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Issue #1699      August 26, 2015

Government attempts to muzzle the arts

Last year the government cut arts funding by $28 million, as part of a four-year $100 million funding reduction, and three months ago it transferred $105 million that had been allocated to the Australia Council to a proposed new National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA).

The Australian Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas spectacular, The Nutcracker.
The Australian Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas spectacular, The Nutcracker.

As a result, in the next financial year the Australia Council will only be able to provide 40 percent of last year’s funding resources. However, the government’s move on arts funding seeks not just to cut costs, but also to exert political control over the arts.

The Arts Council funding policy involves a peer-reviewed and independent selection process that’s intended to ensure arts activities do not simply become the political plaything of the government in office.

But that’s exactly what’s happening now. Under the new arrangements, NPEA will be controlled by the Arts Ministry. Grant application assessors will be selected by the Ministry, and some may be ministerial staff members.

Conflict of interest guidelines will relate only to applicants, not to assessors. Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis will have the final approval on applications, which will be granted in secret and only disclosed after the event, as a fait accompli.

Last week Brandis admitted candidly that the government was determined to exert control over the arts. He sneered: “the only people who have anything to fear from this program, frankly, are the mediocre because they’re not going to be beneficiaries of it.”

The small and medium sized organisations and the individual performers, who will suffer the cuts, are being treated as “the mediocre”. In contrast, the 28 major performing arts companies, including Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, state orchestras and state theatre companies, are quarantined from the latest funding transfer, as they were from last year’s arts funding cuts.

They will also receive extra NPEA funding. In short, funds are to be taken from the smaller companies and individuals and given to the major companies.

The discrimination is significant. Performances by the smaller organisations and individuals, including the radical theatres and satirical one-man comedy shows, are far more likely to contain material critical of the government.

Moreover, by quarantining the larger organisations, the government is attempting to cripple protests by splitting the arts community into opposing factions.

Patchwork protests

The Greens and Labor have instigated a Senate inquiry into the impact of the arts funding policy. The first hearing was in Melbourne on August 12, and two others are due next month.

The umbrella organisation the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) has made a detailed submission to the inquiry. It welcomes certain aspects of the NPEA, but it also calls for an increase in grants for the minor companies and direct funding rather than the transfer of funds from the Australia Council.

According to the National Association for the Visual Arts, there have been more than 2,260 submissions to the inquiry. Circus Oz wrote that the new policy would “deeply destabilise small-to-medium artists” and could threaten their professional survival.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia, the Queensland Theatre Company and Circus Oz have also made individual submissions, but most of the major companies have not.

Some major companies have expressed public opposition to the new policy.

Rob Brookman, chief executive of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, recently declared: “We have already seen the death of regional theatre, the death of community theatre, the steady stripping out of second-tier companies and youth theatre. Further incursions into the small to medium theatre sector will seriously threaten the future health of our art form in toto.”

In an open letter to Brandis the artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company wrote that the new policy “could jeopardise the ability to sustain an already strained cultural ecology”.

And last week at the Helpmann Awards for the performing arts, Andrew Kay, president of umbrella organisation Live Performance Australia, voiced criticism of the government’s policy and defended the small to medium companies.

Nevertheless, the number of public statements of protest by the major companies has been very small. Brandis recently crowed triumphantly: “I haven’t had a single word of criticism about this proposal from any of [the major performing arts] companies”.

Writing in The Saturday Paper last week , journalist Steve Dow noted that few of the 28 major companies were prepared to express forthright criticism of the new arts policy, and many refused to be interviewed.

Speaking at the National Play Festival three weeks ago, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith commented acidly: “Those vocal champions of art … including those who have always prided themselves on their iconoclasm, are silent in their offices, biting their nails. … ultimately, they are afraid of getting on the wrong side of the minister.”

The Abbott government sees the arts as a potential source of opposition that must be rigidly controlled. But it is likely to back down if it meets united and determined opposition.

Moreover, the Liberals themselves are divided on the issue, because the Australia Council was actually established by the Holt coalition government in 1967. At the Helpmann Awards the NSW Deputy Premier and Arts Minister Troy Grant expressed his pleasure at attending the event, but added with sharply-pointed humour; “I’m more pleased that I’m here as part of a government that didn’t cut arts funding”.

The arts community is counting on the possibility of the government drawing back from the cuts because of massed public opposition.

But the public will only act if the arts community sets an example by presenting a united front – and that requires the major companies to openly condemn the discrimination against the smaller performers. Submissions to the Senate inquiry are important, but they are not enough.

If the major companies fail to publicly denounce the government’s action and engage in a campaign of public opposition, the entire arts community will find itself trapped in political subservience to the government, with many or most of the minor organisations wiped out.

And such an outcome is unthinkable.

Next article – Long established liberties under threat

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