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Thursday, 16 May 2013
Page: 3459

Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (10:50): While there are some who choose to regard Gough Whitlam as the founding father of the Australia Council, it was in fact the creation of Liberal prime ministers John Gorton and Harold Holt.

Mr Garrett interjecting

Mr KEENAN: I am glad that the minister is listening closely to what I have to say. In his address to the 40th anniversary celebration of the Australia Council, its Chair, Rupert Myer, put the council's history in its proper context. This is a direct quote from his speech:

"In November 1967, then Prime Minister, Harold Holt, informed the House of Representatives that a new Commonwealth agency would be formed to fund the arts in Australia.

That new body, arms-length and administered by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with support from officials from other relevant government departments, and people from the arts, the law, the financial sector, and other areas of professional life, met for the first time under Prime Minister Gorton in July, 1968.

It assumed responsibility for theatre, arts and filmmaking and existed alongside the other agencies responsible for the arts—the ABC (symphony orchestras), the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board (Visual Arts), the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers.

Some of these had been in existence for most of the last century."

So let there be no doubt that the Australia Council has always enjoyed, as it continues to today, the support of both Labor and Liberal Governments over the past half century.

Senator George Brandis, the coalition's most recent arts minister, in 2007 addressed the National Press Club and detailed some aspects of the coalition's support during the Howard government years. He said:

... 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 when the coalition talks about our concern for the future of the Australia Council, these are concerns borne of a longstanding and committed history of support for the organisation.

And it is in keeping with that longstanding commitment to the Australia Council that today we remain concerned that these bills propose what can only be considered the most radical changes in over 40 years to the body that administers the bulk of Commonwealth grants and funding to Australian artists and arts organisations. According to their most recent report, the Australia Council administers around $164.5 million in Commonwealth grants and direct funding to artists and arts organisations across the nation. The Australia Council provides Commonwealth funding to everything from Australia's major performing arts companies, like the Australian Ballet, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to the wide range of community and regional arts organisations across Australia—around 170 of them in total. This bill and its associated bill seeks to introduce a radically different management structure, one which may not need actual artists and, for reasons that still remain unclear, makes changes to the list of legislated functions that the Australia Council performs. The coalition notes today that the minister, having publicly noted he did not favour amending these bills, has now capitulated and allowed for some amendments that acknowledge the government's more embarrassing oversights, like forgetting about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts practice.

The coalition does not oppose these amendments and it will not oppose these bills in this chamber. But that said, even with these amendments, the coalition remains concerned about what is contained within these radical changes. We also note that the government has not explained why it has waited until there were only 12 sitting days left in the Senate before introducing these bills. Nor has it explained why the review of the Australia Council was released in May 2012 and it has waited for nearly a year before introducing this legislation. Despite these failures on behalf of the government, we do not oppose these bills and these measures but we do remain concerned about the impact of these radical changes.