ABOLISH THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL - QUESTION MARK
By Derek Strahan BA Cantab (Modern Languages, French & Spanish)
Part 6 - NO REASONS FOR SAYING NO
NO REASONS FOR SAYING NO
The Australia Council for the arts is a statutory body. The ostensible purpose for which it was formed, is to "promote excellence in the arts" (clause i), a noble and daunting task. Naturally the bureaucratic skills required to achieve this high purpose deserve and receive an equally high financial recompense. Exactly how high?
Let me recap the figures that I cited earlier, updated from the Council's Annual Report for the years 2002-2003, the earliest report I could obtain in 2004.
The Operating Statement for that year reveals (in round figures) that to disburse a grant total of $124 million, running costs were incurred of $13.5 million, of which $8.3 million was paid in salaries to Council staff (actually $8.275 - let's say eight and a quarter million).
Eight and a quarter million dollars might seem a lot of taxpayers money to have spent in 2003 on "providing, and encouraging provision of, opportunities for persons to practise arts" (clause ii), but the figure is misleading. Only 30% of applications to the Council are successful, and therefore only (just under) two and a half million dollars was spent providing encouragement by saying yes. The other FIVE AND THREE QUARTER MILLION DOLLARS was spent employing arts bureaucrats to discourage persons from practising the arts by saying no. (In 1998 it was $5,850,000.) That might sound simplistic, but the calculation has some merit as an old-fashioned time-and-motion computation.
However you look at it, however hard the staff at the Australia Council work at processing applications, however diligently they work to earn their salaries, the end result is still that most of their time is spent in processing applications which will fail; and the consequence of that is that (depending on which year) going on SIX MILLION DOLLARS which might have gone to support failed applications is spent telling those applicants that their applications have failed. No amount of bureaucratic sophistry can negate that interpretation of the financial facts.
30% is OZCO's best estimate of how many grants they were able to fund in 2003, but their own somewhat vague estimate for that year was "between 20% and 30%, and if you take 20% as the figure, the amount spent on saying no is greater. In addition, what we are not told is whether or not that percentage increase (from only 10% in 1998) is the result of an increase in the number of "clients" who have given up applying . The information needed to make that calculation is protected by the Freedom Of Information Act. Much of the data needed to assess OZCO's performance is similarlly protected, because it pertains to information provided by "clients", whether successful or not.
In the Australia Council's standard letter from the fund manager sent to inform persons of the failure of their application is the comforting assurance: "If there is anything you would like to discuss in relation to the assessment of your application I invite you to contact (the officer) whose contact details appear above."
But a person responding to this invitation, and expecting to be vouchsafed any kind of artistic assessment of their application would be sadly disappointed, as my experience with the Music Fund may suggest. I went through this process twice. The second exercise was a fishing expedition. This report records the result of my catch.
All that a person will be given in the way of "discussion" will be a percentage score averaged from marks given by committee members assessing the person's application. A person may then request a Statement of Reasons, but I found that the resulting 11-page document consisted largely of an elaborate re-statement of assessment procedures already familiar from the yearly handbook.
Aside from quoting percentages, 25 lines in the Statement were devoted to a resume of the project being assessed, and 3 lines to stating the obvious: that other projects were judged to "demonstrate the criterion" (for contribution to the arts) more strongly.
Having applied for such a Statement I had to wait much longer than the statutory 28 days for it to arrive (in fact, four months!) because (as the Fund Manager lamented in a second letter justifying delay, 31 August 1999) "as some Fund members have been travelling and one is currently overseas, it is taking me a little longer than I originally anticipated to have the endorsement of all members of the Fund which is required before the Chair can sign the Statement."
An identical delay for identical reasons having occurred 3 years ago, I now had the impression that the Council is never adequately prepared to acquit itself of its statutory obligation to provide a "client" with "reasons" for a decision, and, moreover, that the resulting Statement of Reasons (when it finally arrives) is devoid of actual "reasons" ! I decided to continue my efforts to find out why.
Correspondence on the topic (of providing "artistic assessments" ) over 17 months, totalled, in all, a 70 page file, consisting mainly of more obfuscation and evasion. However, amazingly, several nuggets of pertinent information did emerge from the verbiage, which I am able to pass on to interested readers.
The first came in reply to my request (21 June 1999) "that, in the present instance, the Statement of Reasons which is being prepared restricts itself to providing an account of WHY the Committee rejected the Application" and "that those preparing the Statement kindly refrain from subjecting me to a further lengthy elaboration of the assessment procedures of the Australia Council which are, by now, well known to me."
This elicited a response from the Fund Manager (8 July 1999) as follows: "Council has a set format for Statement of Reasons which was formulated under advice in terms of administrative law best practice. This will involve providing details once more of assessment process." I deduced, in other words, that the Council is under legal advice not to provide "artistic assessments."
Pursuing the matter further with the Chair of the Australia Council I was informed (27 October 1999): "While I also understand that you might appreciate a detailed artistic assessment of your proposal, I am sorry that Council does not have the resources to provide these for the nearly 4,000 applications per year." Interesting!
Further enquiry produced the following question/answer exchange by email, which allows easy compilation of question/answer reply (January 25 2000).
My questions, AO replies:
QUESTION: Is the inability of the Council to supply "detailed artistic statements" the result of budgetary constraints?
ANSWER: Yes, as per instructions from government about maintaining a lid on the administrative costs of the Council (e.g. staff) as opposed to funds for grants.
QUESTION: If the answer to the above is "yes", would you please supply an approximate figure for the additional budgetary requirement which would make it possible to supply "detailed artistic assessments" to client-applicants?
ANSWER: Across all art form areas, it would require at least a doubling of the staff and peer budget, which would not be permitted by government. We would also have to increase our peer costs, to enable them to provide the detailed artistic assessments in writing on each application. We estimate this would add another $500,000 to our peer assessment budget, due to the time required.
QUESTION: If the additional budgetary requirement specified above were to be made available to the Council, would the Council then have any objections, either in principle or in practise, to supplying "detailed artistic assessments" to client-applicants?
Hello? So is insufficient funding the only reason for non-provision of "artistic assessments" to clients? If so, was it misleading, in the first place, to cite "administrative law best practice" as the reason?
You may feel as confused as I did, and still do. Is the Federal Government aware of this inconsistency in the advice given by its own arts advisory body? You might be moved to question why our government is spending eight and a quarter million dollars on the salaries of arts bureaucrats to create such an impenetrable maze of contradictions!
And you might think that a better system could be devised which would apportion most of that eight and a quarter million directly to the persons to whom the Australia Council is presently saying "No" without saying why! That way Australia would be richer in intellectual property (but poorer in bureaucrats). A good thing? Some do not think so. Some to whom I have spoken (in preparing this article) are entirely happy with a system in which a dozen people make decisions for the entire Australian continent as to what intellectual product gets developed with public money.
This system is called "peer group assessment" and it has been developed so that the government of the day remains "at arm's length" from the decision making process. The problem begins with the amount of money which is available for funding so-called "grassroots" arts activity, as distinct from the amount available for funding what is called arts "infrastructure ".
In round figures, I was told, in 1999, that $2.5 million is available for the former, and $55 million for the latter. The work of the individual creative artists falls into the "grassroots" category, and arts organizations fall into the latter. I haven't had the heart or the energy to update that figure. Delving into such a dismal statistic would be bad for my health, and unless I look after my health I will not survive the economic and psychological deprivation which is the lot of those artists who do not benefit from intravenous dip-feed funding from the Australia Council. The names of those who do receive such medication on a continuing basis are there on the record, for any journalist who wishes to find out. There never has been such a journalist and there probably never will be. But as to my contribution to any ensuing debate, there is absolutely a limit to the time I will spend on producing a document such as this, for which I will receive little or no thanks. Nevertheless, I plod on.
Individual artists might well be aggrieved to realise that the Australian Council does not regard them as part of the "infrastructure " of the arts. But they should not be surprised. Arts bureaucrats are incapable of conceiving that they are not the most important part of the "infrastructure " of the arts. Infrastructure sounds important, and importance attracts money. Their liking for money explains why, although they claim to "represent" artists, they do not include artists in the number of those who make up the "infrastructure ". If you want to understand this conundrum, simply follow the money trail. In fact, if you want to understand any puzzling aspect of human behaviour, involving inconsistency, humbug and hypocrisy, just follow the money trail. But the problem does not end there.
The full funding picture is even more discouraging for the individual creative artist when you include the fact that, in addition to getting most of the public money, the "infrastructure" sector also has a monopoly on receiving the tax-deductible arts-donation dollar. This source of funding is only available to "registered arts organizations", and in the performing arts, for example, money from this source is rarely spent on commissioning new work, since performance organisations need every cent they get from any source, simply to stay afloat - i.e. to pay the salaries of their own administrators.
So, if they want to commission new work, to whom do they apply? Why, to the Australia Council, of course!! And have to submit to the judgemental processes of an Australia Council committee!
A reminder here that those interested in reading a proposal for a widening of the funding base for the individual creative artist, also formerly known as the "primary creator", can read the article " Registrar of Primary Creators ", posted on my website. It's quite short, giving just the skeletal idea as a basis for discussion.
This proposal , in essence, offers a formula which would empower individuals in the private and corporate sectors to make decisions about what new art works get written - without the benefit of advice from "peer groups" or committees of any kind. The prospect of private individuals having the power to decide what art works get created fills many people in the mainstream music establishment with alarm, just as it probably does in other areas of the arts.
In my most recent conversation on this topic what most struck me was the distrust displayed by the speaker towards the aesthetic standards of the very people on whom the speaker relied ultimately for employment - the general public, otherwise known as the taxpayer.
I was told that the power of decision in this area should not be granted to the general public (i.e. the taxpayer), because this would result in a form of economic rationalism in the arts - in order words, it would result in artists writing to order to sell their product in the market place.
It was suggested to me that on no account should this unorthodox approach be encouraged. When I protested that members of the general public might not appreciate having their artistic preferences treated with such disdain, I was told that it was all right sometimes to "eat at McDonald's", but that some people might prefer to go round the corner to eat at a better class of restaurant.
Amazed, I asked if the speaker was suggesting that the general public is only capable of appreciating McMusic, and that only McMusic would result if they were allowed to decide what gets written!
It was a rhetorical question, because I had already been given the answer. And I think the General McPublic should know what their arts gurucrats think of them.
So we're agreed then? It makes nonsense of the concept of individual creativity if an artist works to order. Correct? But if an artist successfully second-guesses what AGENDA will score him or her a government grant, that does not constitute writing to order, or selling a product in a market place, does it !
Of course not. That's producing the best that Australia has to offer. Otherwise the Australia Council would not have funded it.
Time for a summing up.
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