Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014



7:27 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address the chamber on the state of the arts in Australia and the extraordinary actions of this government in placing freedom of speech in jeopardy. Last week the arts came under attack. A warning was issued from the highest levels of the Abbott government in a wide-ranging and strident denunciation of artists and freedom of expression. The attack was all the more disturbing because it came from a quarter you might least expect it to—indeed, from the man charged with the duty of defending and developing the cultural life of the nation: the Minister for Arts, who, as Attorney-General, is a self-proclaimed defender of freedom of speech.

The minister took aim at two targets: artists and the arts organisations which fund and develop them. In particular, the minister targeted the Sydney Biennale, which this year contains works from more than 85 prominent artists from Australia and around the world. These include the Berlin based duo Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, Chinese artist Yingmei Duan, Australian Professor Callum Morton, and the winner of the Turner prize, Douglas Gordon.

But, beyond this, he targeted the biennale itself, criticising the board of directors and attacking the integrity of the organisation that had delivered a globally significant festival of visual arts to Sydney for over 40 years—41 years, in fact. The core of the minister's concerns lay in an attempt by artists recognised by the biennale to assert their right to freedom of expression and association by distancing themselves from sponsorship arrangements with a company that carried out the management of detention centres under the coalition's Operation Sovereign Borders policy. The artists felt that the high calibre of the artists of the biennale and the international respect in which they were held were now being linked to an organisation that undertook work as part of a policy to which they morally objected.

Responding to this difficult situation, the artists voiced their concern in a collective letter to the biennale. They asserted their right to freedom of expression, to choose how their work would be communicated and understood and to reject the incorporation of their art into a broader project of legitimising the practices in which the sponsor had been engaged. They also claimed their right to freedom of association—to choose how and with whom they would ally themselves and their works. Forty-one artists signed this letter, which said, in part:

We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements … and seek to develop new ones. This will set an important precedent for Australian and international arts institutions, compelling them to exercise a greater degree of ethical awareness and transparency regarding their funding sources. We are asking you, respectfully, to respond with urgency.

Our interests as artists don't merely concern our individual moral positions. We are concerned too with the ways cultural institutions deal with urgent social responsibilities.

Now, that is not that unexpected for artists, because artists, as we know, each day, are very much part of the social discourse in our country in the way that they express their art. In doing so, they were expressing themselves through this letter.

Following this letter, and at personal and often financial loss, several artists took the step of withdrawing their work from the exhibition and boycotting the biennale. At first, only a handful did so, but the number soon grew to five and kept on increasing. With the integrity of the biennale under threat, the board took action, announcing that it was moving to new sponsorship arrangements.

But what happened next was quite unbelievable. The minister responded to this by directly threatening the funding for the biennale on the basis that it had taken into account the wishes of the artists and their demands to express their opinions and to choose with whom they would associate their art. In a letter to the Australia Council, the minister wrote:

No doubt when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done.

Not content with his attempt to assert government control over artistic expression indirectly, the minister also issued a secondary plan of more direct intervention. In an unprecedented move, overstepping the appropriate boundaries for ministerial action, he asserted his power to assert direct control over Australia Council policy. He requested the Council to develop a policy:

… which deals with cases where an applicant for Australia Council funding refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors, or terminates a current funding agreement.

…   …   …

The policy should further consider whether all future funding agreements should contain a clause that stipulates that it is a condition of Australia Council funding that the applicant does not unreasonably refuse private sector funding, or does not unreasonably terminate an existing funding agreement with a private partner.

Should the policy generated by the Council not sufficiently match the wishes of the minister, the letter suggests that he will overrule it and put in its place his own set of standards. While it may be correct that such a move is technically within the powers of the act, there is a large distance between what is legal and what is appropriate use of power.

If there were any doubts that the conduct of the Minister for Arts, Senator Brandis, had entered the realm of the indefensible, he dispelled them in an interview on national radio where he talked to Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National on the morning of Friday, 14 March. When asked whether his position would go to the extremes of forcing artists to accept funding from companies that are as morally questionable as those in the tobacco industry—businesses which, I think, perhaps even the Liberal Party now, but definitely the Labor Party, have decided are an inappropriate source of donations—the minister stated:

I myself don't think that arts companies should reject bona fide—


sponsorship from commercially sound … prospective partners on political grounds …

The implication of this is that the Minister for Arts becomes an enforcer, almost, of ethically dubious corporate organisations in their efforts to assert control over the arts. This is unbelievable. This will lead to the fact that they will be encouraged to make arts organisations offers that they cannot refuse, and if they do reject them the minister will be standing by there to change their minds.

Threatening arts organisations with cuts to their funding if they do not toe the party line put forward by Minister Brandis is a direct and open challenge to artists everywhere, exposing them to the removal of the funding they receive—and have to live upon—if they say things in their work that their sponsors do not like, or if they conduct themselves in ways of which the minister does not approve.

While this may have directly harmful effects on particular artists targeted under this policy, it will also have a more widespread, deadening effect on artists' production across the nation. That effect, I believe, is self-censorship. Self-censorship will grow as cultural producers start to stop expressing themselves and addressing issues in ways which might endanger their corporate interests. Not only that; who is setting this standard of unreasonable acceptance that Senator Brandis referred to? Is it something that he is going to set himself? Or is it something that is simply written by him and put to the Australia Council?

At a time when we have a minister and an Attorney-General who is espousing that freedom of speech should be more common, this interference is quite remarkable. The irony is that this major attack on freedom of expression by cultural producers is coming from a person who has claimed to have its defence as his raison d'etre and his goal as the nation's Attorney-General. The hypocrisy of the Attorney in claiming to defend freedom of expression and advance the interests of artists and others to say what they want in the public sphere on the one hand while moving to undermine artistic autonomy on the other— (Time expired)