The Art Of Being George Brandis: How To Destroy A Sector Without Even Really Trying

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In fiscal terms, arts policy is tiny. The budget for the entire federal arts portfolio this year is $653 million, in a budget of  $420 billion. That’s about three-twentieths of one per cent of the federal budget. Policy wonks looking at defence spending or superannuation concessions must be astounded.

So why is there such a flap about arts funding?

The answer, quite simply, is George Brandis.

By ripping $105 million out of the Australia Council for the Arts in May’s budget, the Arts Minister has started a war with Australia’s cultural industries. It may prove to be a significant miscalculation.

The decision, announced in the budget papers, at first seemed innocent enough. Money was to be moved from the Australia Council to create a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

But as arts leaders pored over the budget papers, they quickly realised it was nothing less than a declaration of war against the Australia Council itself. The new program will be decided by a hand-picked committee answerable to the minister. It will acquire its budget by taking it off the Australia Council.

The media release that accompanied the budget decision was openly disdainful: “Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council,” Brandis stated (wrongly).

To add insult to injury, the Australia Council had not even been told beforehand. Brandis prepared his funding raid in secret and rang Australia Council chair Rupert Myer just hours before Joe Hockey stood to deliver his budget speech. Senator Brandis later claimed at Senate estimates hearings that he consulted with no-one in the sector at all.

By removing the money in the way that he removed it, the Arts Minister has effectively imposed a 28 per cent funding cut on the discretionary funds of the Australia Council. On top of significant cuts in last year’s budget, the austerity is painful and immediate.

The agency immediately cancelled two funding rounds and abolished three other specialist funding programs. The news that the Australia Council had cancelled its six-year funding round sent shockwaves through the sector.

An entire substructure of smaller arts non-profits survives precariously on the relatively small amounts of funding the Australia Council distributes to its so-called “key organisations.” These small- and medium-sized companies have long been seen as critical to the overall health of local culture, growing new talent and creating the bulk of the interesting work.

Now the entire small-to-medium sector – several hundred arts organisations across the country – has been thrown into chaos. There is palpable fear in the sector. Similar cuts to small-to-medium funding in Queensland in the Newman government led to the insolvency of at least two small arts companies.

But fear has also led to desperation, as the sector organises to fight for its survival.

There has already been a national protest, two petitions and the formation of a national campaign. Another day of national protest is planned for June 18, and Labor has now called for a Senate inquiry into the matter.

For his part, Brandis appears undaunted. He put in a combative performance at Senate Estimates. He has also kept up the attack on the Australia Council, with the help of the attack dogs at the Murdoch tabloids, Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair.

The tactics have been ruthless. Brandis has pressured large arts companies not to protest against the changes. As I reported in Crikey last week, representatives of Brandis’ office met with Sydney Theatre Company chair David Gonski to warn the company from issuing a statement critical of the Australia Council funding cuts.

Yesterday, Brandis’ own office appeared to background Daily Telegraph journalist Taylor Auerbach for a hostile article about arts funding, in a tactical leak against the Australia Council.

The agenda is transparent: money will be taken from the Australia Council and distributed to the Minister’s favourite arts organisations, principally the major performing arts organisations such as Opera Australia.

But there are signs Brandis may have bitten off more than he can chew. The Australia Council raid was presumably planned as a fait accompli, a minor adjustment to the Attorney-General’s department budget that could be massaged with a bit of patronage to key arts figures.

Instead the issue has blown up, with resentment of the Arts Minister in the sector running white hot.

The arts debate could turn out to be a major headache for the Attorney-General, who is scarcely the Abbott cabinet’s most natural retail politician.

There was already undisguised hostility in the arts after the Sydney Biennale controversy of last year, where Brandis attacked artists boycotting the festival because of its sponsorship by the Transfield Foundation.

The arts industry, long quiescent as it got on with the business of making art, has started to mobilise. Recent nationwide protests featuring a “dance off” were ridiculed by sections of the Murdoch media, but they also demonstrated that thousands of citizens across several capital cities were prepared to rally against the changes.

On Monday, the arts industry peak body ArtsPeak called for a Senate inquiry into Brandis’ new Excellence Programme. Today, Labor announced it would follow up.

Why would the Abbott government alienate an interest group that until now had largely ignored it? The answer appears to be hubris.

Amongst movement conservatives, artists have become conspicuous enemies. In this analysis, the arts are a bastion of leftist groupthink, spenders of undeserved money for ridiculous contemporary art projects, and the habitat of the inner-city latte-swilling “luvvies”. From the perspective of the government-hating right, attacking the arts should be a popular move.

The amorphous structure of culture is part of this. Large multinational companies jostle side-by-side with stately state companies, scruffy undergrounds and entrepreneurial micro-businesses. The various cultural industries are tribal, suspicious and disunified; there are no influential think-tanks and few organised industry lobby groups. It’s a rather different scenario to supermarkets or banking, where a few powerful players can corral industry funding to present a muscular lobbying presence to politicians.

Unfortunately for the Abbott government, Australians do actually like art. Cultural audiences are at least as large as sporting ones, and the cultural power of industries like movies and comedy remains significant.

Culture matters. The cultural and creative industries are an $86 billion endeavour, worth perhaps seven per cent of Australian GDP. They employed 311,000 people in 2011. According to the detailed ABS labour force statistics, “arts and recreation” employs more Australians than mining.

The Abbott government’s record when it comes to prosecuting the culture war is not impressive. It has already lost a number of its battles, including against 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. When the government follows the prescriptions of the culture warriors to its right like Andrew Bolt, it often struggles.

So it may be that the Abbott government has underestimated the strength of this new opponent. The arts are a powerful latent force in Australia’s political landscape. From Courtney Barnett to Simon Stone, talented young Australians are increasingly making global names for themselves. Recent years have seen a flourishing of Australian culture that has become one of the most attractive aspects of our increasingly diverse and creative society.

George Brandis and his colleagues would be wise to reflect on this, and whether they can win a war of symbols against some of the most creative and energetic people in our society.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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