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Artistic Freedom

The hypocrisy is galling. Abbott government Minister George Brandis' invokes freedom of speech when advocating for a winding back of protections against racial vilification, and yet moves to censor artists wishing to criticise his government's appalling and cruel refugee policies.

Protection for hate speech and banning of conscience is now the Abbott government's signature arts policy.

The Minister's open threat to the Australia Council, following the recent decision of the Biennale art festival to sever ties with its founding sponsor of 41 years, Transfield Holdings, is nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to censor criticism of his government.

Political interference in the arts, by threatening to withdraw funding for disagreeing with government policy, is dangerous and goes against the very philosophy of independence that underpins the Australia Council.

The idea that it would be a condition of Australia Council funding "that the applicant does not unreasonably refuse private sector funding" is absolutely abhorrent.

How can Minister Brandis honestly defend this blatant political interference of directing the Australia Council on how, and who, they award funding to? Requiring artists to take corporate money regardless of the ethical considerations involved, is asking those very artists to censor their own conscience and integrity for the sake of money.

Where is the independence in that?

The Australia Council Act explicitly states "The Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee)." Senator Brandis tried unsuccessfully to overturn this when the bill passed before the 2013 election. The very fact that Minister Brandis is now seeking to override this explicit section of the Act, by arguing that it is not related to a 'particular case', is further proof, of just how far the Abbott government will go, to silence its critics. 

It is unconscionable that Minister Brandis, a Minister who claims to have great affection for the arts, is seeking to wind back the independence of the arts community.

If arts organisations are no longer able to make their own governance and resourcing decisions based on their values, then haven't we lost the very individuality that we cherish?

This harks back to dark days of the Howard government, where funding to an art gallery in Wagga Wagga was threatened, when it exhibited Michael Agzarian's work No More Lies depicting condemnation of the Prime Minister Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, and previous Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, following their similarly cruel treatment of refugees. 

The Arts evoke passion and emotion. Art holds up a mirror to society and pricks the conscience of the nation. It frequently divides opinion and drives reflection and change. But that does not mean that a government has the right to direct the peak arts funding body in Australia, to only provide funding to those organisations that have not refused private sponsorship, just because they don't want one of their policies criticised.

Live music, exhibitions, literature, and performances challenge our thinking, entertain us and enrich our lives. With the constant build-up of day-to-day pressures, we need them more than ever. Yet the Abbott government's intervention into the way in which the Australia Council awards funding, is further evidence of their desire to have greater ministerial control over art funding decisions so that they can gag artworks and performance they don't like.

Arts organisations should be free to decline funding from a private provider, if they feel as though it compromises their values - and moves from the Minister for retribution, and silencing of artists, should not be tolerated.

 

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