The arts minister’s shock annexation of Australia Council funding is about long-running tension over the purpose of the humanities. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside George Brandis’s Australia Council arts heist

Minister for the Arts George Brandis.
Minister for the Arts George Brandis.

In this story

The Australia Council’s chief executive, Tony Grybowski, was in Europe when the news broke. He cut short a holiday in London and flew home. It was apparently late in the afternoon on budget day before chairman Rupert Myer was told half of the council’s funding would be cut, rerouted to a new committee overseen by the arts minister. At time of press, rumour abounded that a mass resignation of the board was being considered. As shadow arts minister Mark Dreyfus tells me: “I understand that these budget measures blindsided the council.”

 “No surprises” was the mantra of this year’s budget, which was both a salve and subtle apology from a government badly bruised by the previous one. The solemnly repeated “budget emergency” of 2014 was abandoned for gentler language, while the major proposals were telegraphed long before the treasurer addressed parliament. But there was at least one surprise. And for the affected agency and its stakeholders, it was shocking. 

Among the government’s proposals was the transfer of $104.7 million from the Australia Council, to the newly minted National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) – a body to be run within the arts department and with ultimate authority for funding decisions resting with the arts minister, George Brandis. 

The consternation about this concerns the ultimate – and potentially unilateral – authority of the arts minister. The NPEA moves away from the “arm’s-length” adjudication undertaken by the Australia Council’s independent panels of experts. The rationale for the council is simple – experts should privately debate the merits of applicants, protected from the influence of the government. Since its inception – the Australia Council became an independent statutory body in 1975 – it has relied upon peer assessment. The Australia Council board first determines a pool of peers. Once accepted as an expert, peers are given access to secure, confidential systems to measure the applicants against the eligibility criteria. The peers will then meet in person, arguing their respective positions. The idea of peer assessment is integral to the council. The process is confidential, by signed agreement, and none of the peers approached this week was willing to discuss it. How Brandis’s process would replicate this expertise – if at all – is yet to be seen.

This week, Brandis went on ABC Radio to discuss the move. He dismissed the argument that the NPEA would supply state-endorsed art. “The minister is not the assessor,” Brandis said. “The minister is no more the assessor here than the minister is the assessor with the Festivals Australia or the Playing Australia program funding. I think that misconceives the way in which arts bureaucrats within the ministry work. That criticism was never made of the Festivals program or Playing Australia, for example, while those programs were administered through the ministry. 

“I mean, if you want to look at an egregious example of political interference in arts funding, look at the element of the former government’s Creative Australia program, the Creative Young Stars program, in which you had dollops of cash being administered by individual members of parliament. That’s political interference in the arts which this government, quite rightly, has abandoned.”

Brandis argued that the Australia Council had a near-monopoly on arts funding, and competition – or “contestability” – should be increased. 

“I think the Australia Council ought to continue to have the principal role in arts funding in Australia,” Brandis said. “It will continue to have the principal role but, that being said, I do not favour the view that it ought to be a monopoly funder of the arts. I think that the idea of a funding mix with some programs administered through the ministry and most programs administered through the Australia Council is a healthier and more contestable way to do arts funding.”

Mark Dreyfus dismisses Brandis’s argument for competition, and feels the additional body will add to an already burdensome thicket of grant procedures. “This year’s budget has created a whole new parallel funding process without any published criteria, peer review or any proper justification,” he says. “What makes it worse is that since the announcement Brandis has sought to dress up this political attack on the artistic independence as some kind of competition policy measure.

“He has tried to claim that he will not have a role in making funding decisions, yet the new fund will be administered by his department, which is under his control. In reality, this is an attack on the important principle of independent arts funding to create a new fund which is subject to the whim of the minister.

“Senator Brandis has form in this area. We saw at the Sydney Biennale last year and his criticism of artists who refused to accept money from certain companies, the selectivity that George Brandis is prepared to apply. He is certainly not some champion of free speech and certainly does not think that artists are entitled to their own opinions. The Coalition also took $6 million from the Australia Council to fund a new National Book Council, duplicating the Australia Council’s functions. No appointments to the Book Council have yet been made, and nor has any information about its functions been published.” 

Dreyfus is correct to say that the NPEA has not issued any selection criteria yet, criteria that may help to clarify what – precisely – “excellence” may mean. But they are forthcoming. Brandis’s office has said the eligibility criteria will likely be released next month, and applications will be received some time in the new financial year. Funding will be prioritised for these three categories, each unhelpfully vague: endowments, strategic projects and international touring. Artists may apply for funding to both the Australia Council and the NPEA – one application won’t exclude the other. 

1 . Judging the decision

Our public debates are fractured, brimming with rancour and bad faith. The government’s arrogance and the left’s vituperation have made dialectic impossible. Brandis’s decision will be judged as cynical whimsy, or the opening of yet another front in the culture wars. The lack of consultation – and the presumed contempt this reveals – will only harden enmities. It will be, then, easy for opponents to dismiss Brandis. But to paraphrase French author André Gide, they should not understand him too quickly. 

Brandis is well read, and quick to cite his arts degree as his most valuable – he has two law degrees also. He has many times said that learning for learning’s sake is valuable, that the acquisition of knowledge is an end in itself, and has long defended government funding of the arts. 

This week Brandis reiterated the point: “It’s an ideological view that says that the state has no business in supporting art and that’s a view with which I fundamentally disagree. I think state support for art is very important, it is has been enormously beneficial in building a thriving cultural sector in Australia, particularly since the Gorton government established the Australia Council in 1968.” 

Brandis speaks often of the centrality of the humanities in our interior and public lives – but what, exactly, does he mean? 

The literary canon and its preoccupations with the sublime, or essentialism, or with universal truths, has long seemed to many in universities as vulgar in its antiquity, pernicious in its support for the idea of autonomous man. Instead, the humanities have been given to studies of power – to defining it and describing its overt and subtle perpetuations. Autonomous man was a myth, an illusion of democratic mobility that validated the immobile concentration of power to elites. A popular academic trend has been to historicise artworks – rejecting its premise of timeless truths and arguing its very production, and the culture it represented, were merely the expressions of prevailing power structures.

This is Brandis’s suspicion of universities – and flowing from that, his suspicion of the Australia Council. Brandis believes that humanities schools have avowedly rejected aesthetics – ideas of value and beauty – in favour of rigidly political investigations. In 2007, when he was arts minister in the Howard government, Brandis gave a speech to a humanities conference. 

He said, in part, “If the humanities are to recover their prestige, one thing which they certainly need to do is to embrace the standards of objective, rigorous scholarship which were once amongst their glories; to accept that critical inquiry is not well served when it is – whether admittedly or implicitly – regarded instrumentally, in service of some ideology or social philosophy, rather than end in itself.”

Brandis argued then that the humanities were overwhelmingly utilitarian. He is far from alone, and criticism comes from surprising quarters. 

A few years before Brandis’s speech, a professor of English at Indiana University, Linda Charnes, delivered a paper at a convention of the Shakespeare Association of America. Charnes likely is the antithesis of Brandis – a practitioner of French theory, and a long-time spearer of some of the pomposities espoused by defenders of the canon. But she realised too the limitations of their criticisms. She cites another academic, Sharon O’Dair, who argues it’s time to move on from “the institutionalised debunking of the bourgeoisie autonomous or essentialist self”. 

“I agree,” Charnes said. “The time to make a career beating that horse has passed. For more than 20 years this has been an important and worthy task in rethinking literary culture and the actual politics behind the Western canon. But is this all that we have to offer as critics? A way of endlessly rehearsing our demystifications of the experience of the bourgeois individuals? Our institutionalised debunking of the bourgeois subject has calcified us into an elite corps of yuppie guerilla academics.” 

It wasn’t an act of apostasy. Charnes wasn’t renouncing her theory. Rather, it was witty and bright-eyed criticism. And one can imagine Brandis reading the description “elite corps of yuppie guerilla academics” and smiling. It is such a corps that he believes is tarnishing the prestige of universities, and our artistic culture. His suspicion of the utilitarianism he denounced in his 2007 speech can be found in the titular word “excellence” of his new body. This one word contains an awesome compression of the culture wars, expressing a belief that arts panels may choose equality and diversity over talent – that the liberal utilitarianism of the humanities creates a moral hazard in which mediocrity thrives. 

Of course, none of this will quell the sector’s passionate belief that Brandis wishes to transform himself into a grand taste-maker. But nor is it accurate to say that the Australia Council’s independence has protected it from its own politics. These are the richer, broader parameters in which to debate the decision. Unfortunately the sector’s sense of injury – and the heavy-handedness and stealth of the government’s decision –  almost ensures it will never happen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Inside George Brandis’s arts heist".

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