into ourselves through the arts.

It is important that, from time to time, we review agencies like the Australia Council. All government bodies should be subject to review. Times change. Perhaps our values do not change, but the ways we do things can change. It is important that institutions, particularly government funded institutions, have a capacity to change and adapt to circumstances as they evolve.

Therefore, having a review of the Australia Council is something that I am sure we would have all welcomed when it was announced by Simon Crean, the former arts minister and leadership tragic, in December 2011. The review was conducted by Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James and was delivered to the minister, I understand, in May 2012. That was quite a reasonable time frame for a review of this type, but then nothing seemed to happen for about a year.

In the work of government, not everything can be done overnight. We all recognise that. But the fact that it has taken some time for the government to get to this point and put up legislation to amend the Australia Council Act and so forth is a cause for concern, because we are coming to the end of this parliament. It has been a fractious parliament during a time of minority government. There have been plenty of issues and, yes, that does affect the priorities in terms of what legislation is brought forward, but, as I said before, this is a great Australian institution and it deserves better than to have this legislation introduced into the parliament with only 12 Senate sitting days left—we have far fewer now—and only after the Prime Minister had announced the election date.

As I said before, this is an institution which has received bipartisan support in the past, but at the moment we find it difficult as an opposition to support the bills in their current form. Senator Brandis, the relevant spokesman on our side, will be moving a number of amendments on our behalf. These are amendments which we believe will strengthen the legislation which underpins the Australia Council.

In that regard may I say that it was a Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who announced the intention to create such a body in the parliament in November 1967. Tragically, he disappeared off Cheviot Beach, never to be seen again. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton followed through with the plan, and the agency first met in July 1968. Everyone was reminded of these facts at the 40th anniversary of the Australia Council by its chair, Rupert Myer, a distinguished Australian who has done a fantastic job as an arts administrator and as a philanthropist.

So this is a body that has enjoyed the support of both Liberal and Labor governments for 40 years or more. It was therefore, I suppose, with sadness rather than anger that we noted that the bills appeared to be something of a rushed job. The Senate committee inquiring into the bills heard how much of a rushed job these bills were. They forgot about Aboriginal and Indigenous art altogether and inexplicably tried to remove from the Australia Council's list of functions the protection and promotion of artistic freedom. You could say that in a society like ours that should be taken for granted; why do we have to say it? We have to say it because we are living in a society where, if you look at the polls—I think it was the result in a Lowy Institute poll the other day—you find that young people do not necessarily, as a majority, believe that democracy is the most effective form of political representation.

We live in a society where we take some of the basic rights we have for granted. It is important, from time to time, to spell out what these rights are—and to spell them out in the form that Senator Brandis is intending to do through his amendments. I think artistic freedom is very important. It is an interesting freedom because it can often lead to controversy, because you are often being asked to tolerate things that are not to your taste. But that is not the point. The point of artistic freedom is to allow the full flowering of artistic cultural expression within the community. And we are a diverse community. We must have a capacity to put ourselves, from time to time, in the shoes of others and see the world as they see it.

Art, in all its forms, has always been a way of doing that. The greatest art is the art which communicates to us in a way that is perhaps even beyond expression. So we have to have artistic freedom. It is really another way of saying we need tolerance and acceptance of a diversity of views, opinions and values. It is very important that we have this artistic freedom. The minister, Tony Burke, who is Julia Gillard's third choice as arts minister, eventually capitulated and amended his bill to correct some of the mistakes I referred to, which just goes to underline how important it is for these bills not to be rushed through this place without proper consideration.

The Australia Council is not the plaything of any one side of politics—whether it is a Liberal government or a Labor government. It is an important and independent cultural institution and deserves the respect that goes with that. As I said before, it has enjoyed that support for over 40 years.

The last coalition arts minister—the current spokesman Senator Brandis—explained to the National Press Club in 2007 the Howard government's proud record of support for the Australia Council. He said, then:

… funding for the Australia Council, which makes direct, arms' length grants to individual artists and performing arts companies, has risen from $73 million 12 years ago to $161 million in this year's budget—an increase of more than 110%.

So this idea that the arts are somehow the province of one side of politics is pure mythology. The arts belong to all of us. We should all have a commitment to supporting the arts, and the arts are there for all of us to enjoy.

I declare an interest. My better half, Elizabeth, is a fundraiser for Opera Australia in New South Wales. Through that association I have therefore had some exposure to the work of Opera Australia. I mention that because when we think of these august national bodies we think of the work that they are putting on at the Sydney Opera House, for example, or other such places. We often overlook the role that they play, which has been alluded to by a couple of my colleagues, in disseminating the arts through rural and regional Australia. That is very important.

Every year at the annual fundraising function, one of the things to which we donate, in the context of Opera Australia, is the regional fund, so that they can tour regional centres. That is very important. I mention that to underline the nation-building function that the arts have and how disseminating the arts through the community binds us more as a community. It makes us all feel part of a broader Australian community. It is very important that we have these sorts of unifying influences. The Australia Council, through bodies like Opera Australia, plays that role.

While I am referring to Opera Australia, I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing chief executive, Adrian Collette, who has been at the helm of the organisation for almost, I think, two decades in toto, in various ways. He has played a fantastic role in growing the organisation, he has been a first-class arts administrator and he has seen the organisation not only grow financially and in terms of patronage but also grow as an organisation which promotes opera across Australia. That has been very much part of his personal vision. I pay him tribute. He has now become a university adviser and administrator. I wish him well in that role. He will bring to his new role the insights he has gained from administering such a large non-government, non-profit organisation—it is not quite a commercial organisation although it operates on commercial lines.

I also take the opportunity while I am here to commend another arts administrator who has long since left the field of arts administration, Donald McDonald. For many years he was an administrator of the arts. His longevity in the arts culminated in his appointment, which he has had for a decade, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Donald has made a great contribution to the arts in Australia. We have people like him and Adrian to thank for the fact that modern artistic companies and bodies, like the Australia Council and others, perform so well and have become great paragons of good governance while having commercial nous and a commercial feel.

I think they understand, and we as a country now understand, not only the way the arts play such an important role in our cultural life, potentially even our spiritual life, and the way they give richness and meaning to life, but also the other dimension—the role of the artistic and creative industries in promoting economic growth and development. Increasingly, in this globalised world, a pillar of development which attracts smart, intelligent, high-performing people is the presence of vibrant, vital, high-performing artistic and creative industries.

In regional parts of Australia, such as Bendigo and Ballarat, for example—with which you, Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie, are so familiar—organisations in the cultural field have been magnets for tourism and for local development. It is very important that we promote the understanding that the arts and the creative industries are part of the fabric of our economy as much as they are part of the fabric of our culture and of our society. In that vein, I commend Simon Crean's work as the Minister for the Arts, because I think he took a particular view of the arts with that economic lens on it, if you like.

The other point I would make about the arts going forward is that, while we are going into choppy waters economically and financially, no-one should be under any illusion about the commitment of the coalition to the arts in this period. While obviously I cannot talk about budgetary matters, the fact of the matter is that we recognise that it is often not economic for us to put the arts on the same basis as commercial entities. They are part of that fixed cost or infrastructure of an advanced society, so we have to recognise that government must have an ongoing role in helping to contribute to the funding of the arts and their dissemination. Going with that, an important role is to make sure that there is the opportunity for access to the arts by people across our society.

In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art has done so much work in relating the arts to the needs of, for example, disabled children. They have used the arts as a vehicle for getting through to disabled kids and allowing them to express their innate artistic tendencies—which we all have. Those tendencies are more latent in some of us than in others, but the fact is that we all have talents of one sort or another. The Museum of Contemporary Art, through Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, a fantastic administrator in her own right, and Simon Mordant, who has been a great philanthropist of the arts, has done so much to build those links. I commend them for what they have done. This is yet another dimension to the role the arts play in Australian society.

As I indicated earlier, Senator Brandis has foreshadowed a number of amendments to the Australia Council Bill. These amendments will help to spell out the functions of the Australia Council. As I indicated before, those functions are to promote not only the appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arts, or the application of the arts in the community, but to uphold and promote the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts. So it is not only to uphold—not only, in other words, to say, 'This is important'—but to promote. I think it is important that we make that point—that it is not just about upholding but also about promoting the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts.

It is also about promoting the knowledge and appreciation of Australian arts by persons in other countries. That is very important. One thing that impressed me some years ago was the way France embraced Indigenous art. Indeed, there is a major centre for Indigenous art in the middle of Paris—I forget its name; I do not have it with me. Former minister Amanda Vanstone was instrumental in promoting the use of Australian art there. I recognise also the former President of France, Jacques Chirac, who is a great collector of Indigenous arts and who was very keen on the promotion of Indigenous art. That centre has been able to project Indigenous art onto the front of the actual building. At night they light it up in such a way that you can see Indigenous images on the front of the building. I do not have a picture to show you, but it is there. You can look it up on Google or some other such mechanism.

Doing that sends a great message to the world about who we are and how we see ourselves. Importantly, in Senator Brandis's amendments, there is the recognition of that organic link between the wellsprings of Australian culture and our Indigenous community. That is one of the things that, as a nation, makes us unique in the world. All nations have a brand of some sort or another. Some brands are better than others. Some brands are clearer than others. Part of our brand, indelibly linked to our view of who we are as a country, is our appreciation of, support for and promotion and dissemination of the central role of Indigenous art and culture in expressing who we are as Australians.

In my maiden speech I spoke about the successive waves of migrants who have come to Australia. The point I made about Indigenous people is that, in a sense, they were the first wave that came here—the precursors of all those who came afterwards. It is very important that we continue to do that. And that is comprehended in Senator Brandis's amendments.

He also talks about incentives for and recognition of achievement in the practice of the arts and this is obviously to entrench this idea about the role government plays in promoting and recognising achievement in the practice of the arts. It is the role that, as I said before, government has in this area, because art generates not only private benefits but also those social benefits we talked about before.

These amendments also envisage encouraging the support of the arts by the states, local governing bodies and other persons and organisations—in other words, this is business for all of us at state and local government level, and also, of course, for those in the private sector who want to be philanthropists. Sadly, Australia does not quite yet have the culture of philanthropy that we see in places like the United States with some of the great philanthropic organisations that have sprouted up there. We are getting there, though. There have been initiatives over the years, like Prime Minister John Howard's, of community business partnerships and amendments to the tax law to encourage the setting up of private funds that could disseminate money for philanthropic purposes. Within that context I think it is important that we recognise that great philanthropists also want to support the arts. I also recognise the fact that some of our greatest artists have themselves been great philanthropists. I think of Margaret Olley and the way she, both before her death and after, disseminated so many of her paintings across the country. These are fantastic achievements and I know a number of Australians who have been successful in other walks of life but who have dedicated themselves to accumulating large collections which they are now seeking to provide to the public for their access.

In winding up my remarks, may I say that it is good, from time to time, to debate issues like this. It is a pity we do not have more time, because these go, as I said before, to fundamentals of how we see ourselves—our identity as a country. Though it sounds sometimes vaguely neo-Stalinist to talk about 'cultural policies and programs' and all that sort of thing, in fact we should not be hesitant about doing so. We should be really positive about how we promote our culture and what we are to the rest of the world, because it is unique; it is something which has not only social dimensions but, as I said before, economic dimensions. With the addition of Senator Brandis's amendments, I think we can wrap this matter up. But, sadly, the government has not left us much time to do so.