Letter from the Editor

Ministerial Whim

By Naomi Riddle

28 September, 2018

‘Everyone loves the rain, except those caught in their
business suits’
Allen Ginsberg, ‘Porch Scribbles’ (1980)


A man sits behind a desk in a private office. Placed in front of him is a stack of documents requiring his signature—the sign-off of approval. Let’s imagine his office is in a high-rise building, and he is a man moderately busy with his work. His signature is required often and with speed, but the man has many advisors who shield him from rudimentary tasks: they reply to emails on his behalf, and they inform him when he should or shouldn’t appear in public wearing a tie. The man gazes out a window (as moderately busy and moderately powerful men are apt to do), and balances a ballpoint pen in his right hand. He looks at the first page and runs down a list of seventeen names. He starts placing a few ticks next to several of these, but then stops. He draws a squiggly sort of cross-hatch over the top of his ticks, loosening up in the elbow, before writing: ‘No.’ He makes his way a few lines down the list and draws a thick heavy line (the ballpoint pen does not waver). Then, at the top of the page, he writes in a florid scrawl—‘the first six recommended applications from the panel are approved, in accordance with revised budget parameters.’

This week, ABC News published a report that NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin had personally intervened in the most recent Create NSW Arts and Cultural Projects funding round. (This funding round had already gained notoriety, firstly due to lengthy delays in its announcement, and secondly for its 2.7% success rate.) After lodging a Freedom of Information request, the ABC found that an independent panel of assessors had sent a recommended list of projects that shared a total budget of $660,000 for ministerial approval. But once this list had been received, the minister allocated only $256,000 to six organisations, with the rest of the budget redirected to a redacted ‘special project’. It has since been exposed during parliamentary question time that this ‘special project’ was a rushed attempt to plug a hole in a $1 million bucket promised to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  

What is of most interest in the published image of this document is the capitalised ‘No’, and the firmness with which the bold line is drawn. Government bureaucracy often works to conceal operations of power, but here it does the opposite. The handwritten notation is jarring; the appearance of ink suggesting rush and impulse, not fairness or justness. At first I was confused by the squiggly markings on the left of the image, which seemed so at odds with the horizontal line. But, on closer inspection, I began to make out that the squiggles were crossing out a series of ticks going down the page. It seems that Harwin, in scrounging around for extra cash, initially began ticking off individual projects (some questions: were these just the projects he liked? The cheapest? The safest bet? Ones that related to marginal seats?). And then after marking six or so (it’s hard to tell in the image), he went with the safest option: he erased his ticks, and simply drew a line under the first six organisations (more questions: were these in alphabetical order? Or were they arranged by cost? Given the independent panel didn’t know that these extra cuts would happen, it’s likely that the list was not tabled in order of merit).

I am preoccupied with this drawn line because I know the feeling of relief, that miraculous exhale, when you find yourself above it, but I also know the feeling of dissociative numbness when you find yourself below.

But this is not merely a case of ‘a very high volume of applications’ skewing the success rate, as was initially claimed. This is a decision that was publicly announced under the illusion of due process—a punitive political action was concealed, one which was made arbitrarily and against advice. To be found above the line in this instance is a case of sheer dumb luck: the result of ministerial whim.

As it turns out, this is not an aberration, but a norm. In the last two weeks alone, we have seen the Australian government increase the funding of Independent schools at the expense of public education, we have seen the ABC’s managing director fired without explanation, only to have it later suggested that it was due to an unwillingness to give into political pressure from the chairman of the board (he has since resigned, but denies these claims). We have seen the NSW state government reverse their proposal to instate marine sanctuaries because of outcry from the fishing industry, and the Guardian has reported that ‘more than half of all Australian lobbyists previously worked inside government or for the major political parties, with one in four staffing the offices of ministers, parliamentary secretaries or backbenchers.’ The interim report on the findings of the banking royal commission—a commission the government declared to be a waste of taxpayer’s money—will be released today.

None of this is surprising. It is all part of the same rot. Name the cause, writes Bertolt Brecht, not the injury. The ‘triumph’ of late Capitalism has seen the complete erosion of governmental independence. We are left with a political class that does not govern in the nation’s interest, (or, for that matter, even in the partisan voter’s interest), but for the corporations and lobbyists that have unfettered access to them. (Why was it that Harwin promised $1 million to the Sydney Symphony without knowing where he would find it?) Add to this a neoliberal framework that thrives on individualism rather than collectivity, that draws strength from keeping us in a  perpetually competitive state. Those striving to maintain any not-for-profit or non-commercial endeavour find themselves operating within a for-profit model, with little recourse but to rely on dwindling government support and cash prizes in order to survive (which then works to foster more competition and suspicion).  

‘If you have a go, you’ll get a go’, says Scott Morrison, disburdening himself of responsibility while simultaneously training us to see cultural or social or environmental failures as faults of our own making. It is also a phrase, as suggested by Miya Tokumitsu, that erases notions of community. 

‘Nothing cuts off self-determination more efficiently than eradicating its language,’ argues Tokumitsu. ‘Replacing it with misdirecting prattle that locates all blame as well as the possible redemption from it back onto the individual is a magnificent coup for those who would like to keep us wary of one another.’

But if you name the cause, you must also name the salve.

I am thankful that the ABC’s Michaela Boland thought this a story worth pursuing, and that we have the National Association of Visual Arts to challenge and petition the NSW government on this breach of trust. I am grateful that Create NSW’s investment director, Sophia Zachariou, suggested the government was politicising funding and acting in bad faith. I am hopeful that when Harwin has the temerity to appear at the next state funded art event, that you, and I, and others will question him as to the exact meaning of ‘ministerial discretion’ (let us also not forget the elections at state and federal level next year). But mostly I would like to think that the Kafaesque nature of this revelation instills within the art world less of a focus on the individual, and more of a willingness to fully embrace what it means to say that we are working as a community. The question of what art can be is too important to be left in the hands of a dishonest man with a ballpoint pen.