The Australia Council An arts policy as long as your arm
There has been much discussion of the recent ministerial appointments to the Music Board of the Australia Council though surprisingly, very little protest action from artists.
The Australia Council was established by an Act of Parliament, with the mechanism of "arms length" decision-making written into the legislation. This is basically an administrative mechanism that makes it more difficult for Federal politicians to directly intervene in grant making decisions. In other words, the legislation is designed to undermine any casual political interference in the arts.
While the minister of the day may - that is, having good reason - appoint members of a Council Board directly, only the Board itself may appoint members to any committee that serves it. Thus the makeup of a peer assessment panel for instance, is determined solely by the Board for here the minister has no say by act of Parliament.
Public discussion of the recent political appointments to the Music Board seems to centre on two main factors, namely the appointees' apparent affiliation with youth orchestras, and the resulting lack of expertise on the Board in other areas of music. At least one piece of this puzzle has been missing.
This is the observation that once upon a time, the various Boards of the Australia Council and their peer assessment panels were quite properly and distinctly separate. That is no longer the case, as Music Board members routinely sit on their own assessment panels. This blurs the distinction in their roles as policy makers and policy implementers, and creates a perceived conflict of interest.
By means of a simple administrative change the Council has opened a conduit directly from the Minister's office through to the assessment panels, effectively bypassing the intention of the Australia Council Act, and demolishing the mechanism of arm's length funding in the process.
The Australia Council legislation relies on artists themselves to be the ultimate defenders against coarse political favouritism; they are the ultimate champions of the arms length process.
It should have been clear to every artist then, as the Australia Council engaged an advertising company to coin the slogan "supporting the value of the arts" (as opposed to simply "supporting the arts"), that something untoward was in the wings.
For where privilege and patronage rather than good policy are allowed to drive public arts funding decisions, all of society pays not once but twice. It pays firstly for the hobbies and petty preoccupations of our politicial incumbents, and secondly for the skewed and impoverished understanding we can only hope to have of our own culture as a result.