Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Australia Council Bill 2013, Australia Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:40 am

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australia Council Bill 2013 effects some changes to the structure of the Australia Council, our peak arts funding body, as a result of a review which was conducted by Ms Gabrielle Trainor and Mr Angus James. It is important to state at the outset that the Australia Council is a body of long standing. It represents a somewhat unusual model with respect to the delivery of funding in Australia—that is, it is a model whereby governments and ministers do not directly make decisions about the funding of a particular activity. In the case of the Australia Council, it is this body at arm's length from the Australian government which makes decisions for the expenditure of public moneys of the Commonwealth to support and promote activities in the cultural space and to promote excellence.

The Australia Council has a long heritage and should not be regarded as the plaything of any particular government. The legislation that is before the Senate today does not need to be passed today. There is a sense of panic on the government's part and so it is bringing forward this legislation which has been criticised, which was examined by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee and which has many critics. Yet despite the criticism and the concerns expressed widely across the arts community in Australia about this legislation, the government is pressing ahead quickly to rush it through the parliament. There will be a slightly longer period of time than was originally scheduled to deal with this legislation, but it will have to be debated, considered and passed by the Senate, if it is to be passed at all, by 1.45 this afternoon. This is significant legislation being pushed through by a government that is characterised by panic and incompetence. That is most unfortunate. These issues are of great moment. They are significant. Getting the funding mechanisms right is extremely important but one has to wonder whether this, as with so much else this government does, is all about politics and very little about good administration.

This bill began as a review of the Australia Council announced by then arts minister Simon Crean in December 2011. The review was conducted, as I said, by Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James and its report was delivered to the government by May 2012, more than a year ago. But from that point nothing happened. The report sat with the minister for nearly a year.

These bills were introduced into the parliament when there were 12 sitting days of the Senate left this year and only after the Prime Minister had announced the election date. The issues had been mulled over for some time and the report was finally tabled. Senators had concerns about the issues raised in the inquiry and many of the stakeholders expressed concern about the directions of the council, particularly about the objects of the Australia Council. Yet today this bill is being rushed through the parliament when so many questions remain unanswered and when there are so many issues which ought to have more sober and careful consideration than they are to receive under this process.

It is important to understand that these bills do not merely amend existing legislation; they are not merely an update of some out-of-date provision or two. They are not a tidying-up exercise. The intention of the government is to scrap the enabling legislation of the Australia Council—which has served the organisation for more than 40 years—and to replace it with legislation that seeks to change not only the structure of the Australia Council but its functions and its mission. As I have said, there is a lack of consensus about the way in which the government is proposing to proceed with that. The government's intention is to fundamentally change the way the Australia Council operates, right down to its very core. The legislation that has enabled the Australia Council to function for 40 glorious years, with bipartisan support, is now being scrapped and its replacement model is being rammed through at five minutes to midnight.

Everything about this legislation has been a rush job. The original legislation was presented to the parliament when there were just 12 sitting days of the Senate left. The inquiry into these bills by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee heard how much of a rush job they were. For example, the legislation appeared to forget entirely about Aboriginal and Indigenous art, and, inexplicably, tried to remove from the Australia Council's list of functions the protection and promotion of freedom of artistic freedom.

Minister Burke, who replaced the previous minister—Minister Burke being the Prime Minister's third choice as arts minister in her time as Prime Minister—eventually capitulated and amended the legislation to correct a number of crucial mistakes. I am glad that at least some advertence has been had to the chorus of criticism from stakeholders and others who care a great deal about the direction and purpose of the arts in this country. But the fact that those mistakes had to be made after the legislation was presented—not before, not as a result of interaction with stakeholders to understand what needed to be done to protect, foster and promote the arts in this country—is a great indictment of the minister and the government and underlines how important it is that these bills not be rushed through this place without proper consideration.

The government are treating the arts and the Australia Council as if they were their own personal plaything—when the very existence of the Australia Council today owes as much to Liberal prime ministers as it does to Labor prime ministers, if not more. Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt announced his intention to create such a body to the parliament in November 1967. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton followed through with the plan, and the agency first met in July 1968. These facts were brought to everyone's remembrance at the 40th anniversary of the Australia Council by its Chair, Rupert Myer.

The Australia Council has enjoyed the support of both Liberal and Labor governments for nearly half a century. The coalition's most recent arts minister, Senator Brandis, explained to the National Press Club the Howard government's record on the Australia Council, when he said in 2007:

… funding for the Australia Council, which makes direct, arms' length grants to individual artists and performing arts companies, has risen from $73 million 12 years ago to $161 million in this year's budget – an increase of more than 110%.

The Australia Council today continues to administer and deliver the bulk of the Commonwealth government's investment in the arts in Australia. This includes, as reflected in its most recent annual report, around $164.5 million in grants and direct funding to the full range of Australian artistic practice—from our major performing arts companies, of which there are an enormous number, to around 170 regional and local arts organisations across Australia.

The organisations which the Australia Council has supported, large and small, traditional and cutting-edge, in every platform of the arts—traditional arts and innovative arts—have all been captured and nurtured by the Australia Council. From time to time we may have differences of view about the quality and the nature of the performances and product that is the result of that funding, but we have to agree that Australia has, as a result of that careful nurturing by the Australia Council, an enormously well-developed cultural scene with great, world-class quality output in every field of endeavour in the arts.

Organisations that have been supported by the Australia Council include the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Ballet, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bell Shakespeare Company, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Circus Oz, Company B, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Theatre Company, Musica Viva Australia, Orchestra Victoria, Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, Queensland Ballet, Queensland Theatre Company, State Opera of South Australia, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Western Australian Ballet Company, Western Australia Opera, Western Australian Symphony Orchestra—and the list goes on.

I doubt there is a person in this chamber who has not, at some point, experienced and appreciated the great quality of artistic output that those sorts of organisations, and many others over those 40 years, have been able to produce. As such, we owe it to those people who deliver that product to us, we owe it to the Australians who are the consumers of that product, to maintain the very best, the essence of the quality of that process from those last four decades, and to ensure that the Australia Council, as it goes forward, has the capacity to deliver continuing fine quality, apolitical and cutting-edge artistic output in this nation.

I mentioned that the government had chosen to make significant changes to the way in which the Australia Council works by changing its functions, the objects of the Council, in a way which was, frankly, mystifying to many of the stakeholders who gave evidence at the Senate committee inquiry. As I mentioned originally, even reference to Aboriginal and Indigenous art was removed from the objects of the legislation—in a way which the government, presumably, was unable to explain, because it has now reinserted, with amendments, those very provisions.

Most contentious, however, was a decision by the government to remove reference to important parts of the legislation dealing with excellence in the arts, particularly the promotion of freedom of artistic expression. That was a matter which a great many submitters to the inquiry, and witnesses before the inquiry, found very troubling. The implausibility of the reasons for doing this was a matter of great concern.

Freedom of expression in the arts is a hard-won and sometimes contentious concept. There have been many examples of things that we have seen with respect to artistic endeavours and outputs which trouble people, which cause them to question whether that freedom should exist. But there is no question that, as a nation, we need to ensure that that tradition continues and that artists in a variety of art forms are able to challenge us by virtue of what they create, because their ability to do that is a fundamental example of the freedom of expression which underpins Australian society.

I recall in the case of the ACT an extremely controversial sculpture which appeared during the National Sculpture Festival a number of years ago entitled 'Down by the lake with Liz and Phil'. This was a depiction of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sitting on a seat on the edge of the lake, but they were unclothed in this model. That tickles some people's fancy. It was a commentary of some sort on what the sculptor presumably thought about the role of the monarchy. I do not know what they thought about it. Somebody expressed their displeasure with the sculpture by ceremonially beheading one of the two figures. I was arts minister at the time and condemned that because, agree or not with what the artist was saying, he had a point to make, he wanted to express himself and he was entitled to do so, just as somebody might argue that we should not have a monarchy or we should not welcome the individuals who make up the monarchy in this country or whatever. They are as entitled to make those points in that way as anybody else. There have been other recent examples of controversy around freedom of expression in the arts, which remind us continually that these issues will be matters of public debate and contention and that we should always be free to express an opinion about these things but never fall into the trap of saying that the freedom to make those expressions within appropriate bounds should be curtailed or diminished.

Accordingly, I can foreshadow that Senator Brandis, as shadow minister for the arts, will be moving amendments to this bill later in this debate. Those amendments return closer to the set of functions of the Australia Council in the original legislation and owe more to that tradition than to the set of amendments the government has brought forward with these two bills. The objects that Senator Brandis's amendments refer to include 'to promote excellence in the arts, to provide and encourage the provision of and opportunities for persons to practise the arts and to foster the expression of a national identity by means of the arts'. I think we would all agree those things are fundamental. But it also very importantly inserts 'to uphold and promote the rights of persons to freedom in the practise of the arts'. I believe that we would be greatly diminished if we were not to have such an expression centrally in the objects of the Australia Council as part of the legislation that the Senate presumably will put through today, and I urge senators, therefore, to consider very carefully the amendments which Senator Brandis will be moving later in this debate.

There is a proper role for ministerial control over certain elements of the way in which the council works. That is a control which should be transparent and should be capable of proper scrutiny and which should reflect the fact that Australia in a democratic model elects governments to make certain decisions. The amendments that Senator Brandis will be moving with respect to ministerial directions reinforce that concept in a way which is not clear from the present legislation as submitted by the government. I urge senators to consider that very carefully. The amendments here are an attempt to make sure that this legislation provides the best possible vehicle for Australians to continue to enjoy a very high quality of arts products.

I conclude my remarks by saying that I am sure that in an important debate like this there would have been many senators wanting to contribute to the quality of a debate about the richness of the Australian artistic output, to reflect on the quality of our cultural life and to be able to talk about how a body like the Australia Council might make that stronger and better and face the future with more confidence, but it is a matter of real regret that, in the foreshortened time that we have to do this, that is not going to be possible. A debate which probably should occupy a whole day will be forced into a couple of hours, and that is extremely regrettable. That is a function of a government which is in disarray and which is quite prepared to sacrifice important values like debate about our cultural policy for the sake of rushing things through in the dying days of this parliament. That is a matter of regret, but it has to happen.

12:00 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support this legislation. It has been a long time coming, and I am now glad to see the Australia Council Bill 2013 and the Australia Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 before the Senate. I look forward to their passage before the election.

The Greens are great supporters of the arts. We value the arts, because not only do we see the arts as the ability of people to practise creative expression but it is essential to the wellbeing of our community that we have a capacity to see ourselves through the eyes of the arts community. Artists look at what is happening in the world and they make art about it that reflects the values of a society. They challenge us about who we are and they provide enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. They bring communities together to talk about what is happening around us. I think the arts are incredibly important as we recognise that this century is going to be about creativity and innovation. The best way to get people thinking outside the square is to get the arts involved, and that is why I have always supported putting artists on boards, for example: because they enable other directors to see problems differently. We need to see the world in a different way if we are going to survive this century, and the way to do that is by looking outside the square and taking on that creativity.

Having said that, I say that the importance of the Australia Council is central to tapping the creativity of Australians and providing a platform for that creativity to be displayed and to be accessed throughout the broad community and through all the regions in Australia. The Australia Council Bill will reform the structure of the Australia Council so that, instead of set art form boards operating strictly within their areas of expertise, there will be one main board with the ability to set up a multitude of committees made up of diverse members for diverse purposes. Art evolves more quickly than legislation, so it is important that the Australia Council have the capacity to respond to popular and emerging trends. The inflexibility of the art form boards meant that emerging artist projects that did not fit neatly into any practice area had a much harder time obtaining funding.

One example of that that I know you are familiar with, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, is Big hART. They work across many different art forms and, because their projects often help the disadvantaged in society, they work across government departments and agencies as well. So the funding model that was in place did not suit the development and opportunities. One example of that is that Big hART moved in to offer a project in north-west Tasmania through schools to challenge the idea of binge drinking, which is a critical issue for teenagers to confront. Through this work with schools on artistic expression in film and video, Big hART were able to really engage with a group of students at Wynyard High School in Tasmania. They have also done projects on teenage pregnancy, disadvantage and a range of issues. Of course, they presented that magnificent play Namatjira, if any of you had the opportunity to see it. That is an example of a company that provides all different kinds of challenging, interesting opportunities, but it did not fit in the conventional model.

This will now enable the differing way that the arts are now being developed in Australia to be funded appropriately. The Greens are very proud to have improved the bill in the House of Representatives to ensure protections for artists in the day-to-day operations of the Australia Council. This would not have been possible without the arts community's enthusiasm to secure these amendments and the government's acceptance that these changes needed to happen. I want to thank the arts community for working with us and then working to influence the government to accept these amendments, which I believe seriously improve the bill and which the arts community wanted.

First and foremost, the purpose of these amendments pushed by the Greens is to recognise and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to our national artistic identity. This goes to the heart of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, and, when we talk about the apologies and acknowledgements, we are recognising the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. I think it is appalling that Senator Brandis is moving an amendment to delete that from the bill—I think that is most regrettable. Trying to take out recognition and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art as central to our national and artistic identity is a throwback to a bygone era, and I certainly will not be supporting any amendment from the coalition to do that. It is a very, very bad move and it would just show the threat to progressive thinking in Australia if that kind of amendment were to be successful. Hopefully, nobody else is going to support it.

Secondly, a new function of the council is to guarantee the freedom of artistic expression. I am glad to hear Senator Humphries say how important freedom of artistic expression is. But make no mistake: Senator Brandis's amendment seeking greater ministerial control over funding decisions is absolutely contrary to freedom of artistic expression. Artists must be free to express opinions that might sometimes embarrass or challenge politicians and established norms. That is what the arts do. There must be no fear of funding retribution if they do so. The amendment that the Greens have secured to guarantee freedom of artistic expression is clearly there, but Senator Brandis's amendment to try and bring in much greater ministerial control over funding does away with it.

I would like to give you an example, Madam Acting Deputy President. When the Howard government had control of both houses here, we had a situation where Ros Horin's play Through the Wireabout incarcerated refugees—was sought by 22 regional arts centres to show to regional Australians so they could talk about this issue. They applied for tour funding to meet the demand, but they were rejected. To give another example, there was a time when Michael Agzarian had an exhibition, No more lies, at the Wagga Wagga Gallery and the gallery received a threatening phone call from a ministerial office here in Canberra telling them that their funding would be threatened if they continued with that exhibition. What was in the exhibition? No more lies featured three ministers with their lips sewn shut, and the Howard government took exception to it because it was the arts community challenging the policy of locking people behind razor wire. That is why we are determined to support and guarantee freedom of artistic expression, no matter the subject matter or the political context. Popular art should not be stymied just because it gets up the noses of politicians. This amendment securing freedom of artistic expression does that and sends a clear signal that we want funding based on merit, not on content that might make some parliamentarians feel awkward. That is why I am totally opposed to Senator Brandis's amendment for greater ministerial control over funding decisions. We all know whoever controls the money controls what the arts community can do, what shows can be toured and so forth.

Our third amendment ensures that funding must also be delivered in a way that reflects the diversity of artworks and is not focused too narrowly on any one area of artistic expression. That is why, also, we do not support Senator Brandis's next amendment, which is seeking to remove diversity of funding matching diversity of artistic expression. It is very clear that the coalition are intent on having the arts funding go to established bodies and restoring funding to politically aligned institutions. If that happened in Australia, that would be disgraceful. For example, there is the Melba Foundation. Its funding was cut recently, but Richard Alston is the chair and they recently hosted an event in Jeanne Pratt's mansion in shadow minister George Brandis's honour. When you get to the point of talking about the arts, it should be without fear or favour and based on merit, not political alignment of any particular foundation, any particular gallery, any particular anything. It should be based purely on merit, and that is why I do not support Senator Brandis trying to remove the amendment that the Greens secured with the government to secure diversity of funding matching diversity of artistic expression. Surely that is a fundamental principle that without fear or favour we should support in the arts.

Fourthly, the Greens have recognised the importance of community participation in our recognition that art projects are no longer simple passive experiences for the audiences, but that community members are often actively involved in the process of developing the piece—whether street theatre, an exhibition, or whatever it might be. It is not a question of the arts just being a matter of the audience coming in, sitting down and watching the performance; it is an interactive engagement which makes the art more significant. So when the art projects involve the community they are so much more potent in shifting ideas in thinking, or opening up new perspectives in the audience, and art and our society are better enriched as a result. This amendment recognises this important cultural value.

As an example, a film has been made in Tasmania called Mary Meets Mohammad. It is a terrific documentary which traces the development of community attitudes towards the Pontville Detention Centre and the detainees at Pontville. It actually traces the public meeting in Pontville before the detention centre was opened and then the attitudes in the community through the eyes of a knitting group and through the eyes of those women who eventually get to visit the Pontville Detention Centre. I cannot speak about it highly enough. It goes to the heart of how communities engage. These are real people; these are not actors. This is a documentary film made by a young filmmaker, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hope that if there are any knitting clubs listening around the country, they will take the opportunity to screen Mary Meets Mohammad.

In the end, needless to say, a 72-year-old woman from Tasmania goes into the detention centre and befriends a young man from Pakistan who has had to leave his wife and family, and of course she ends up thinking of him as her grandson. On the opening night in Hobart they had both Mary and Mohammad on the stage at the end of the film to talk about their experiences. It was a really heartfelt journey, not just for the two of them, but for all of the women engaged in that knitting club and in the community. That kind of interactive engagement of a filmmaker and a community group is an example of positive engagement with a very real issue in the local community. That is why it is essential that community participation is recognised.

One of my great disappointments with the government's arts funding is that it has completely ignored regional arts funding. I laud a lot of these changes. They are great and I am glad to see the culture policy, but I am very sorry that regional arts have been badly done by. The Greens have a very strong policy to put $10 million into regional arts—$6 million to bring us up to the 2008 level of funding and an extra $4 million to take us through to 2016. I do think regional arts need to be supported in Australia.

There was concern that artists might lose influence over the committees established to decide on funding policy direction. Because this new body is structured like most other boards of statutory corporations, there was a fear that business and legal advisers might be able to dominate decision-making at the expense of practising artists. We recognised that that was a real issue, and we have ensured that the committee making funding or policy decisions must contain people immersed in that particular art form to ensure quality peer assessment continues. It is important that you do have people practising in the field involved in the decision-making. I agree, once you get business heads in a room they are not going to see the arts in the same way as people practising arts or in the community do or recognise the value of the arts in challenging our thinking, in assisting us to enjoy our lives and in getting a real appreciation of what the arts can do. I am pleased to say that the government has agreed that there will be at least one person on these committees from the arts community.

Having said that, I recognise that Senator Brandis wants to increase the number of members from the arts to two. I have had real difficulty with this because, while I support the idea of putting two people in that category on the committees, the problem is that any amendment would jeopardise the passage of this bill before the election. If that amendment were passed by the Senate, the bill would go back to the House and I am not confident we would get it through. I would be pleased to say to Senator Brandis and the coalition that in the event the government changes I will be very happy to see that amendment introduced very early in a new period of government. I am not prepared to jeopardise the passage of this legislation in order to secure an extra arts member and lose the lot. I am not prepared to see that happen but I do indicate to the coalition that the Greens would be supporting it in the event that they formed the government and we would be making sure that it happened.

We will not be supporting, either, another amendment that Senator Brandis has put forward. He does not want the Australia Council to seek markets and audiences for Australian art; he does not want them to advise government or to commission research. He seeks to remove those as functions of the Australia Council. Why would you remove them as functions if you did not think they were appropriate things for the Australia Council to be involved in?

Finally, Senator Brandis wants the Australia Council's decisions to be influenced by state premiers or state governments. Take Premier Newman, for example. He destroyed the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards before the ink was even dry after his swearing in as Premier of Queensland. Queensland had started to get a real reputation for literary excellence because of those awards, but those awards were destroyed by the Premier before the ink had dried on his appointment. Chasing after the whims of state premiers when making Australia Council decisions would be a very bad idea. George Megalogenis has said:

Here's the risk in an economy-wide context. Queensland delivered just under 16 per cent of the book … trade when Joh Bjelke-Petersen won his last state election in November 1986. That figure peaked at just over 27 per cent in 2009. Today, the share is still 21 per cent—five percentage points above the Joh benchmark. Does Newman really intend to wind the clock back to the 1980s?

I would suggest that when it comes to literary awards that is clearly his intent. Having said that, I indicate to the Senate that if anyone here has an opportunity to see the latest exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, it is a fantastic exhibition. It is a marvellous gallery and a wonderful exhibition. If you happen to be in Brisbane, I recommend it. If you go along you will not be disappointed.

The Greens are very pleased to support these Australia Council bills. We look forward to the changes that are being brought about. We want to make sure that the arts are on a footing able to respond to the challenges of this century and that the structure we are setting up is able to respond to the differing art forms and different engagement with the arts that is occurring now. Who could have imagined 20 years ago the extent to which installations would now find their way into exhibitions? The video format was something not even thought about 20 or 30 years ago and yet, in the exhibition that I just talked about, the Richard Bell piece Scratch an Aussie is a very powerful piece. It just shows how the arts have changed. So I am glad we are now moving to get the framework in place to support the arts in a big-picture context, to support community participation in the arts and to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art as central to our national identity. I absolutely will not support the changes Senator Brandis has indicated he will propose. (Time expired)

12:21 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very disappointed to hear that the Greens will not be supporting the amendments which I have moved on behalf of the opposition and which the arts community want very badly out of this process. I have heard in the years I have been in the Senate many ignorant speeches. But I have never in my life heard a speech which revealed such a depth of invincible ignorance of a subject as the speech that has just come from Senator Christine Milne, whose knowledge and understanding of cultural policy is non-existent.

Let me outline the opposition's attitude to the Australia Council Bill 2013. We welcome the review of the functions of the Australia Council. The Australia Council, in its current form, was created by the Whitlam government, although the form in which it was established by the Whitlam government built upon an entity established by the Gorton Liberal government—a fact often overlooked by those who choose to rewrite history so as to favour the preferences of the left. So this is a legacy of the Gorton government, expanded by the Whitlam government and maintained with bipartisan support by both sides of politics in all the years since.

I was at an arts function in Sydney recently. I hope Mr Hockey is listening to this. I was flattered to be reminded by one of the most senior arts practitioners in Australia that the government that was most generous to the arts in terms of arts funding was the Howard government in its final year and that the minister who had been most generous to the arts in terms of funding was me. The canard that the Labor Party looks after the arts and the Liberal Party does not is just that. It is a lie. It is a falsehood. As with so many other things, when it comes to cultural policy the Labor Party owns the rhetoric and the Liberal Party delivers the outcomes.

Let me make a comment on the timing of this bill. The review of the Australia Council was a long and detailed one. When the draft bill was published and issued for public consultation, a negligible amount of time was made available for feedback from the various sectors of the arts community—something like a fortnight. So there was, in fact, after the draft bill was published virtually no opportunity for feedback from the sector, something the sector well knew and deeply resented. Nevertheless, the government charged on, and now, in the dying days of this parliament, three days from the end and with about an hour and a half of debate allowed, we are expected to deal with the most significant set of renovations to the architecture of Australian cultural policy that the parliament has dealt with since the act which this bill would replace, the Australia Council Act, was debated all those years ago in 1975. After 38 years, the most important series of changes to Australian cultural policy is vouchsafed an hour and a half of debate in the parliament. That tells you how seriously the Labor Party takes cultural policy and that tells you how serious is the Greens' commitment to both proper parliamentary process and cultural policy itself. There is no need to deal with this bill now. If it is hurried through, guillotined through, as the government and the Greens propose to do, it will not command the bipartisan respect that it ought to. We know why the government wants to rush this bill through in the absence of any necessity—because this is a government that is determined to lay minefields for any future non-Labor government, and we do not treat that with respect.

Let me turn to the opposition's amendments and let me deal with the three topics which they principally address. When the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives, the most revealing and indeed shocking aspect of it was that, from clause 9 of the bill, there was removed the provision in the Australia Council Act 1975 that one of the core functions of the Australia Council would be—this was in subclause (f)—'to uphold and promote the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts'. It tells you everything you need to know about the contempt this Labor government and the Australian Greens have for freedom of expression that, when they rewrote the Australia Council Act, they removed as one of the core functions of the Australia Council the obligation to protect freedom of expression. It was relocated elsewhere in the act, to an inferior criterion, an inferior set of considerations. But it was removed as one of the core functions of the act. Why would you do that? If you believe in freedom of artistic expression, why would you, as a matter of deliberation and careful thought, decide to remove freedom of artistic expression as one of the core values of Australia's principal arts funding body?

There was a Senate inquiry into this bill, and the Senate inquiry recommended that freedom of artistic expression be reinstated into the bill. That is why, in clause 9, we have some non-sequential alphanumeric provisions so that clause 9(1)(bc) would now include 'to uphold and promote freedom of expression in the arts'. That is fine. But why did you take them out in the first place, Minister, and why did you, Senator Milne, connive with the government in doing that?

What the opposition has decided to do, having—

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Under standing order 193, it is improper for Senator Brandis to imply things that are untruthful. It is the Greens amendment that has restored that through the government's amendment to the act.

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Milne. There is no point of order.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

You were shamed into it by the statements made at the Senate committee by the opposition, and you know that, Senator Milne. Please do not mislead the Australian people.

What the opposition has decided to do is to reinstate as the core functions of the Australia Council the language of the existing act, the language of the Australia Council Act 1975. At the Senate hearing, we received no compelling evidence from anyone that the definition of the core functions of the Australia Council that has underlain the basis of its activities for 38 years is no longer appropriate or sufficient, so the course we have adopted is to reinstate them. That means that, among other things, not only would we reinstate 'upholding and promoting the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts' as one of the core functions of the Australia Council but we would reinstate the objective 'to encourage the support of the arts by the states, local governing bodies and other persons and organisations'. We would reinstate 'the promotion of the knowledge and appreciation of Australian arts by persons in other countries'. We would reinstate 'the promotion of incentives for and recognition of achievement in the practice of the arts'. There is no good reason why those should cease to be core functions of the Australia Council.

I am not sure if it was rhetoric or ignorance, and perhaps it was an unhappy combination of the two, but Senator Milne suggested that by preserving the existing provisions of the Australia Council Act the opposition did not wish core functions of the Australia Council to include certain of the new core functions which are put forward by the bill—such as, for example, to conduct and commission research into and publish information about the arts; to evaluate and publish information about the impact of the support the Council provides; to undertake any other function conferred on it by this act or any law of the Commonwealth; or to do anything incidental or conducive to the performance of any of the above functions. Senator Milne, I know you have sat in upper houses, both here and in Tasmania, for longer than I have. But it has evidently escaped your notice that such functions are among the powers that all bodies corporate, including statutory bodies, already have. We are not stripping the Australia Council of any power that it does not already have. We are restoring to it functions and objectives about certain core values that you would gladly see it lose.

I will now turn to the subject of the grounds of ministerial intervention. The opposition has always accepted that an important principle of arts funding is that arts funding should be at arm's length and that individual decisions in relation to arts funding should not be dictated by government. That provision appears in the existing act and it is preserved by clause 12 of the bill, which the opposition does not propose to amend in any respect material to this issue. Clause 12 of the bill by subclause (2)—taking up language from the pre-existing act—says:

(2) The Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee).

That has always been part of the law, Senator Milne, if you did not know, which obviously you did not. The opposition does not propose to amend that provision.

Subclause (1) of clause 12 of the bill says—and you apparently support this, Senator Milne:

(1) The Minister may, by legislative instrument, give directions to the Board:

(a) in relation to the performance of functions, and the exercise of powers, of the Council; or

(b) requiring the provision of a report or advice on a matter that relates to any of the Council's functions or powers.

The opposition supports that and would add another clause in relation to the formation and terms of reference of a committee. So, Senator Milne, regarding concern that you have about inappropriate ministerial intervention, that has always been prohibited by the act and would continue to be prohibited by clause 12(2) of the bill, and the opposition does not seek to alter that. The appropriate scope of ministerial direction to the Council is provided for by clause 12(1). It always has been and would continue to be, although the opposition offers an additional amendment in relation to the new committee systems proposed by the bill.

Let me say a word about the appropriate relationship between the Council and the minister. Having been the minister, Senator Milne, I am able to inform you about this. There is one very important stakeholder in the arts community not directly represented on the Council or on any of its committees, and that is the taxpayer. Within that category, which includes all of us, there is one particularly important stakeholder in the arts community not represented on the Council or on any of its committees—at least not directly represented—and that is the audience. Every dollar that the Australia Council distributes is a dollar of taxpayers' money, money compulsorily acquired from citizens.

The trustee of the public interest, in ensuring the taxpayers' money is spent wisely and appropriately, is ultimately the parliament and, immediately, and answerable to the parliament, the minister. The Australia Council should never be entirely autonomous, nor has any chair of the Australia Council ever said that it should be, because if it were then there would be no supervision of the way in which the taxpayers' money is distributed, and there would be, most particularly, no guarantee to ensure that the interests of audiences—so far as a large proportion of the Australia Council's dollar is spent in the field of the performing arts—were looked after. In a democracy the interests of audiences, in my view, are a very important consideration.

The interests of artists, and in particular the right that you would take away, the right to freedom of artistic expression, are very important values. Undoubtedly, that is why we moved to reinstate it. But the interests of audiences to ensure that their taxpayer dollars are being reinvested so as to produce programs, concerts and shows that they actually want to watch rather than programs and performances that appeal only to a tiny few are respected. Ultimately, that is for the parliament and the minister to have some say in—not to be the arbiter but to have some influence over it. I do not run away from that core position for a moment.

In the time left I will touch on one other matter that the coalition's amendments would restore but the government's proposed bill removes, and that is an obligation to take into account the interests of the people in the various states and the people in regional Australia. Not all excellence in the arts in Australia resides in Sydney and Melbourne. Not all excellence in the arts resides in the metropolitan capital cities. We have some of the great arts companies of the world, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, but we also have excellent arts practice in the smaller capitals and we have excellent arts practice and loyal, enthusiastic audiences in regional Australia as well. One of the purposes of the opposition's amendments is to ensure that the Australia Council, in discharging its statutory function, pays due regard to the interests of practitioners and audiences in the smaller capital cities, in the provincial cities and towns, and in regional Australia as well—something that I am sure, Senator Christine Milne, is very far from your thinking.

We want the arts to be excellent. We want them to be world standard. But we want them to be accessible to all Australians, not a chosen and self-selected few.

12:41 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Australia Council Bill 2013 and the Australia Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 in support of my Senate colleague Senator Brandis. In speaking to that I will also be speaking to his amendments. He has eloquently outlined why they should be supported wholeheartedly in this chamber.

I must reinforce a number of the points Senator Brandis made in relation to the contribution made by Senator Milne. I do share Senator Milne's sentiments on the importance of arts, but I point out that for nearly half a century this has been the area—the Australia Council—where it has been supported by Liberal and Labor governments, well before the formation of the Greens political movement.

I am not sure I understand why, Senator Milne, the level of emphasis is therefore brought to bear that this legislation has to pass this place in a rush, like the other 50-odd pieces of legislation, before we rise, heading towards a 14 September election. As to the threat to progressive thinking in Senator Brandis's proposed amendments, I find it somewhat hypocritical that you draw out the fact that you think that in these amendments progressive thinking is going to be somewhat impinged, when in actual fact at every opportunity you join with Senator Conroy in his march on freedom of the press in this country. Every day he is out there, and again this week we see where he is toying with the idea of bringing it in in a last-ditch effort to try to stem the flow of reporting on this arguably worst period of government in this nation's history.

Regarding the admonishment of the amendment, which, as you outlined, gives some ministerial control over funding, that is what a minister does. A minister administers funding. For far too long we have seen a 'rudderless' government with the bureaucracy looking for direction from their ministers, but unfortunately those ministers are not able to give the direction and leadership bureaucracies in Australia are looking for—the direction in how they spend their funds. They are bereft of any kind of inspiration, and now we are rudderless, heading to 14 September.

I thought ministerial control over funding was just implicit. We are not talking about Orwellian control over funding; we are talking about strong leadership. That is what our amendments hold, and that is what we should be thinking about. You did give some examples of an art show in Wagga, where apparently it was suggested that funding was to be withdrawn because an artist had portrayed three ministers with their lips sewn up. There has to be a level that is not acceptable in public life. I abhor the fact that the office of Prime Minister has had to endure sandwiches being thrown by schoolchildren. I think it is a sad indictment on where we have got to in this place—that that is something schoolchildren would think to do. That is why enough is enough when it comes to what you can do and say in this country. When does the diminishment stop? When is it enough? I abhor people who draw a line on sexuality or gender or any of those things. This creeps into all of society; in artistic expression, diminishment of people has to be an underlying fabric in which the society weaves itself. But that fabric should be credible, honest and full of integrity.

And then there is your criticism of having businesspeople on a board of management. I must say, it did make me laugh, because although I have no artistic ability I do have some skills in managing a balance sheet, and I have met a lot of artists who have no interest in how a balance sheet works or how funding is obtained. That is a generality. My side of the brain does not lend itself to landscape art, pottery, literature, opera or any of the things contained in the Australia Council gamut. But there has to be, as Senator Brandis quite rightly said, a representative from the community who can add to the Australia Council and ensure that the organisation, with its $164.5 million worth of funding, runs itself appropriately and with the level of skills expected of an organisation that is a recipient of such a large amount of money.

I now want to take the people who are listening to this contribution to how this is so important to me and my home state of South Australia. Our home state of South Australia has a real-life focus on the Australia Council and what it administers. The Australia Council provided support to the Music Board for composer Elena Kats-Chernin to create the new work incorporating 30 pianos and 60 pianists to be performed at the 2012 Soundstream: Adelaide New Music Festival. The Council also supported the State Opera of South Australia in staging its co-production of Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, with partners the Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera and Calgary Opera. It was received with great acclaim. The opera was conducted by Timothy Sexton, the newly appointed chief executive and artistic director of the State Opera of South Australia.

South Australia is represented on the governing board of the Australia Council by Ms Lee-Ann Buckskin and Mr Ken Lloyd AM. Ms Buckskin was appointed to the Australia Council as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of South Australia for three years on 16 May 2012. She works for Carclew Youth Arts in South Australia and is a member of the South Australian Museum's Aboriginal Advisory Committee—all inclusive, and no-one is missed. Mr Lloyd was appointed to the Australia Council as a community interest representative and a member of the Council for three years from 16 June 2011. He is a member of the audit and finance committee. Mr Lloyd has held senior positions at Arts SA, the Art Gallery of South Australia and Country Arts SA. He had held the position of chief executive officer at Country Arts SA for almost 20 years when in 1996 he was appointed to the honorary position of national secretary of Regional Arts Australia. He is currently a board member of the Carrick Hill Trust.

The Council's mission is to enrich the lives of Australians and their communities by supporting the creation and enjoyment of the arts. That is why I draw the attention of people listening to this debate to what this bill is all about. The Council is committed to excellent and distinctive art, assisting Australian artists to create and present a body of distinctive cultural works characterised by the pursuit of excellence. It is to be accessed by all Australians, assisting Australian citizens and civic institutions to appreciate, understand, participate in, enjoy and celebrate the arts. Also, its charter is to promote a strong and vibrant arts sector, providing infrastructure development for Australia's creative arts.

South Australia, as the South Australians in the chamber—Senator Ruston and Senator Hanson-Young—know, is the Festival State. It is a slogan that appears on many of our car numberplates. It has been around for over 30 years. We pride ourselves on the fact that South Australia is the recipient of funding for many of the initiatives and has been for many, many years. We are known for the number and diversity of festivals that celebrate South Australian, Australian and international arts, music and culture, many of which are supported by the Australia Council.

It is poignant that this bill should be up for debate as the Adelaide Festival Centre, in my home state of South Australia, is celebrating its 40th birthday. While 2013 may be the 40th anniversary of the building, every year is a celebration of arts festivals across South Australia. Despite being a small state, we punch well above our weight when it comes to the arts, with my home state hosting internationally renowned events including the Adelaide Fringe, the Adelaide Festival, WOMADelaide, the Come Out Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, the SALA Festival, the Adelaide International Guitar Festival, the OzAsia Festival, the Australian Film Festival and the Feast festival. That is why we are known as the 'Festival State'.

I reinforce Senator Brandis's last point where he outlined that the amendments that we propose contain that equity for the smaller states and the regional centres. This includes my home town, where the Clare and Gilbert Valleys Art Show, a very well supported event, happens at the gourmet wine and food festival in May every year. These are all very interesting community events which engage the community and bring them in from all over Australia. Contained in Senator Brandis's amendments is that point which does protect the rights of the smaller regions and ensures that the Australia Council never loses sight of the importance of culture and the arts in these communities.

However, Adelaide's foremost festival is the Adelaide Festival of Arts, which became an annual event this year. I am very pleased to say that it is supported by the Australia Council. The cultural value of the Adelaide Festival is estimated to be about $85 million of revenue to that city. It is preceded in the calendar of events by WOMADelaide, our international music and arts celebration held over the long weekend, and then the Fringe festival, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. These events combine to contribute to what we in South Australia affectionately call 'mad March'.

The Adelaide Fringe has consolidated its status as the leading arts festival in Australia, delivering a massive economic expenditure within my home state of South Australia of $64.6 million. In a state of 1.5 million people which has been run by a Labor government now heading into its 12th year with a $13 billion debt looming and only one ever surplus delivered in its budget—which just happened to be in an election year—every contribution that the arts can make to the small businesses, the hotels and all the people who work in hospitality and retail is very important. That $64.6 million from the Adelaide Fringe is an increase of 34 per cent on the previous year, with over 1.8 million people attending this year's festivities. With a population of 1.5 to 1.6 million—as you well know, Senator Ruston, coming from the Riverland—that means that our state and people from around Australia are fully engaged in the festivals, which are supported by the Australia Council.

In my time, I have known the Adelaide Festival Centre—the iconic building—as much more than just a performing venue. It is impossible to imagine the city without the Festival Centre, which has come to symbolise the cultural heart of South Australia. It was officially opened on 2 June 1973. It was the brainchild of former Premier Steele Hall, and it was opened by the then Premier, Don Dunstan. It was Australia's first performing arts centre built in a capital city, beating the Sydney Opera House to completion by three months at about one-tenth of the cost.

We also cannot ignore the important role arts play in regional Australia. That is why I urge people across the other side of the chamber to support Senator Brandis's amendments. In my and Senator Ruston's home state, organisations such as Country Arts SA play a crucial role in making a real difference to the lives of people living and working in the regions of South Australia. Country Arts SA is one of South Australia's largest arts organisations, providing services across the regions through a range of arts programs and initiatives, the management of performing and visual arts venues, and the provision of grant funding which supports the creative endeavours of communities and individuals. Each year Country Arts SA tours world-class productions that entertain, challenge and stimulate a wide variety of audiences across the state, including those in the regional towns of Mount Gambier, Port Pirie, Renmark, Noarlunga and Whyalla. It is in ways such as this that the arts contribute greatly to regional South Australia's sense of community by reaching out to those who are not able to access or participate in the arts due to age, disability or financial hardship. I am blessed to have my parents, at the age of 85, still with me, and I know they do enjoy the arts in the regions. There would be something missing from their lives if these types of organisations did not get on the road.

But I will get back to the specifics of the bill we are debating. This bill began as a review of the Australia Council announced by Simon Crean in December 2011. The review was completed in May 2012, but nothing was done for a year. When this bill was introduced we had 12 sitting days left. We now have three sitting days left and the debate will be guillotined in 45 minutes, which will deny some six or eight colleagues, who I know feel strongly about the matter, the chance to contribute to the debate and support Senator Brandis's amendments.

There can be no better place for sustained support than an investment in the arts. Nurturing creativity and expression, especially in young people, demonstrably improves their chances of success in life and creates an awareness, tolerance and appreciation of diverse cultures. These are only the intrinsic values, and the intrinsic and intangible values of the arts touch the spirit, the heart and the mind of humankind and are the invaluable and priceless parts of what the Australia Council is all about.

In closing I urge the chamber to support Senator Brandis's amendments. I know of no other senator in this place with more depth of knowledge and commitment to the arts than Senator Brandis. Wherever I travel throughout the breadth and width of this land people revere his knowledge and his commitment to the arts, and I commend his amendments to the chamber.

1:01 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Australia Council Bill 2013. As my colleague Senator Edwards pointed out, because of the guillotining, many of our colleagues will not get the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this really important bill. The Australia Council is an extraordinarily important organisation and provides an extraordinarily important role in this country. I acknowledge some of the wonderful things that, over the last 50 years of the Australia Council's existence, it has been able to achieve on the Australian landscape.

It has been a very robust council due to the fact that over the last 50 years or so it has managed to continue to do what it does with very, very little controversy. Notwithstanding that, from time to time, organisations, bodies and businesses do require review. As such, I think that everybody involved in the review, which commenced in December 2011, would acknowledge that the review was timely and an opportunity for us to have a look at the Australia Council and its roles, structure and governing body and to see whether there were things that could be done to improve and modernise it, given that it was a body that had been operating for such a long time.

When the review commenced in December 2011 we were all very hopeful that we were going to get some positive outcomes. I am not suggesting for a minute that we have not had positive outcomes. The review reported in May 2012 and in general terms found:

… that the Australia Council had served Australia well—playing an important role in identifying, nurturing and promoting artistic talent, and was staffed by highly professional, knowledgeable and passionate people. However, the Council's rigid structure was seen as imposing constraints on what had become a free-moving, fluid and ever-innovative art sector—constraints that the Review recommended be removed.

There was a very broad raft of recommendations for changes to be made. When this bill came to this place it was referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee for inquiry. Unfortunately, as with many things we have seen, we did not end up with the length of time we would have liked to consider this bill. In the process of receiving submissions and listening to evidence from people who appeared at hearings, everybody accepted that there were some positive benefits from implementing changes and recommendations, but there was a sense that we were, maybe, throwing the baby out with the bathwater with some of the broader changes that were being recommended by the bill.

I will make some comments on a number of the recommendations and changes that have been proposed by this bill. Given that this inquiry commenced in December 2011 and was reported on in May 2012, we have since heard very little about it. Then, all of a sudden, at the eleventh hour we are asked to pass the bill. I do not believe that anybody has had sufficient time to consider the implications of the changes that this bill is proposing. From the little opportunity I have had to consider this bill, I do not believe that we have had adequate consultation and I do not think we have properly looked through the consequences and implications of some of the changes that are being put forward.

This should not come as any great surprise to people in this place because over the last two weeks we have seen an extraordinary amount of legislation being pushed through. This week some serious legislation has been guillotined with as little as 20 minutes being available for debate. I think is an absolute disgrace and it makes a total mockery of what this place is supposed to be doing. I suppose we should not be particularly surprised that this bill in relation to the Australia Council has been forced through. Perhaps we should feel lucky that a bill which preceded this bill for debate was withdrawn, so we now have more time to debate this bill than we have had to debate other bills of equal or maybe more significance and importance.

If you do not provide the opportunity to have debate, to go through issues and to put forward amendments—and I commend my colleague Senator Brandis for the amendments that he has put forward, which I wholeheartedly support—then there are long-term consequences of passing something legislatively that will be enshrined in a law that we will have to adhere to. If we enshrine our mistakes in law then we have them forever, or we come back and have to provide amending legislation, which just wastes the time of this chamber.

I, along with all my colleagues, would like on record just how disgusted we are that this legislation, along with others, is being forced through. I am sure that on Friday morning the opportunity to speak on the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Bill will also be denied when it comes before the house. Once again, this is a bill of huge significance across the whole of government, and we are going to have no opportunity to debate it. We have had no opportunity to have a serious and in-depth inquiry into the consequences and implications of this particular bill. Despite the fact that both the Auditor-General and the Commissioner for Public Employment have said that they have an issue with the speed with which this bill is going through, we will get it on Friday and it will be chopped just like this one.

The Australia Council Bill to which we are speaking today is not a bill of simple changes. It is not just touching up a few words here and there; there are significant structural changes incorporated in this piece of legislation. These changes will have far-reaching impacts and effects on arts and arts funding across the whole of Australia. Structural reform is not something that we take lightly. I draw the house's attention to comments made during the Senate hearing on this bill by Mr Rodney Hall, a former chair of the Australia Council. He made the comment that the Australia Council structure 'is not a business model'. He said, 'It is a model specifically for the function that it performs.' We would be very mindful when looking at this bill and the amendments that have been put forward by Senator Brandis to realise that the Australia Council is quite a unique beast and needs to be treated accordingly.

Regarding the proposed new structure that is being put forward, there are a number of things that I would like to comment on. In relation to the conventional skills based governing board that is being proposed, I do not think any of us deny the fact that there are certain skills that need to be provided to these sorts of organisations for good governance and accountability. I do not think we doubt that there are skills required on a board, but this is a governing board that is so totally focused on the skills base. This board seeks to abolish the arts form boards that have so long been provided—the detailed information within each of the industry sectors within the arts community. It is very disappointing.

The other thing that is very disappointing with the change in the structure is the diminution of interaction with the states and local government. Particularly in relation to the states, so often matching funding has enabled many organisations within states and regions to be able to leverage up the money that they get from the Australia Council. Reducing the level of connectivity between the states and the regions and the Australia Council is very disappointing. Over the past, that connectivity has served states and regions very well in being able to increase the level of funding that they are able to get.

I draw attention to the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA Inc. They made the following point:

As local government authorities take an increasingly high profile role throughout Australia in terms of development and funding of galleries, museums and programs of cultural enrichment, it becomes more important that this role is given weight within the new Bill.

Creative Australia refers to the 'dependency on partnerships—across agencies, with state and territory and local governments.' The roles of States, Territories and Local Governments are critical to a holistic approach and to achieving better value for investment.

Relieving the Australia Council of a fundamental responsibility to work effectively and fairly with these partners presents a significant risk to the diversity and breadth of our cultural fabric.

How many times have we seen structural changes because there is some perceived problem, only to find that the replacement structure is worse than the one that we were throwing out in the first place?

I draw the house's attention to an issue that is particularly close to my heart: grassroots connectivity. We mentioned the abolition of the secular board that had representation on the Australia Council. This happens so often across many industry sectors. I come from a rural and regional area, and with many of our agricultural organisations we have seen the disconnect between the people who do the doing—in the case of agriculture, grow the growing, or, in the case of the arts, perform the performances—and the people who are making the broad big-picture decisions at a federal level about their future.

The disconnect or the breaking of the connectivity between the specific industry sectors or the specific arts areas that the Australia Council seeks to promote, support and fund is a very dangerous precedent for this bill to attempt to achieve. I would suggest that we possibly need to ensure that, whenever we set up new structures or governing authorities or governance arrangements, those structures need to be set up to stand the test of time and not be set up just to deal with—as it is on many occasions—the personalities in the initial structures. If the structure is robust enough to stand the test of time and the guidelines and the criteria through which the organisations are seeking to get the funding are properly defined, then the issue of vested interest can often be overcome. I noticed that there was criticism about the fact that the people who sat on these boards were the people who were also the beneficiaries of the outcomes of the funding that is allocated, but I would say that a board that is devoid of the requirement to have true arts representation from a grassroots level is a board that is going to be missing out on a very fundamental component of the things that are important for the Australia Council in its deliberations and decision making. I certainly do not support that.

I also draw attention to comments by the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association on this issue. They said that, whilst recognising the value of moving to a skills based governing board, they are mindful that substantial and diverse arts industry experience remained critical in delivering informed and relevant governance for the arts sector. They therefore recommended that a 'substantial component of the board be members with practical arts experience, not simply "a knowledge of"' the arts.

It should be noted, however, that the Australia Council has received support from all sides of parliament over many years. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party and their colleagues in this place, the National Party, have been great supporters of the Australia Council through its entire life. I think we should continue in this place to support the Australia Council. I believe we will be supporting this bill, but we hope that the sensible amendments that are being put forward by Senator Brandis are agreed to, which will enable this bill to go forward in a much more productive and workable state.

Arts is not just about the more highbrow of the artistic disciplines; it is about so much more. Arts is about public amenity. Can you imagine a world without arts? In Australia we are very lucky because we can afford to have art as part of our public amenity and part of our public good. Art in public spaces is one of my truly favourite things. You only have to look at the building we are standing in to see how art can turn what would otherwise be a reasonably cold building into something with a lot of warmth. A lot of people get a lot of enjoyment from just walking around this place looking at the hugely eclectic collection of art on display.

I also see art as an expression of our identity. Senator Brandis raised the issue of the recognition of Indigenous culture as part of the responsibility and role of the Australia Council. I commend him for raising that issue, because obviously the Indigenous culture in this country has added hugely to the rich tapestry of all the cultures that Australia now boasts it is home to.

There are a number of amendments that will be moved by Senator Brandis today. As my colleague Senator Edwards pointed out, Senator Brandis has previously been the minister for the arts. As you move around Australia, there is no doubt that Senator Brandis has left his mark on the arts community across Australia, not just in the capital cities but in regional areas, from which I come.

I would urge senators to support the amendments that are being put forward by Senator Brandis, because I believe they can deliver a much better outcome. I would like to point out in particular Senator Brandis's amendment in relation to putting back in place the objects that were in the original Australia Council Act. I think it is very important that we recognise that, in all of the submissions we received and all the presentations to us during the hearings, there was definitely a belief among all the arts communities out there that have had a relationship or involvement with the Australia Council that the Australia Council's functions over its 50 years of existence were good and robust and they can see very little point in throwing them out. The amendment that Senator Brandis will put forward to seek to reinstate in the new bill the provisions for the functions of the original bill is something we must commend. Absolutely no-one I saw—apart from perhaps an occasional government department person who possibly wanted change for change's sake—is seeking not to include them. So I would commend that amendment extremely highly, along with all the other amendments.

In addition to the fact that there has been a lack of consultation and a lack of time given to us to debate this legislation, there has been, I believe, a lack of taking notice of the legitimate concerns that have been put forward by the people, the groups and the bodies that have been affected by this legislation. I still think that the Australia Council legislation is an important piece of legislation. It is important not just for the cities but also for country areas. As I said, I come from a country area. I have been a sponsor of arts activities within my region and I can see huge benefit from it. A country area without arts would be a very dull place.

Before closing, I would like to mention the importance of the Australia Council and arts funding to ensuring that everybody across the whole of Australia gets equity of access to the arts and the benefits that come from having access to the arts. In much the same way that we expect Australia Post to deliver all our letters at the same price around Australia, in much the same way we that we expect equity in communications costs if we need to make a telephone call and in much the same way that we have debated in this place in recent times the need for regional content to be delivered to us in our news services and media broadcasts, I believe equally that people in regional Australia have the right to have some level of equity in the provision of arts. That is the very significant and important role that the Australia Council plays for everybody in Australia.

I commend to the Senate that they support the amendments that are to be put forward by Senator Brandis, a man who is acknowledged across Australia as an expert in the area of the arts. If we can be united in endorsing Senator Brandis's amendments, we will see a much better delivery of a very important bill and a very important institution for Australia and the Australian public.

1:21 pm

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this debate because we are talking about a great Australian institution, the Australia Council. It is an institution that has, with bipartisan support, been around for about 40 years now. It has overseen the roll-out of funding across the arts. Notwithstanding the superstructure of a number of boards that have administered funding for particular sections or areas of the arts, the Australia Council has sat across the top of this and has been the great culmination of Australia's commitment to upholding important cultural values and holding up a mirror to the country and providing us with an insight into ourselves through the arts.

It is important that, from time to time, we review agencies like the Australia Council. All government bodies should be subject to review. Times change. Perhaps our values do not change, but the ways we do things can change. It is important that institutions, particularly government funded institutions, have a capacity to change and adapt to circumstances as they evolve.

Therefore, having a review of the Australia Council is something that I am sure we would have all welcomed when it was announced by Simon Crean, the former arts minister and leadership tragic, in December 2011. The review was conducted by Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James and was delivered to the minister, I understand, in May 2012. That was quite a reasonable time frame for a review of this type, but then nothing seemed to happen for about a year.

In the work of government, not everything can be done overnight. We all recognise that. But the fact that it has taken some time for the government to get to this point and put up legislation to amend the Australia Council Act and so forth is a cause for concern, because we are coming to the end of this parliament. It has been a fractious parliament during a time of minority government. There have been plenty of issues and, yes, that does affect the priorities in terms of what legislation is brought forward, but, as I said before, this is a great Australian institution and it deserves better than to have this legislation introduced into the parliament with only 12 Senate sitting days left—we have far fewer now—and only after the Prime Minister had announced the election date.

As I said before, this is an institution which has received bipartisan support in the past, but at the moment we find it difficult as an opposition to support the bills in their current form. Senator Brandis, the relevant spokesman on our side, will be moving a number of amendments on our behalf. These are amendments which we believe will strengthen the legislation which underpins the Australia Council.

In that regard may I say that it was a Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who announced the intention to create such a body in the parliament in November 1967. Tragically, he disappeared off Cheviot Beach, never to be seen again. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton followed through with the plan, and the agency first met in July 1968. Everyone was reminded of these facts at the 40th anniversary of the Australia Council by its chair, Rupert Myer, a distinguished Australian who has done a fantastic job as an arts administrator and as a philanthropist.

So this is a body that has enjoyed the support of both Liberal and Labor governments for 40 years or more. It was therefore, I suppose, with sadness rather than anger that we noted that the bills appeared to be something of a rushed job. The Senate committee inquiring into the bills heard how much of a rushed job these bills were. They forgot about Aboriginal and Indigenous art altogether and inexplicably tried to remove from the Australia Council's list of functions the protection and promotion of artistic freedom. You could say that in a society like ours that should be taken for granted; why do we have to say it? We have to say it because we are living in a society where, if you look at the polls—I think it was the result in a Lowy Institute poll the other day—you find that young people do not necessarily, as a majority, believe that democracy is the most effective form of political representation.

We live in a society where we take some of the basic rights we have for granted. It is important, from time to time, to spell out what these rights are—and to spell them out in the form that Senator Brandis is intending to do through his amendments. I think artistic freedom is very important. It is an interesting freedom because it can often lead to controversy, because you are often being asked to tolerate things that are not to your taste. But that is not the point. The point of artistic freedom is to allow the full flowering of artistic cultural expression within the community. And we are a diverse community. We must have a capacity to put ourselves, from time to time, in the shoes of others and see the world as they see it.

Art, in all its forms, has always been a way of doing that. The greatest art is the art which communicates to us in a way that is perhaps even beyond expression. So we have to have artistic freedom. It is really another way of saying we need tolerance and acceptance of a diversity of views, opinions and values. It is very important that we have this artistic freedom. The minister, Tony Burke, who is Julia Gillard's third choice as arts minister, eventually capitulated and amended his bill to correct some of the mistakes I referred to, which just goes to underline how important it is for these bills not to be rushed through this place without proper consideration.

The Australia Council is not the plaything of any one side of politics—whether it is a Liberal government or a Labor government. It is an important and independent cultural institution and deserves the respect that goes with that. As I said before, it has enjoyed that support for over 40 years.

The last coalition arts minister—the current spokesman Senator Brandis—explained to the National Press Club in 2007 the Howard government's proud record of support for the Australia Council. He said, then:

… funding for the Australia Council, which makes direct, arms' length grants to individual artists and performing arts companies, has risen from $73 million 12 years ago to $161 million in this year's budget—an increase of more than 110%.

So this idea that the arts are somehow the province of one side of politics is pure mythology. The arts belong to all of us. We should all have a commitment to supporting the arts, and the arts are there for all of us to enjoy.

I declare an interest. My better half, Elizabeth, is a fundraiser for Opera Australia in New South Wales. Through that association I have therefore had some exposure to the work of Opera Australia. I mention that because when we think of these august national bodies we think of the work that they are putting on at the Sydney Opera House, for example, or other such places. We often overlook the role that they play, which has been alluded to by a couple of my colleagues, in disseminating the arts through rural and regional Australia. That is very important.

Every year at the annual fundraising function, one of the things to which we donate, in the context of Opera Australia, is the regional fund, so that they can tour regional centres. That is very important. I mention that to underline the nation-building function that the arts have and how disseminating the arts through the community binds us more as a community. It makes us all feel part of a broader Australian community. It is very important that we have these sorts of unifying influences. The Australia Council, through bodies like Opera Australia, plays that role.

While I am referring to Opera Australia, I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing chief executive, Adrian Collette, who has been at the helm of the organisation for almost, I think, two decades in toto, in various ways. He has played a fantastic role in growing the organisation, he has been a first-class arts administrator and he has seen the organisation not only grow financially and in terms of patronage but also grow as an organisation which promotes opera across Australia. That has been very much part of his personal vision. I pay him tribute. He has now become a university adviser and administrator. I wish him well in that role. He will bring to his new role the insights he has gained from administering such a large non-government, non-profit organisation—it is not quite a commercial organisation although it operates on commercial lines.

I also take the opportunity while I am here to commend another arts administrator who has long since left the field of arts administration, Donald McDonald. For many years he was an administrator of the arts. His longevity in the arts culminated in his appointment, which he has had for a decade, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Donald has made a great contribution to the arts in Australia. We have people like him and Adrian to thank for the fact that modern artistic companies and bodies, like the Australia Council and others, perform so well and have become great paragons of good governance while having commercial nous and a commercial feel.

I think they understand, and we as a country now understand, not only the way the arts play such an important role in our cultural life, potentially even our spiritual life, and the way they give richness and meaning to life, but also the other dimension—the role of the artistic and creative industries in promoting economic growth and development. Increasingly, in this globalised world, a pillar of development which attracts smart, intelligent, high-performing people is the presence of vibrant, vital, high-performing artistic and creative industries.

In regional parts of Australia, such as Bendigo and Ballarat, for example—with which you, Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie, are so familiar—organisations in the cultural field have been magnets for tourism and for local development. It is very important that we promote the understanding that the arts and the creative industries are part of the fabric of our economy as much as they are part of the fabric of our culture and of our society. In that vein, I commend Simon Crean's work as the Minister for the Arts, because I think he took a particular view of the arts with that economic lens on it, if you like.

The other point I would make about the arts going forward is that, while we are going into choppy waters economically and financially, no-one should be under any illusion about the commitment of the coalition to the arts in this period. While obviously I cannot talk about budgetary matters, the fact of the matter is that we recognise that it is often not economic for us to put the arts on the same basis as commercial entities. They are part of that fixed cost or infrastructure of an advanced society, so we have to recognise that government must have an ongoing role in helping to contribute to the funding of the arts and their dissemination. Going with that, an important role is to make sure that there is the opportunity for access to the arts by people across our society.

In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art has done so much work in relating the arts to the needs of, for example, disabled children. They have used the arts as a vehicle for getting through to disabled kids and allowing them to express their innate artistic tendencies—which we all have. Those tendencies are more latent in some of us than in others, but the fact is that we all have talents of one sort or another. The Museum of Contemporary Art, through Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, a fantastic administrator in her own right, and Simon Mordant, who has been a great philanthropist of the arts, has done so much to build those links. I commend them for what they have done. This is yet another dimension to the role the arts play in Australian society.

As I indicated earlier, Senator Brandis has foreshadowed a number of amendments to the Australia Council Bill. These amendments will help to spell out the functions of the Australia Council. As I indicated before, those functions are to promote not only the appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arts, or the application of the arts in the community, but to uphold and promote the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts. So it is not only to uphold—not only, in other words, to say, 'This is important'—but to promote. I think it is important that we make that point—that it is not just about upholding but also about promoting the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts.

It is also about promoting the knowledge and appreciation of Australian arts by persons in other countries. That is very important. One thing that impressed me some years ago was the way France embraced Indigenous art. Indeed, there is a major centre for Indigenous art in the middle of Paris—I forget its name; I do not have it with me. Former minister Amanda Vanstone was instrumental in promoting the use of Australian art there. I recognise also the former President of France, Jacques Chirac, who is a great collector of Indigenous arts and who was very keen on the promotion of Indigenous art. That centre has been able to project Indigenous art onto the front of the actual building. At night they light it up in such a way that you can see Indigenous images on the front of the building. I do not have a picture to show you, but it is there. You can look it up on Google or some other such mechanism.

Doing that sends a great message to the world about who we are and how we see ourselves. Importantly, in Senator Brandis's amendments, there is the recognition of that organic link between the wellsprings of Australian culture and our Indigenous community. That is one of the things that, as a nation, makes us unique in the world. All nations have a brand of some sort or another. Some brands are better than others. Some brands are clearer than others. Part of our brand, indelibly linked to our view of who we are as a country, is our appreciation of, support for and promotion and dissemination of the central role of Indigenous art and culture in expressing who we are as Australians.

In my maiden speech I spoke about the successive waves of migrants who have come to Australia. The point I made about Indigenous people is that, in a sense, they were the first wave that came here—the precursors of all those who came afterwards. It is very important that we continue to do that. And that is comprehended in Senator Brandis's amendments.

He also talks about incentives for and recognition of achievement in the practice of the arts and this is obviously to entrench this idea about the role government plays in promoting and recognising achievement in the practice of the arts. It is the role that, as I said before, government has in this area, because art generates not only private benefits but also those social benefits we talked about before.

These amendments also envisage encouraging the support of the arts by the states, local governing bodies and other persons and organisations—in other words, this is business for all of us at state and local government level, and also, of course, for those in the private sector who want to be philanthropists. Sadly, Australia does not quite yet have the culture of philanthropy that we see in places like the United States with some of the great philanthropic organisations that have sprouted up there. We are getting there, though. There have been initiatives over the years, like Prime Minister John Howard's, of community business partnerships and amendments to the tax law to encourage the setting up of private funds that could disseminate money for philanthropic purposes. Within that context I think it is important that we recognise that great philanthropists also want to support the arts. I also recognise the fact that some of our greatest artists have themselves been great philanthropists. I think of Margaret Olley and the way she, both before her death and after, disseminated so many of her paintings across the country. These are fantastic achievements and I know a number of Australians who have been successful in other walks of life but who have dedicated themselves to accumulating large collections which they are now seeking to provide to the public for their access.

In winding up my remarks, may I say that it is good, from time to time, to debate issues like this. It is a pity we do not have more time, because these go, as I said before, to fundamentals of how we see ourselves—our identity as a country. Though it sounds sometimes vaguely neo-Stalinist to talk about 'cultural policies and programs' and all that sort of thing, in fact we should not be hesitant about doing so. We should be really positive about how we promote our culture and what we are to the rest of the world, because it is unique; it is something which has not only social dimensions but, as I said before, economic dimensions. With the addition of Senator Brandis's amendments, I think we can wrap this matter up. But, sadly, the government has not left us much time to do so.

1:41 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was flying across to Canberra on the weekend from Western Australia, leaving early in the morning to get here late in the afternoon, I could not help but reflect upon what an important and historic week this will be in our national parliament, as we draw to a close the 43rd Parliament. They were not thoughts that were filled with lots of joy, actually, and I have often wondered, in the 13 months in which I have been in the Senate, how younger Australians might look at this 43rd Parliament and what lessons they might take out of it for the future.

I think this bill, like many other bills that we have seen this week, is testimony to the ill-conceived, shoddy, rushed way this government has approached our parliamentary democracy over the last three years. I think it is worth reflecting, before I come to the substance of the Australia Council bills—the Australia Council Bill 2013 and the Australia Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013—what it is that is happening in our Senate chamber this week.

As Australians go to the polls on 14 September, they might like to think carefully about not just who they might vote for in the House of Representatives but where they might put their votes in the Senate, because the last three years have seen a very shambolic and rushed treatment of our parliamentary democracy—not just by the Australian Labor Party, but by them in cooperation, hand in glove, with the Australian Greens. So I think that when Australian electors go to vote on 14 September they should exercise tremendous caution not to bring back to their parliament the minor parties and Independents who seek, by their example, to wreck our parliamentary democracy.

I will share with people who might be listening to the Senate across the country today and those people in the chamber: it is worth reflecting that in the three years that the coalition had control of the Senate, just 32 bills were guillotined—a mere 32 bills. That is in very stark contrast to the 216 bills this government will have guillotined in its last three years. Anyone in Australia who cherishes our parliamentary democracy, our bicameralism and the federal structure on which it is built would find those statistics quite remarkable. This week alone, we will see 55 bills guillotined—49 of those will have been debated for less than one hour. Of the 49 bills, 30 will be debated for less than 30 minutes.

Senator Thistlethwaite interjecting

Is that an interjection from the senator from New South Wales? When New South Wales people go to vote on 14 September, they might like to ask themselves whether Senator Thistlethwaite and his colleagues are doing the best by their—

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for consideration of these bills has expired. The question is that these bills be now read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

In respect of the Australia Council Bill 2013, the question is that amendments (1) to (8) on sheet 7427 circulated by the opposition be agreed to:

(1) Clause 9, page 6 (line 24) to page 7 (line 19), omit subsection (1), substitute:

(1) The Council has the following functions:

  (a) to promote excellence in the arts;

  (b) to provide, and encourage the provision of, opportunities for persons to practise the arts;

  (c) to promote the appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arts;

  (d) to promote the general application of the arts in the community;

  (e) to foster the expression of a national identity by means of the arts;

  (f) to uphold and promote the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts;

  (g) to promote the knowledge and appreciation of Australian arts by persons in other countries;

  (h) to promote incentives for, and recognition of, achievement in the practice of the arts;

  (i) to encourage the support of the arts by the States, local governing bodies and other persons and organizations; and

  (j) to do anything incidental or conducive to the performance of any of the foregoing functions.

(2) Clause 11, page 8 (line 29), after paragraph (a), insert:

  (aa) the policies of State and Territory Governments in relation to the arts; and

(3) Clause 12, page 9 after line 2, after paragraph (a), insert:

  (aa) in relation to the formation and terms of reference of a Committee; or

(4) Clause 31, page 18 (line 5), at the end of subsection (1), add ", or as otherwise directed by the Minister"

(5) Clause 31, page 18 (line 10), omit "at least one person who has relevant experience in the arts", substitute "more than one person who has relevant experience in the specific subject matter relating to that committee."

(6) Clause 31, page 18 (line 15), omit "The Board", substitute "The Board, unless otherwise directed by the Minister"

(7) Clause 31, page 18 (line 21), omit "The Board", substitute "The Board or the Minister".

(8) Clause 31, page 18 (after line 25), at the end of the clause, add:

(6) A direction by the Minister will in all cases prevail over a direction by the Board.