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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 3869

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (11:40): The Australia Council Bill 2013 effects some changes to the structure of the Australia Council, our peak arts funding body, as a result of a review which was conducted by Ms Gabrielle Trainor and Mr Angus James. It is important to state at the outset that the Australia Council is a body of long standing. It represents a somewhat unusual model with respect to the delivery of funding in Australia—that is, it is a model whereby governments and ministers do not directly make decisions about the funding of a particular activity. In the case of the Australia Council, it is this body at arm's length from the Australian government which makes decisions for the expenditure of public moneys of the Commonwealth to support and promote activities in the cultural space and to promote excellence.

The Australia Council has a long heritage and should not be regarded as the plaything of any particular government. The legislation that is before the Senate today does not need to be passed today. There is a sense of panic on the government's part and so it is bringing forward this legislation which has been criticised, which was examined by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee and which has many critics. Yet despite the criticism and the concerns expressed widely across the arts community in Australia about this legislation, the government is pressing ahead quickly to rush it through the parliament. There will be a slightly longer period of time than was originally scheduled to deal with this legislation, but it will have to be debated, considered and passed by the Senate, if it is to be passed at all, by 1.45 this afternoon. This is significant legislation being pushed through by a government that is characterised by panic and incompetence. That is most unfortunate. These issues are of great moment. They are significant. Getting the funding mechanisms right is extremely important but one has to wonder whether this, as with so much else this government does, is all about politics and very little about good administration.

This bill began as a review of the Australia Council announced by then arts minister Simon Crean in December 2011. The review was conducted, as I said, by Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James and its report was delivered to the government by May 2012, more than a year ago. But from that point nothing happened. The report sat with the minister for nearly a year.

These bills were introduced into the parliament when there were 12 sitting days of the Senate left this year and only after the Prime Minister had announced the election date. The issues had been mulled over for some time and the report was finally tabled. Senators had concerns about the issues raised in the inquiry and many of the stakeholders expressed concern about the directions of the council, particularly about the objects of the Australia Council. Yet today this bill is being rushed through the parliament when so many questions remain unanswered and when there are so many issues which ought to have more sober and careful consideration than they are to receive under this process.

It is important to understand that these bills do not merely amend existing legislation; they are not merely an update of some out-of-date provision or two. They are not a tidying-up exercise. The intention of the government is to scrap the enabling legislation of the Australia Council—which has served the organisation for more than 40 years—and to replace it with legislation that seeks to change not only the structure of the Australia Council but its functions and its mission. As I have said, there is a lack of consensus about the way in which the government is proposing to proceed with that. The government's intention is to fundamentally change the way the Australia Council operates, right down to its very core. The legislation that has enabled the Australia Council to function for 40 glorious years, with bipartisan support, is now being scrapped and its replacement model is being rammed through at five minutes to midnight.

Everything about this legislation has been a rush job. The original legislation was presented to the parliament when there were just 12 sitting days of the Senate left. The inquiry into these bills by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee heard how much of a rush job they were. For example, the legislation appeared to forget entirely about Aboriginal and Indigenous art, and, inexplicably, tried to remove from the Australia Council's list of functions the protection and promotion of freedom of artistic freedom.

Minister Burke, who replaced the previous minister—Minister Burke being the Prime Minister's third choice as arts minister in her time as Prime Minister—eventually capitulated and amended the legislation to correct a number of crucial mistakes. I am glad that at least some advertence has been had to the chorus of criticism from stakeholders and others who care a great deal about the direction and purpose of the arts in this country. But the fact that those mistakes had to be made after the legislation was presented—not before, not as a result of interaction with stakeholders to understand what needed to be done to protect, foster and promote the arts in this country—is a great indictment of the minister and the government and underlines how important it is that these bills not be rushed through this place without proper consideration.

The government are treating the arts and the Australia Council as if they were their own personal plaything—when the very existence of the Australia Council today owes as much to Liberal prime ministers as it does to Labor prime ministers, if not more. Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt announced his intention to create such a body to the parliament in November 1967. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton followed through with the plan, and the agency first met in July 1968. These facts were brought to everyone's remembrance at the 40th anniversary of the Australia Council by its Chair, Rupert Myer.

The Australia Council has enjoyed the support of both Liberal and Labor governments for nearly half a century. The coalition's most recent arts minister, Senator Brandis, explained to the National Press Club the Howard government's record on the Australia Council, when he said in 2007:

… 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%.

The Australia Council today continues to administer and deliver the bulk of the Commonwealth government's investment in the arts in Australia. This includes, as reflected in its most recent annual report, around $164.5 million in grants and direct funding to the full range of Australian artistic practice—from our major performing arts companies, of which there are an enormous number, to around 170 regional and local arts organisations across Australia.

The organisations which the Australia Council has supported, large and small, traditional and cutting-edge, in every platform of the arts—traditional arts and innovative arts—have all been captured and nurtured by the Australia Council. From time to time we may have differences of view about the quality and the nature of the performances and product that is the result of that funding, but we have to agree that Australia has, as a result of that careful nurturing by the Australia Council, an enormously well-developed cultural scene with great, world-class quality output in every field of endeavour in the arts.

Organisations that have been supported by the Australia Council include the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Ballet, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bell Shakespeare Company, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Circus Oz, Company B, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Theatre Company, Musica Viva Australia, Orchestra Victoria, Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, Queensland Ballet, Queensland Theatre Company, State Opera of South Australia, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Western Australian Ballet Company, Western Australia Opera, Western Australian Symphony Orchestra—and the list goes on.

I doubt there is a person in this chamber who has not, at some point, experienced and appreciated the great quality of artistic output that those sorts of organisations, and many others over those 40 years, have been able to produce. As such, we owe it to those people who deliver that product to us, we owe it to the Australians who are the consumers of that product, to maintain the very best, the essence of the quality of that process from those last four decades, and to ensure that the Australia Council, as it goes forward, has the capacity to deliver continuing fine quality, apolitical and cutting-edge artistic output in this nation.

I mentioned that the government had chosen to make significant changes to the way in which the Australia Council works by changing its functions, the objects of the Council, in a way which was, frankly, mystifying to many of the stakeholders who gave evidence at the Senate committee inquiry. As I mentioned originally, even reference to Aboriginal and Indigenous art was removed from the objects of the legislation—in a way which the government, presumably, was unable to explain, because it has now reinserted, with amendments, those very provisions.

Most contentious, however, was a decision by the government to remove reference to important parts of the legislation dealing with excellence in the arts, particularly the promotion of freedom of artistic expression. That was a matter which a great many submitters to the inquiry, and witnesses before the inquiry, found very troubling. The implausibility of the reasons for doing this was a matter of great concern.

Freedom of expression in the arts is a hard-won and sometimes contentious concept. There have been many examples of things that we have seen with respect to artistic endeavours and outputs which trouble people, which cause them to question whether that freedom should exist. But there is no question that, as a nation, we need to ensure that that tradition continues and that artists in a variety of art forms are able to challenge us by virtue of what they create, because their ability to do that is a fundamental example of the freedom of expression which underpins Australian society.

I recall in the case of the ACT an extremely controversial sculpture which appeared during the National Sculpture Festival a number of years ago entitled 'Down by the lake with Liz and Phil'. This was a depiction of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sitting on a seat on the edge of the lake, but they were unclothed in this model. That tickles some people's fancy. It was a commentary of some sort on what the sculptor presumably thought about the role of the monarchy. I do not know what they thought about it. Somebody expressed their displeasure with the sculpture by ceremonially beheading one of the two figures. I was arts minister at the time and condemned that because, agree or not with what the artist was saying, he had a point to make, he wanted to express himself and he was entitled to do so, just as somebody might argue that we should not have a monarchy or we should not welcome the individuals who make up the monarchy in this country or whatever. They are as entitled to make those points in that way as anybody else. There have been other recent examples of controversy around freedom of expression in the arts, which remind us continually that these issues will be matters of public debate and contention and that we should always be free to express an opinion about these things but never fall into the trap of saying that the freedom to make those expressions within appropriate bounds should be curtailed or diminished.

Accordingly, I can foreshadow that Senator Brandis, as shadow minister for the arts, will be moving amendments to this bill later in this debate. Those amendments return closer to the set of functions of the Australia Council in the original legislation and owe more to that tradition than to the set of amendments the government has brought forward with these two bills. The objects that Senator Brandis's amendments refer to include 'to promote excellence in the arts, to provide and encourage the provision of and opportunities for persons to practise the arts and to foster the expression of a national identity by means of the arts'. I think we would all agree those things are fundamental. But it also very importantly inserts 'to uphold and promote the rights of persons to freedom in the practise of the arts'. I believe that we would be greatly diminished if we were not to have such an expression centrally in the objects of the Australia Council as part of the legislation that the Senate presumably will put through today, and I urge senators, therefore, to consider very carefully the amendments which Senator Brandis will be moving later in this debate.

There is a proper role for ministerial control over certain elements of the way in which the council works. That is a control which should be transparent and should be capable of proper scrutiny and which should reflect the fact that Australia in a democratic model elects governments to make certain decisions. The amendments that Senator Brandis will be moving with respect to ministerial directions reinforce that concept in a way which is not clear from the present legislation as submitted by the government. I urge senators to consider that very carefully. The amendments here are an attempt to make sure that this legislation provides the best possible vehicle for Australians to continue to enjoy a very high quality of arts products.

I conclude my remarks by saying that I am sure that in an important debate like this there would have been many senators wanting to contribute to the quality of a debate about the richness of the Australian artistic output, to reflect on the quality of our cultural life and to be able to talk about how a body like the Australia Council might make that stronger and better and face the future with more confidence, but it is a matter of real regret that, in the foreshortened time that we have to do this, that is not going to be possible. A debate which probably should occupy a whole day will be forced into a couple of hours, and that is extremely regrettable. That is a function of a government which is in disarray and which is quite prepared to sacrifice important values like debate about our cultural policy for the sake of rushing things through in the dying days of this parliament. That is a matter of regret, but it has to happen.