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Thursday, 25 November 1993
Page: 3618

Senator McMULLAN (Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services) (10.34 a.m.) —Mr President, to be charitable, I take at face value that Senator Patterson wants this information for the reasons she says, in which case she is setting a dangerous precedent, by mistake rather than deliberately. Let us be charitable and say that, because I have no reason to suggest otherwise. First of all, I welcome the fact that Senator Bourne has given her support to these fellowships because I regard—

Senator Patterson —So have I.

Senator McMULLAN —I welcome that; I was not clear until the honourable senator made that interjection. I welcome it because this process is undermining the credibility of those grants. We have had people coming in here to try to dramatise their point by saying, `Shock, horror, this person has got, in the first grant, $180,000 over four years and, in the second grant, $325,000 over five years'. That is why I made the point yesterday that one can dramatise, inflate and give a shock-horror impression about these figures. I made the point, which some people did not like, that it is significantly less than, for example, everybody here gets paid. I am trying to make the point that what we are saying is that these are fellowships that give some proper recognition to outstanding Australian artists who have made an enormous contribution, and enable them to make a subsequent and continuing contribution.

  I welcome and strongly support the initiative that the then Treasurer, now Prime Minister (Mr Keating), took in initiating it. It is no secret that he took the initiative. Everybody calls them, in the vernacular, `the Keatings'. Maybe the Prime Minister wishes they would not call them that, because they are supposed to be the Australian Artists' Creative Fellowships and I assume, in time, they will take their proper name. But there has never been a secret that he took a very strong proprietorial interest in this proposal, that he regards it as important. I do, but I do not claim any credit for initiating it. I was merely a supporter. The Prime Minister initiated it when he was the Treasurer. Why should we be surprised that he took a bit of interest in how it works and made sure that it worked well? I have to say to honourable senators that, when the extra people were appointed on this occasion, they will not find tonnes of documents. I did not write out to 100 people calling for nominations. I talked to a few people; formed a view about the balance of the committee and what areas of art form were needed; and made decisions and recommendations which were approved in the proper and normal process. So inadvertently, at best, we are putting in some jeopardy community support for these important fellowships. That was the first thing I wanted to say.

  The second thing is that, in the debate about the original motion and now, we are creating the potential that the Senate is going to try to reassess the way in which these grants are made. Think about that, because what we are talking about is the same process that applies to every Australia Council grant. There are many controversial ones through this arms-length peer review process. I suppose that, if I were making the grants, there are some I would not make. But I do not have the capacity as minister to say, `I do not like that. Change that decision'. I do have the capacity to ensure, and the Senate is entitled to ensure, that the process was proper. But the arms-length principle is in jeopardy when the legislature says, `We want to take to ourselves the capacity to assess whether this committee should have made this grant to this person'. When people ask if all the people were treated fairly, what they are saying is, `Should it instead have gone to somebody else?'. That is the necessary implication, and it is very serious—more serious than we are, to date, giving consideration to.

  I am very worried about the precedent we are setting here and I have to give some consideration to how I will react if the Senate carries this motion. But that is a problem for later today. What I am arguing now is whether or not we should carry the motion, and I am very strongly of the view that we should not. If we were going to put in jeopardy this great principle about arms-length and peer review—to which members of the opposition recently committed themselves, and I greatly welcome the fact; I am glad they did; but I am not sure if they understand what it means—there has got to be a pretty powerful reason.

  What is the evidence that we need some extra information about Mr Tozer's application? The only thing that has been said—and it seems to blur—is that we will need to know whether some part of the reason he got the money related to the music centre. To the extent honourable senators need to know that is relevant, it is documented in what is already tabled, where it says:

A centre of music excellence is a long-term aim.

But above that, it makes quite clear the reasons for the grant in the following words:

to expand the musical horizons of the Australian community through additional recordings, the performance of works by lesser known composers and providing material for radio broadcasts.

In other words, it would enable musical activity to be undertaken that commercially could not be undertaken, because nobody could make a living by performing that music. But it was considered culturally important that he had the opportunity to do so.

  Whether that is a better cultural reason than the reason that would have applied to the person who came eighth and missed out, I do not know. I think Geoffrey Tozer is an outstanding pianist, but I am sure some of the other applicants who did not succeed were outstanding, too. What I am saying is that we should not be inquiring. If we are going to have an arms-length process and say, `Politicians are not going to put their arm into this process—

Senator Patterson —No, the government.

Senator McMULLAN —The honourable senator thinks it is all right for the opposition to put its arm in, but not the government. What I am saying is that the arms-length peer review process does not mean that the government cannot do it but the opposition can. The parliament should not. It is no better and probably significantly worse—but certainly no better—for the arms-length peer review process to be conducted by a parliamentary committee. I think we should make it very clear to the arts community that that is what is envisaged here—that we are now going to have a parliamentary process for deciding the relative merits of who should have got an arts grant. That is very dangerous. I do not dispute—

Senator Patterson —So you could never question it?

Senator McMULLAN —We should not question the artistic judgments as to whether this was the right thing. Of course, the honourable senator is entitled to ask, `Was there corruption?', but she has not just stuck to the process. She does not understand. I regret to say that she does not understand the implications of what she is doing. I am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt that she does not understand and to say that, if she did understand, she would not do it.

  It is a source of serious concern, and will be to the whole of the Australian arts community when they understand it, that every time the Australia Council makes grants and people are concerned about it, we are opening the possibility for the parliament to go in and look at the relative merits, under the guise of process. Did anybody on the committee know the secretary of the Turkish theatrical society that got a grant? At the end of the day we will find out that they did not, but we will have had a day investigating whether that society should have got the grant.

  I often have to debate in public with media people the nature of grants made by the Australia Council. I have open to me always the option of saying, `I did not make it, it was at arms-length', but I am happy to go in to bat for these grants, even ones that I myself would not have made, to try to put the case for why we have to be tolerant and have diversity and recognise the right of the arts to be controversial and to do things with which even ministers for the arts are uncomfortable. I am happy to argue that. But how is it going to continue if the people making the decisions know that those decisions are going to come here, under the guise of review of process, and they are going to be attacked about that, and that the names and addresses—I accept that those opposite are trying to protect the addresses; I will come to addresses in a moment—of the people who made the committee are going to become the subject of debate? The names of people on those committees who made this decision are already public; they are not secret and were tabled in the parliament yesterday. So I am not quite sure why we are being asked to do it again. But their names are going to become the subject of debate and they are going to have to write letters to the Age defending themselves, saying, `I acted properly and how dare you imply that I did not', as John Bryson did yesterday, or write to senators complaining about how their reputation has been impugned, as one of the others did yesterday.

  We do these things easily here and do not consider what it means to the people about whom we are doing it—what this means to Geoffrey Tozer, to Ross Gengos, to John Bryson, and to the other outstanding Australians on that committee. I am sure they are not ashamed of having their names on it, but there are question marks over this process. And then those opposite say, `We are not casting any aspersions on the people'. How can they say that the Prime Minister had undue influence on the decision but that the decision makers did not do anything wrong, when their brief is to act at arms-length? Either they are saying that they did something wrong or they might have done something wrong—or why are those opposite asking?

Senator Patterson —It is the process.

Senator McMULLAN —But the honourable senator's implication is that the Prime Minister had undue influence or that there was something else wrong. There cannot be something wrong with the process if every individual within it behaved properly. Those opposite cannot say, `These citizens, these distinguished Australian artists, all behaved with propriety and in accordance with the arms-length peer review process', because, if they acted properly in terms of arms-length and peer review, those imputations that those opposite are making cannot be true. They can be true only if they did not act in accordance with arms-length and peer review. That is why they are offended and that is what those opposite do not understand, and it is why we should not proceed any further down this track.

  I now want to go to the detail of the information. I will reiterate it only briefly because I said it in substance in my comments about why we should not suspend standing orders in the first place. I accept that people say that suspending standing orders to debate the motion is legitimate. I wish it were otherwise, but I understand that. However, it is different from actually carrying the motion. What possible public policy concern is served by making available the addresses of these people? Nobody has said that there is anything we are chasing about this. Were all these people shacked up together? Is that what we are trying to say? It is absurd. They are all on the electoral roll, if we need to know. I do not understand this. Why are we having a debate here about where Betty Churchill is? It seems bizarre. Why are we doing it? Not one reason has been put forward.

  We are chasing four documents. In regard to the first one, all the relevant information has been tabled, that is: why did he seek this money, why was he granted this money and did it relate to this music centre? To the extent that there is any information that is of proper public purpose—and I accept that the reason why he got the money is a proper public purpose for the Senate to know about—it is on the table. We have said that. The official reason and the form of the letter that went with it are on the public record. Nobody has said what extra information is being sought. That extra information is not denied.

  The second document we are seeking does not exist. The honourable senator is welcome to ask for it if she wishes. I will write back to her and say that it does not exist. If she wants to carry paragraph (ii), I do not mind. I do not know why she wants to do it, but if she wants to carry it, I cannot pretend that there is any offence in that. The third thing sought is all documents pertaining to the appointment. To the best of my knowledge, they have all been tabled. Certainly to the extent that there is any imputation of wrongdoing—I think there is none—to the extent that the honourable senator wants to make that point, that which she alleges is on the record. I do not understand why she is excited about it, but if she is, she already knows it. As for paragraph (iv), the names are public, and asking for the addresses is ridiculous. So I say to Senator Patterson: having reaffirmed her right to do this, please do not do it.