Festivals, Music, News & Commentary, Stage, Visual Arts

Australia Council cuts: is the devil in these details?

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Politicians cannot instruct the Australia Council on its grant-making. It’s protected by legislation, giving it “arm’s length” independence from government and political favours or prejudice towards individual applicants for funding.

But how would things be without that protection? The question is especially relevant as the Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis takes $104.8 million in funds from the Australia Council and places them in his own ministry where he could, if he wishes, decide who is to receive funding. The Hansard transcripts from a recent estimates hearing in Canberra might provide some answers to these questions. 

On November 20,2014  the chief executive of the Australia Council, Tony Grybowski, appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for a perfectly routine estimates hearing into the Attorney-General’s portfolio.

Three of the five Senators on this committee were lawyers and one was a policeman. They were Senators Brandis QC (Liberal) as Arts Minister, Penny Wright (Greens) a lawyer, Ian McDonald (committee chair, Liberal), and a solicitor, Barry O’Sullivan (Nationals), formerly a police officer. The fifth, Senator Jacinta Collins (Labor), formerly a union leader, made only one comment at the very end, commending the decision to close the hearing — whether from distaste or boredom we cannot know. The assembled legal skills were applied with energy and tenacity to question Mr Grybowski. The Hansard transcript for the entire hearing runs to 30 pages.


One of the topics covered in the hearing was on funding to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) in Townsville. McDonald’s electoral office is in Townsville, O’Sullivan’s in Toowoomba and so both are regional, and Brandis is from Brisbane.

AFCM had had a three-year funding commitment from the Australia Council for 2009-11 — something of an honour — but beginning 2014, AFCM was not approved for funding; its competitors were judged to be more deserving. That was what instigated the committee’s discussion in this part of the routine estimates hearing.

Challenged on the decision, Grybowski explained the peer process that selects among funding applicants. He noted that the Council was giving AFCM a lot of assistance to maximise the possibility that its next funding application would be successful. (That’s interesting. Does the Council now coach applicants for funding? Who is eligible for such assistance and who is not?)

Grybowski spoke from deep within the processes of the Australia Council at a time of major government-imposed reorganisation. To the uninitiated, much of what he said could have been somewhat impenetrable even if they were interested. The Committee members’ interest seemed confined to searching for fault with the Council’s process.


The case was “prosecuted” mainly by the Townsville-based chair, Ian McDonald. Arts Minister Brandis is not there to examine his own department or authorities; indeed, he could himself be questioned.

Senator Brandis: “I do not want to interrupt, but as a Queensland senator and as somebody who has taken a close interest in Townsville Chamber Music Festival having attended it twice now, including this year [2014], I have made my view very clear to the Australia Council that it is the government’s wish, and it is my wish as the minister, that that music festival continue to be supported.  

“Now under the Australia Council Act, the government, the minister, cannot give a direction to the Australia Council in relation to any particular funding proposal, so I cannot direct the Australia Council to approve an application…The Townsville Chamber Music Festival … is plainly the principal chamber musical festival in Australia, it is one of the principal music festivals in regional Australia and it will be completely untenable for it to not continue to be supported by the Australia Council”.

Is this the government’s view because it is Brandis’ view, or did he take a vote? And what exactly is this Minister’s view of arm’s length funding? (The wise people who set up the Australia Council gave it statutory independence in order to minimise political pressure on its selection of funding recipients.) His recent decision to shift $104.8 million out of the Australia Council to the Ministry  for the Arts to establish a “National Programme for Excellence in the Arts” where he could personally direct grant funds might suggest his real opinion.

Since the Senator is willing to make the judgement that the AFCM is the principal chamber music festival in Australia, could he list the others he has attended?

The discussion had earlier revealed that the committee chair, although heading a committee overseeing the Australia Council’s activities, had little knowledge of some fundamentals:

Chair: [Questioning Minister Brandis] Does the Australia Council have the independent authority to make these deals or do they make recommendations to you?

Senator BrandisThe Australia Council is constituted as an independent agency, and therefore it is the decision maker; but, of course, as an agency within this portfolio it is answerable to me and, ultimately, to this committee.

ChairBut do you make the grants or does the Australia Council?

Senator BrandisMr Grybowski is speaking of grants made by the Australia Council.

ChairThey are not just recommendations to you?

Senator BrandisNo. The Australia Council makes grants, but it does not require the consent of the minister.

Chair (responding to Brandis’s statement in support of AFCM): Regrettably, as you rightly tell us, the decision is not yours, but thank you for making your view and the government’s view known.


So the chair of this estimates hearing seems to disapprove of the Australia Council’s statutory independence. He continues:

Chair: Mr Grybowski, you said that the application is coming and is going to be assessed, but you are going to guarantee they are going to get it anyhow — which I am delighted about. Assuming that it is around the same amount that was given in previous years — that is around $60,000 I think — will perhaps say to the festival that they can take your public guarantee here that they will be funded as a guarantee of funding so that they can commit themselves now to that expenditure for a special event or a special thing or whatever they do — a special person — for their 25th anniversary [in 2015]. Do I assume that it is going to be in the order of what they applied for, which I think was $50,000?

Grybowski had not given any guarantee of funding. Neither the word “guarantee” nor a synonym had been used by anyone in the discussion until now. At most, he had said that AFCM was being assisted to produce a competitive application and expressed optimism about the outcome:

GrybowskiI have not personally reviewed the application as yet, but part of my discussions with the organisation last week was about encouraging the highest ambition for their application to the new funding programs next year as well.

ChairSo why did they not succeed this year in the application for their 25th anniversary celebrations? Who makes those decisions — the board, is it?

The chair also seems unaware of peer assessment, a fundamental aspect of the Council’s operations since its inception 40 years ago.


Senators McDonald and O’Sullivan make considerable play of the fact that AFCM will have its 25th anniversary in 2015. There is the very strong suggestion that therefore, it should be funded. Is a new funding criterion being invented in front of our eyes? But should an anniversary be a reason for an applicant to be funded at the expense of better applicant(s), in this zero sum game? And if the 25th anniversary, why not the 10th? 12th? 21st? 30th? Should it be funded for its 25th year even if it were found in its 24th year to be not deserving of funding?

Grybowski responds to the questions: There is a panel of music experts. Funding sought from us is incredibly competitive.

Chair: I appreciate that.

GrybowskiWe have an average success rate of about 18 per cent to 25 per cent.

The Chair goes on to ask how this particular funding decision was reached. Grybowski says that it was made by a national panel of six classical music experts, two of whom were from Queensland. Others might question why Queensland, with 19% of the population has 33% representation, but not this chair.


Brandis intervenes: One of the grounds advanced was that there was not a sufficient weight towards new work. Given that there are not too many 17th or 18th century composers still producing new work, that did seem to me an odd reason.

Very droll, Minister. Apparently the Arts Minister thinks that no chamber music has been written since the 18th century.


ChairI suspect, after seeing a list of your other grants, that the other competing grants are all based in capital cities. Would that be a fair assumption?… with the festival, certainly, a lot of [artists] are visiting and come from Australia and from many capital cities, but there is a substantial local element in regional Australia… [If the organisations that tour to festivals] are based [in the cities] then that is where their performers come from — principally… Surely, just because you live in regional Australia you are not prevented from —

There had been no suggestion that regional organisations or citizens should be of lower priority.


The chair says that he is delighted that the competing Queensland organisations received funding but, he asks: how many of them have always got funding?

What is the point at issue now? That if an organisation has always got funding, it should get funding into the future? Or that it should not?


Chair: [AFCM is] world renowned. I was recently overseas and someone said, ‘Where do you come from?’ and I said, ‘Townsville.’ ‘Oh, that’s where that festival is.’ It has world recognition.

One foreigner in 11 billion knows the festival exists and therefore it is world renowned and presumably, should be funded.


Chair: Thanks for that. Can I just be clear on your guarantee? I do not want to embarrass you or hold you too much to this — well, I do, actually. 

Grybowski says he looks forward to experiencing the festival personally in 2015.

ChairWell, Mr Grybowski, if you went there in the current situation, you would probably be hung, drawn and quartered! I appreciate you are not the only decision maker. But I hope that, by next year, you will be everyone’s hero and much loved because you have done the right thing by that organisation. I cannot ask you to prejudge applications, but you are saying that you feel fairly confident that you can give a solid indication to the festival that they will be considered in the February grants?

GrybowskiYes. [That is normal procedure.]


Senator O’Sullivan takes up a new line of questioning. Surely the peers must often have conflicts of interest? Does the Australia Council have processes to manage this? Grybowski says they are excluded from those decisions. (So we can assume that peers with a bias against AFCM were not permitted to vote.) O’Sullivan asks for the records showing all statements of conflict of interest by peers.

He asks whether the peers for the AFCM assessment had attended the Townsville festival. He thinks that would be a good idea but presumably does not conceive of the scale and costs of peer attendances at the events presented by every applicant.

Senator O’SullivanWhat part do you play in this, Mr Grybowski? Do you sit with the empanelled group?

GrybowskiThe staff of the Australia Council do not make grant decisions.

Senator O’SullivanYou know what? There are only so many hours in the day. I would like you to concentrate on the element of my question. We can dispose of some of these very quickly. Do you sit on the panel?


Senator O’SullivanDo any of your staff sit on the panel? I do not mean in a voting form, but as a resource for the panel.


Senator O’SullivanThey do. Do you sit as a resource for any of the panels?


Senator O’SullivanYou do not. What is their resource role? Do they provide advice; do they answer questions; do they conduct research? Is there a preparation brief that goes beyond the application itself?

GrybowskiThe role of the staff is extensive. They receive the applications, ensure that they are eligible against the criteria and ensure that all the applications go to the peers for assessment and for scoring. They then facilitate the live meetings — coordinating the actual assessment — and then ensure that the meetings are actually run according to our governance guidelines.

Senator O’SullivanIn the ‘briefing notes’, we will call them —

GrybowskiThey do not receive briefing notes.

Senator O’Sullivan: Give me a name, and I am happy to go with your name — the package of resources that the peers receive. There is an application —

GrybowskiThe resources are the applications from the artists making the application.

Senator O’SullivanWith zero intel provided from your organisation?

Grybowski: There is no assessment.

Senator O’SullivanNo, that is not my question.

GrybowskiOther than, ‘Yes, this meets the selection criteria.’

And so on…

So the AFCM decision was not made by peers with a conflict of interest, nor the influence of the Australia Council staff. Could it have been made on merit?


The chair goes on to inquire about funding to major organisations. Who are they and how were they chosen? He establishes that there are 28 of them, the smallest receiving just under $1 million in subsidy; unsurprisingly, all are based in major population centres.

And where is Senator Brandis on this issue of funding to the regions? When the $104.8 million is wrested from the Australia Council and moved to his “Programme for Excellence” can we expect that Townsville will get a symphony orchestras or an opera company under his new regime?


*Nothing in the above is intended as a criticism of or comment on the AFCM. We understand that it makes a valuable contribution to music and its community and that its funding application failed only in competition with others.

* I acknowledge that the Senators who spoke appear to have a personal interest in the type of music presented by the AFCM and in the provision of arts services in Australia’s regions.

* Tony Grybowski noted that the success rate of funding applications to the Australia Council is 18-25%, presumably depending upon the grant category. Decisions by this Minister/government have quarantined the 28 major city-based companies from cuts when overall l cuts to the Australia Council have probably, in two budgets, halved the funds available to small organisations like AFCM. It will find itself in an even more competitive funding environment unless Brandis, as Minister, also quarantines it.

You can read the full Hansard account here

Read more on the Brandis’ Australia Council raid:

Brandis pulls the trigger on artists

Artists protest Brandis’ arts cuts around Australia

Our smaller cities stand together against Brandis’ art cuts 

Australia Council responds: the cuts start now 

Brandis defends his “Programme for Excellence”

Artists petition against Brandis’ Australia Council raid 

Excellence and Heritage aren’t dirty words

Circus Oz weighs in on Brandis’ Australia Council cuts 


10 responses to “Australia Council cuts: is the devil in these details?

  1. We’ve seen the Minister for Communications in effect requiring SBS to sack one of its staff who tweeted views on the Anzac legend which were unacceptable to the government; now the Minister for the Arts is in effect requiring the Australia Council to fund the Townsville chamber music festival. What’s next? Will the Minister for Sport interfere with selection of the Australian test cricket team? If the Minister for Justice tried to instruct a court to convict a particular accused the court would rightly condemn such a breach of the separation of powers. But the Heads of SBS and the Australia Council can’t appeal to such a doctrine, and they’re placed in an impossible position. This government doesn’t seem to understand that there are statutory bodies they cannot order about or that there are well-understood conventions of government which ought to constrain them.

  2. Hmmm, i’m not covinced that the Australia Council doesn’t make decisions on who’s in and who’s out. For example there has been funny business with Venice Biennale artist selection which caused John Kaldor to “run” only two Venices for Australia and not the five that was first announced. Mind you how exactly Fiona Hall was chosen for this year seems clouded and we will never know exactly, OzCo first said it was 7 peers of Fiona Hall but then we have numerous reports its was Mordant himself!?

    Also I know personally that only certain favoured artists are chosen to see OS visiting curators and who are asked to send in images for consideration. When one gets an email from a public servant beginning with a disclaimer then you KNOW the exact opposite is up. I’ve got a couple of these in the past. So there does exist a list somewhere as to which artists are seen as the Best for OS. In fact there always was such a list each Venice time for the curator to choose from. Predominantlt from Sydney and Melb of course. The last “list” pf favoured artists was for the last Buennale and it was all Sydney and Melbourne, so they are hardly the Australia Council there are they.

    Someone had to shake up the Arts in Australia. Problem is the big Ballets and Operas are left alone and I bet there would be many in those sectors who would live things to be shaken up there. Once constant Govt money flows forever it breeds complacency and mediocrity. Certainly its impossible to be critical at all in Australian Art/s. You just will get totally shut out by the status quo. I say again all Arts funding should go starting with the Operas and Ballets FIRST!

  3. More unanswered questions than answers here, I think. Two things amaze me about these inquisitions: The fact that they are driven as an ‘inquisition’ – to try to prove that the ‘defendant’ is guilty of a ‘heresy’ and therefore to be outed and condemned; and, that the Senators are staggeringly unaware of what they are talking about, and what they are asking.

    On the count of ‘heresy’ – the role of public servants is unlikely to include deliberate conspiracy to defraud and confound the public; it can and does happen, though rarely – so why persecute it as if it were a foregone conclusion, as they do.

    On the count of ignorance – there is simply no excuse of any kind, for these Senators and their minions NOT to be fully aware of these significant Government institutions, their roles, the processes in their organisation and their operation. An 8 year old child could do the research through Google and their websites. So why the puerile, ignorant questions? These Senators should be ashamed of not understanding even the most basic of aspects of the Australia Council. And their minions should be fired for gross dereliction of duty in poor or absent briefings for those in their care.

    What a pure waste of valuable taxpayer’s money – our money – tilting at windmills as they have been doing.

  4. There is something sneery and uncharitable in this article. Townsville? Excellence in Chamber Music….how can this be? Let’s resume normal service and get all serious performance back to the capitals.

    Here in Townsville we love and value AFCM. It is an outpost of excellence which draws a truly outstanding array of talent, audiences form across the world and a fair bit of new composition to boot What kind of country do we live in where an excellent festival costing peanuts in the scheme of things can be put to the sword by a faceless committee?

    I am glad Senator McDonald leapt to its defence using the tools he had to hand.

  5. Richard Letts says “One foreigner in 11 billion …”. Where do the other 4 billion come from, outer space?

    1. In fact, at the end, I acknowledged the value of the AFCM and noted that it did not succeed in getting funding only because beaten by the competition. Neither you nor I know what the competition was and neither did the Queensland senators. Subsequently, AFCM apparently lifted its game and was funded. I personally had something to do with getting the Townsville Community Music Centre started and am all for arts development outside of the capital cities. Townsville is one of the cities best placed for this to happen. As for the performance of the senators, there is nothing wrong with supporting the case of a constituent but just about everything wrong with the was that they did it.

  6. Having watched [as a member of what was probably the only Local Arts Committee in NSW if not Australia which was efficient enough to run numerous programmes for which we didn’t need to seek subsidies] the manner in which the Art World believes whatever is given isn’t enough, and however it’s spent it’s not done appropriately, I’d be surprised to learn whatever Brandis does or turns out to be worse than the Art World norm.

  7. “He noted that the Council was giving AFCM a lot of assistance to maximise the possibility that its next funding application would be successful. (That’s interesting. Does the Council now coach applicants for funding? Who is eligible for such assistance and who is not?)”

    Grant application assistance has in the past been provided by the Australia Council for anyone requesting it as a standard part of the application process.

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