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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2843

Senator MICHAEL BAUME(10.31) —I want to complain very strongly about the contemptuous way in which officers of the Australia Council and, in particular, its Literature Board responded to questions asked in the Senate Estimates committee hearings and their determined refusal to provide information which should be made available to honourable senators. In particular, I refer to a series of questions I asked about the subsidy of magazines through the Literature Board. I wish to press this point with the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) because there is not much merit in providing facilities to honourable senators to pursue matters such as this at the Senate Estimates committee hearings if there is no genuine attempt to respond to questions by officers who have a duty to keep this chamber properly informed, particularly when it involves the spending of large amounts of public money. During the Estimates committee hearings I asked questions relating to the magazines program of the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

Senator Grimes —Do you have the page there?

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —In the Senate Estimates Committee D Hansard the questions start on the bottom right hand corner of page 615. In the additional information to Estimates Committee D the response is on page 23 of the section relating to the Australia Council, about three-quarters of the way through the book. It is page 261 of that book. I asked what were the grants per issue of each magazine and the reasons for variations per issue. The response on page 24 gives the amounts but not the reasons for the variations between the grants per issue. Some magazines work out to about $6,000 per issue, such as Meanjin. Scripsi works out at $6,000 per issue, Southerly at $5,000 and so on. Quadrant works out at about $2,500 per issue. I asked what was the reason for the variation. That section of the question was treated with contempt. There was no response. I would like one. The information that was given to me was public information, known and readily available. I asked:

Does the Literature Board subsidise the `Australian Book Review' and if so, by what method and what is the per issue amount?

I was intrigued to find out that it is subsidised but it is not on the list provided because it is claimed that it is published from the promotional budget and has been given a subsidy of $40,000 to produce 11 issues. I do not take issue with the fact that that is the chosen way of providing the money. All I say is that it would be nice if we were provided with that information without having to go through the back door to press for it. I simply ask: Why on earth is this regarded as something different, as a promotional matter for Australian books, when, as I understand it, the major function of many of the other magazines is to promote Australian writers and books? Be that as it may, I do not want to press the matter.

I go to the next question. I asked: What is the Literature Board's policy on subsidising magazines? That was roughly the way my question was interpreted. I must say that this is a matter of grave concern to me. I mentioned that Stephen Murray-Smith, the editor of Overland, had claimed that the Literature Board judges each magazine separately without regard to any uniform principles. I asked: Is this so? Reading the responses I found it very difficult to see any coherent answer to what I was asking. As honourable senators will see, on page 262 of the additional information the Board replied by saying that it had redefined its subsidy program for literary magazines and henceforth the magazine grant would be an annual grant. That is not the criterion I was seeking. The Board said it will not be subsidising magazines of regional interest and subscriptions of under 500. That is great. That is a statement. The Board continued:

The major grant recipients with the exception of two magazines; Australian Drama Studies and Australian Literary Studies, will be required to pay 30 per cent of each subsidy in payment to literary contributors (poetry, fiction and literary articles and reviews).

That is okay. But I am still waiting to find out what are the criteria on which the money is spent. We have found out one criterion on which it will not be spent but, quite frankly, that is a grossly inadequate response. We are entitled to something better than that. I also asked:

How does the Literature Board consider applications . . .

I guess the response I received was reasonable. It was that the Board sits down and considers them. But it did not say on what basis it considers them, which goes, once again, to the question of criteria. I then asked:

What are the print runs and stated circulation of all magazines in receipt of grants from the Literature Board?

Professor Yerbury, at the time of the Estimates committee hearing, said:

We can certainly give you the print run and their stated circulation.

The reply I received-it is on page 263 of the additional information-is to the contrary. It states:

In the past a number of magazines have objected to Council providing this information. Officers of Council are writing to the editors of all magazines to obtain permission to provide this information to the Senate Estimates Committee on a confidential basis.

I say that is absolute bunkum. It is disgraceful that the Australia Council should pretend that people who receive public money should not tell the public who provide it what the circulation of their magazines is. To pretend that some commercial disadvantage may be suffered is incredible.

Senator Brownhill —Most people usually skite about it.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —Some magazines may be using phoney circulation figures to try to drum up some advertising; I do not know. What I do know is that if public money is being spent it is incredible that the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment-obviously, the Government is not concerned; it has not taken any steps to require any action-is quite happy to say: `Oh well, if the recipients do not like it we will not tell you what the circulation of their magazines is'. What incredible nonsense! It should be a condition of the grant that this information be made public. I hope that the Minister, who I know is very sensible in the spending of public money, will assist me in my endeavours to get some facts that the public deserves to have. We are now into November and this question, of course, was asked back in September. The Australia Council said it would write and find out those organisations that might allow this information to be revealed. I am not terribly surprised that we have no answer yet. Frankly, I do not expect one because that is the traditional treatment that this Senate gets from these people. I find it totally unsatisfactory. I then asked:

Are magazines subsidised other than through the magazines program eg. by funding an editor.

I am assured that the Literature Board does not fund editors. I have not the evidence in front of me and I have not had time yet to go through in detail the Australia Council's annual report, but I had been under the impression that, one way or another, some editors had in fact been funded for specific purposes through the Australia Council. I suppose I will just have to go through the list and check up on that answer. The reason I will have to do that is that, frankly, I have no confidence that my questions will be properly answered. My next question was:

What is the ratio of subsidy to total cost for all magazines supported and what is their total production costs, gross and net?

That seemed to me to be a reasonable question because it may well be that we are, in some instances, almost entirely supporting some magazines and providing only top-up funding in others. I am staggered to note that there is simply no response. The Australia Council does not say: `We will not give an answer'. The replies end at question (f) and this question was question (g). I do not mind too much if we have at least an attempt at an intelligent response to a question, but I resist violently the suggested right of a department to ignore totally, with contempt, questions asked by a senator. I would hope that these people can do a little better than this.

I must say in general that I am very unhappy about some of the funding that is going on in this area. There does appear to be some criterion being applied to funding of magazines, which I do not understand, which is not evident from the table printed at page 262 and which does not stand up and bark at one. I mean to say, is success and the printing of large numbers of issues per year a criterion which prompts the diminishing of the per issue grant by the Australia Council, or does it relate to quality or to politics? What on earth does it relate to? I have no idea, but I think the Australian public who finance these magazines deserve a far more honest, a far more accurate and a far fuller response than we have received. I repeat: I object to the contemptuous manner in which the Australia Council has responded to these questions.