Australia Council Bill 2013

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.

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