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Thursday, 16 May 2013
Page: 3462

Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (11:05): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak today on the Australia Council Bill 2013. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge some of the country's amazing people committed to the administration of the arts and to its promotion in Australia. I have met a number of them and they are truly extraordinary people. They work not just for money but because they are truly committed to artistic endeavour in this country. I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the outstanding talents of artists in Australia and the contribution they make to the quality of life, providing a great deal of enjoyment to all of us.

But mostly I would like to raise some concerns in relation to the bill which were brought to my attention during a recent meeting with Andy Farrant, who is the former chief executive officer of Country Arts Western Australia and Regional Arts Australia. Andy held those positions during the Howard government and did an outstanding job in that field, taking arts to the broader community. Indeed, I think the community was well served under the Howard government policy and by the then minister, Rod Kemp, who served with distinction and gave great support to the arts community.

Mr Farrant has explained that many in the arts community, not just himself, are concerned about the wording of functions of the Australia Council in this bill which fails to enshrine the four fundamental principles of community participation, arts that reflect the diversity of Australia, upholding and promoting freedom of expression, and the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

The bill changes the intent of the Australia Council and it does seem to abandon some of the core principles on which successive Australian governments have built their vision for an Australian culture. In fact, there seem to be a number of inconsistencies in this bill with other important policy and legislative instruments that have come before this parliament. For example, there is an inconsistency between the principles contained in the national cultural policy, Creative Australia, and the Australia Council Bill. There is also an inconsistency between the stated functions of the Australia Council in this bill and the Australian Sports Commission Act, and between this bill and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I want to revisit a little of the history, because I think it is instructive. The Australia Council is Australia's primary funding body for the arts, focusing on the highest levels of artistic endeavour. After its creation in 1968 as a division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, it was established in 1973 as a separate agency operating at arm's length from government. It was Dr HC Coombs who described the conditions in the sector that led to the Council's conception and ultimate creation. He said that at that time:

In the performing arts professional companies, with one or two exceptions, were small, precariously financed and inexperienced. Even among the handful of large companies, none was more than two decades old.

…while in literature, visual arts and the crafts many creative individuals were forced to compromise their standards in order to survive. The Aboriginal arts, except where they struggle to survive underground, were largely depreciated or ignored.

The separation from political influence was seen as critical, particularly as controversy engulfed the arts after the 1973 purchase—who can forget it?—by the National Gallery of Australia of Jackson Pollock's abstract Blue Poles for $1.3 million. I frequently go down to the gallery here when I have an opportunity and I often sit and ponder that particular work. I think most Australians today have great affection for the work, and of course it is probably one of the most valuable assets of the National Gallery today. That is what really set the cat amongst the pigeons. Despite the criticism of the artwork purchase at the time, in the public and the political sphere, that work has become one of the most prized possessions in the gallery's collection.

To ensure that the vision of Nugget Coombs was preserved, and that there was no political interference into what the arts should be, the Australia Council Act was passed in 1975 with legislation explicitly setting out what the council's role, responsibilities and areas of concern were to be. This effectively quarantined arts funding in Australia from arbitrary executive influence. It allowed Australian culture to develop as explored through the arts and provided a means through which Australian artists could remain in Australia. In bringing the legislation to parliament, then Prime Minister Whitlam noted that the council would foster and support excellence in Australian artistic practice to 'ensure that our greatest artists remain in Australia, and that the whole Australian community is the richer for their presence.'

After 40 years it has broadened its focus from traditional art forms to a broad agenda supporting artists and organisations from the singular artist to major performing arts companies. In 2010-11 the council delivered grants and project-funding of nearly $164 million in the form of almost 1,900 separate grants, enabled the creation of over 7,500 new artistic works and provided direct funding to over 900 artists and 1,000 organisations. It now offers funding across 50 separate grant categories and 40 initiatives.

In August 2011 the then Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Simon Crean, launched the 'National cultural policy' discussion paper, and a review of the Australia Council was conducted as a review had not occurred for more than 20 years and the artistic landscape has changed dramatically. Despite the concern over the change in the artistic landscape, the first key conclusion of the review of the Australia Council, released in May 2012, found that Nugget Coombs' original vision of the Australia Council, namely:

to ensure the best is encouraged, and those who produce it are given the greatest opportunity to achieve the highest quality of which they are capable—

remains relevant today. The review also supported continuing to keep the Australia Council at arm's length from government, but did note that the multifaceted purposes of the current act required clarification.

As a result of that review, the government decided to repeal the original act and substitute it with this bill we are debating the House today, but a number of previous functions of the Australia Council have been removed from the list contained within the current bill with no apparent rationale. For instance, the bill removes the function specified in the current act that the Australia Council promote the general application of the arts in the community. I think this is incredibly important. The removal is inconsistent, as I said before, with the national cultural policy with which the Council's functions are interwoven and which states the need to ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to be involved with the arts as creators and as audiences. Unfortunately, all too often people in our rural and more remote areas do tend to miss out.

Instead, the bill outlines that the role of the council should be to support and promote the development of markets and audiences for the arts. This is a clear shift from community engagement and citizens as creators to a monetised approach, inconsistent with the vision of ensuring the best is encouraged, not just that which sells the most for now.

The bill also removes the current function that the Australia Council foster the expression of national identity by means of the arts meaning that the Australia Council will not have a legislative basis for supporting Australian arts and culture. The bill only outlines a fostering of excellence in Australian arts practice and the support of a diverse range of activities. Whilst excellence has always been the foundation for Australia Council, it exists also to promote an Australian identity and culture.

The review of the Australia Council explicitly notes that before the creation of the council Australia still looked heavily toward the UK in terms of our identity generally and artistically. That was the specific reason for including supporting Australian arts and culture in the current act. Now contemporary culture has moved away from the UK and is more heavily influenced perhaps by the United States, so, even though the dominant cultural influences change, the same rationale still applies. Support is still necessary for Australian arts and culture, and the Australia Council's efforts should be focused in that direction, continuing to uphold the foundation principles of the Australia Council.

A related issue is that nowhere in this bill is there reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture; unfortunately, there is also no reference under the current bill as well. That is despite the fact that Nugget Coombs specifically mentions Aboriginal art as a founding reason for the council, as I outlined earlier.

Creative Australia, the national cultural policy, has as its first goal the recognition, respect and celebration of the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Therefore, it is only logical that a similar statement should be found within the Australia Council Act, as it will be the body that breathes life into the projects that will see the cultural policy become a reality. The fact that these critical issues are missing or have been deleted in this current bill was the subject of much debate during the inquiry held into this bill by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. I would commend a read of that by anyone interested in the future of the arts in Australia.

Rodney Hall, the former Chairman of the Australia Council, said: 'What is it about the existing Australia Council functions that warrants deletion? It seems to me that all of them are very worthy aims.' Emeritus Professor David Williams said, 'It does seem that some of the very best of the 1975 Act has gone by the book', and a similar view was put by Ms Tamara Winikoff, representing the National Association for the Visual Arts, who also preferred the existing functions with some modest updating. Mr Rowan Ross, representing the Australia Major Performing Arts Group, told the committee that he was unaware of the reasons why the existing functions had been changed; and Ms Gabrielle Trainor, who co-chaired the review which gave rise to the legislation, told the committee that the review had not specifically recommended the removal or re-drafting of any particular functions. Why then is it that provisions that have served Australia for well over 40 years have been changed? If we are to update them, such changes should be modest, Ms Tamara Winikoff notes, and include a focus on Indigenous arts and culture rather than a dramatic re-drafting.

It would seem that too much focus has been placed on the review's comments that the cultural sector has become a true economic force, contributing over $30 billion towards GDP per annum, exceeding the contribution of the agriculture, forestry& fishing industries. Instead, the aims of this bill should conform to the second half accompanying that statement, that:

…there are wider benefits that are not as easily quantified or identified. These benefits are seen in non-arts areas of our economy such as education, social cohesion, national imagination and health.

The original principles of the Australia Council should be upheld, and in my view these must be enshrined in legislation. To suggest that these issues could be dealt with in regulation is to put them under the control of the executive government of the day. The whole purpose of establishing the council under its own act was to ensure that it acted at arm's length from government—a view that was upheld by the review. Retaining the original aims of the Australia Council is critical to ensuring that Australian arts and culture have a strong foundation into the future and that we give the best support possible to Australian arts and culture in this country.