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PROFILER 10, 20 MAY 2015

Major art heist: the Brandis file

Keith Gallasch: 2015 Arts budget

George Brandis George Brandis
In a breathtakingly audacious, meticulously planned and utterly unanticipated 2015 Budget caper Attorney General and Minister for the Arts Senator George Brandis has plundered $104.7m of Australia Council funds to establish The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts in his own Ministry which, bizarrely, already includes an Australia Council committed to excellence. Now Brandis has two major funding bodies—one at arms-length and one close at hand, where artists will line up for a Brandis (recall the uproar over the Keatings).

What was Brandis’ motivation and how did he maintain secrecy? While fellow ministers loudly broadcast their intentions in the weeks leading up to the ‘fair go’ Budget day, this minister said nothing and went in hard with 2014 Budget gusto when the time came. Press reports say the Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski, with Brandis at the opening of the new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale on Budget eve, was kept in the dark about what turned out to be daylight robbery and had to break off a London visit to immediately return to the helm of a badly shaken, perhaps permanently damaged Council.

Of course, we should have seen it coming, even the manner of its execution. A mere dip into the Brandis file reveals ample motivation and similar heists in 2014, if on a much smaller scale, with secrecy their trademark. More on the Brandis mind later.

The loot

The money will considerably add to the extra $6m stash in Brandis’ Ministry for the Arts already nicked from Council, presumably at book-loving Prime Minister Abbott’s behest and committed to a yet-to-be explained The Book Council of Australia. Further funds were lifted from the Australia Council vault in the shape of the Major Festivals Initiative (nicely doubled to $1.5m) and Visions of Australia.

There’s more loot, if not for Brandis but certainly for the Government, in savings via a $28.2 million funding cut across four years and a $4.5m efficiency dividend owed to it from funds granted to the Council. The budget also removes $5.2 million in funding from the Australia Council, and gives it to Creative Partnerships Australia to foster private sector support for the arts.

Senator Brandis deludedly thinks that now there’s more money overall for the arts, claiming on budget night, “As a result of this program, more Australian arts practitioners and organisations will be able to pursue their creative endeavours.” But there’s no new money, only the same loot newly divvied up.

The sheer ease of the Brandis heist has been underwritten by the absence of any requirement that the money grab be properly tested in parliament; the millions have simply been taken from one place to another for spending at the minister’s own discretion—he denies that, but, it’s not at all convincing given his ‘previous'.

It’s the victim’s fault

Lightly grilled by Books and Arts’ Michael Cathcart on Radio National [19 May], Brandis kept his composure—terse, haughty and humourless as ever. The Australia Council’s crimes? “Having its favourites,” being widely perceived as “a closed shop” and as monopolising arts funding. Cathcart asked if having another funding body would make funding more competitive. Brandis thought so: “I can’t see for the life of me, in circumstances where there has been no reduction in the amount of money available, what is wrong with there being contestability so there are two funding streams.” It’s a novel advance on neoliberal principles, a ministry competing with itself as if in a free market, nurturing opportunities for duplication, double dipping, the clash of policies and aesthetics and the building of new bureaucratic machinery for the Ministry to manage applications and the millions seized from its own independent statutory funding body.

Small to medium arts: bystander or target?

If the Australia Council is the obvious victim of Brandis’ machinations, the many more who will suffer collateral damage in the revived culture wars are the artists of the small to medium sector. The 28 major arts companies, 65% of Council’s budget, are insulated from cuts; some of the majors, like Circus Oz and the MTC, have publicly stated that the effect on them will be deleterious as young talent goes un-nurtured.

Brandis’ claim that “This is a very good budget for the arts—there have been no significant reductions in arts funding at all” is, of course, nonsense, ignoring actual cuts and the consequences of depleting the Council. Will small to medium sector artists who have to be abandoned by the Council have a fair go at getting a Brandis? Unsuccesful Australia Council applicants can, says Brandis, turn to his program: “The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts is not a court of appeal from the Australia Council, but it is open to applicants who apply to the Australia Council and miss out.” But with any expectation of success?

The Brandis file reveals the Minister’s examplars of excellence and his distrust of individual artists (quite bizarre for a Liberal): “Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves” (“A voice for the audience not just artists,”The Weekend Australian, 21 June, 2014).

Brandis has also been openly hostile to the peer assessment fundamental (if much weakened over the decades) to the Australia Council’s ethical spending rationale. In 2013 he attempted and failed to have a clause inserted into the Australia Council Act to allow the minister to change funding decisions at his discretion.

Brandis may well dislike the Australia Council’s independence, but it appears that his hostility is mostly aimed at the small to medium arts sector which the council refuses to corrall, as in the case of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney when participating artists campaigned for the removal of the event’s sponsor, Transfield Holdings, holder of Transfield Services which has contracts with the Australian Government to operate the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. Brandis was furious with the artists’ conscientious objections, their “blackballing” of commercial sponsorship and formally demanded that the Australia Council, as Peter Tregear put it, “develop a policy to deal with (that is, one assumes, threaten the funding of) any Australia Council-funded body that refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors, or terminates a current funding agreement" (“The art of being wrong—Brandis is wrong about the Biennale,”The Conversation, 14 March, 2014).

Clearly Brandis’ morality has no room for individual conscience when it gets in the way of corporate benevolence. How then do we account for this declaration: ‘The arts should never be the captive of the political agenda of the day: the freedom of the artist to develop his or her creativity wherever it may take them must always be protected and defended,” George Brandis ( “The Coalition’s vision for the arts,” ArtsHub, 20 Aug, 2013).

‘Freedom’ is frighteningly flexible in the Brandis scheme of things: his desire to delete Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act would allow us the freedom to be bigots in the street as well as in the privacy of our homes—at the expense of our victims’ freedom. Artists must be free of ideological agendas but not economic imperatives.

The wound

Brandis has palpably wounded the Australia Council at a critical moment when its new Creative Australia plan (fulsomely praised by the Minister in another deftly deceptive move, at the Sydney Opera House launch in November last year when he doubtless knew his intentions) is becoming operational. The many who submitted Expressions of Interest in March this year for the six-year grants (replacing the former triennials) and expected to hear outcomes by the end of May received an email from Tony Grybowski last week announcing a delay while Council accommodated the budget. Clearly, knives will be taken to new short lists, the Council forced to kill off some of its “favourites.”

I only took 20%, your honour

As if to make artists feel better and his actions less heinous, Brandis argued that he took only 20% of Australia Council funding for his Ministry. He denied to Michael Cathcart that his action was the first step in deconstructing the Australia Council—with 80% of its funding intact it would still be the major arts funder in the country (surely for a long time now the States and Local Government). (Figures vary wildly in different accounts, running as high as 88% for Australia Council retention of funds, but the cut is still damaging.)

Loot, largesse & memory

If the Minister can’t keep his hands out of the Australia Council till, can he be trusted to fairly distribute his largesse? What happens to the arms-length and peer assessment principles that have long kept the Minister and Ministry at a tolerably safe distance from Australia Council policy-making and funding decisions? Brandis has declared that, as per Touring Australia and Visions Australia grant assessment in the past, he will have advisory panels—but who will appoint them, who make the decisions and be held responsible for them?

Brandis told Cathcart there had never been complaints about the funding results coming from Touring Australia and Visions Australia when they were part of the Ministry for the Arts. Let’s refresh his presumably fading memory—he was in parliament at the time, even briefly Minister for the Arts and Sport before the demise of the Howard Government.

In his 2005 Phillip Parsons Lecture, Theatre Under Howard, David Marr refers to widely publicised incidents in arts funding in the Howard years. Playing Australia refused to fund Ros Horin’s Through the Wire, a production about relationships between detained refugees and their Australian sympathisers: “What appears to have happened at the meeting of Playing Australia [in 2004] was this: despite the show having a very high score on application, the minister's representative persuaded the committee not to recommend it for funding—on the basis that it was not yet a fully fledged production. Other shows were rejected at the same meeting on the same, unexpected ground…In the industry there's little doubt that Canberra was simply not going to back a politically unpalatable show. Through the Wire was rescued by the NSW Ministry for the Arts which funded eight weeks of what was to have been an 18-week tour. Private backers took it to Melbourne.”

Marr continues, “Another new rule was cited by Playing Australia as a reason for not funding a tour of version 1.0's new work about the Iraq War, The Wages of Spin. It had a season at Sydney's Performance Space in May…and the Theatre Board of the Australia Council pledged $90,000 Mobile States funding towards a five-city tour of little venues. It was rejected by Playing Australia for being too capital city focussed.”

Although it can’t be proven that there was outright censorship, these incidents have to be seen in the context of direct criticism by the Government of the funding of certain projects at the time. When the Australia Council New Media Arts Board funded the video game Escape from Woomera (the remote site was then a refugee detention camp), Marr reports that Arts Minister Rod Kemp and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock criticised the Council, Ruddock saying, "The decision reflects poorly upon the Australia Council and its judgement, that the organisation should lend its name to the promotion of unlawful behaviour." Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers, produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, was inspired by tensions in the Tim and Peter Costello relationship around the plight of refugees. It raised the ire of Kemp and many Liberals such that there was pressure to shut down the Australia Council, writes Marr.

Breaking arms-length, discreetly

Brandis’ own discretionary spending to date has included $1m in 2014 for the Australian Ballet School to complete its purchase of the $4.7m Queen Ann Mansion as a residency for the company’s trainee dancers. “On the board of the Australian Ballet School is Daniele Kemp, the high-profile wife of former Liberal arts minister Rod Kemp, a predecessor of George Brandis as arts minister. Mr Kemp is now the chairman of the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing lobby group” (Mark Hawthorne and Bhakthi Puvanenthiran, “Budget help for ballet Australian Ballet School's new $4.7m mansion", Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2014).

As Ben Eltham reported in ArtsHub (18 Sept, 2014), Senator Brandis provided a direct grant to Melba Recordings for $275,000 in April 2014 “without peer review and outside of normal funding application scrutiny” and with no formal public announcement or appearance in budget papers. The allocation was found on an Attorney-General’s Department spreadsheet, writes Eltham. Melba Recordings received $7m in the Howard and then Rudd-Gillard years until dumped by Labor, only to be ‘saved’ from its parlous financial state by Brandis (for figures see Eltham above and Brian Benjamin, “Melba returns for another performance,” ArtsHub, 22 Sept, 2014).

Whose excellence? Which artists?

George Brandis has stated that the Coalition’s arts policy is the celebration of excellence and the rejection of charges of elitism. His favourites are the likes of Australian Ballet, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Opera Australia. As David Marr explained in his Philip Parsons Lecture, “To understand what's happened under Howard to the arts in general and theatre in particular—the odd mix of generosity and meanness, celebration and indifference, abuse and support—it's best to keep in mind the lessons learnt in the kafuffle over the [symphony] orchestras: that the bedrock arts policy of the Howard Government is not support for the arts—it's support for arts institutions. Big, traditional institutions.” With Brandis in charge, doubtless they’ll become bigger at the expense of artists everywhere, including those who would have once been destined to work in those very companies.

Charges, judgment

In Senator George Brandis we have an Arts Minister hostile to the Australia Council, to peer assessment, to individual artists and their consciences. Clearly he favours his own taste, ministerial discretionary spending, intervention in assessment decisions and a Neoliberal predilection for seeing the world and art through a financial prism. For decades, national arts funding has operated successfully for the most part (and with regular restructurings) via the Australia Council with bipartisan support. Now we have the first major assault on the council, not just financially, but ideologically, one that allows a minister like none before to take the first step in reining in the Australia Council or extinguishing it and increasing his own power.

Given the minister’s capacity for secrecy and his record of indiscreet discretionary spending, he is not to be trusted. If he has not been transparent to date, how can we believe his “Programme” will be? Any limited faith we had in George Brandis, when he appeared so glowingly supportive of the Australia Council at its Creative Australia launch in 2014, has entirely dissipated. He must turn himself in (resign) and return the loot.

As democratic institutions carefully built over hundreds of years are being eroded and destroyed, we cannot support a minister, let alone a government that preaches freedom and simultaneously stands against it. Brandis’ money and power grab is a crime against the Australia Council, against artists and, above all, democracy.

Join the #Free the Arts protest and sign the Australians for Artistic Freedom petition.


#Free the arts: national call for action
Facebook event
Protest dance


Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Australian Unions


Wesley Enoch, A Letter from Wesley Enoch, A letter to the Australian Arts Minister, Currency House, 17 May

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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