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The Arts

Jun 1, 2012

The minister, the speech and the troubled arts department

Queensland Arts Minister Ros Bates fired her top arts bureaucrat for a speech she plagiarised from Labor. But Bates was in the chamber when the speech she copied was first read out. Ben Eltham reports on the turmoil up north.

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Queensland Arts Minister Ros Bates has fired her top bureaucrat, deputy director general Shane Rowlands, blaming her for a speech she plagiarised from a Labor opponent. But Bates was in the chamber when the speech she copied was first read out.

Rowlands has taken the fall for a speech that Bates delivered to Queensland Parliament on May 17, in which she recycled whole paragraphs of a speech from the former Labor arts minister Rachel Nolan.

The speech was introducing a bill, the Queensland Art Gallery Amendment Bill. But while the content of the bill was dull enough (it was an administrative amendment which dealt with the Queensland Art Gallery’s board of trustees), the speech accompanying it has now played a role in the downfall of the head of Arts Queensland. Bates gave the speech after apparently relying on advice from the department, which, logically enough, presented her with the same advice it had presented to Nolan in November.

“I am pleased to introduce a bill which enables the board to establish a committee to carry on the crucial activities of the foundation for the benefit of the community,” Nolan said on November 29. “The foundation was originally formed in 1979 for the purpose of assisting the board to maintain, improve and develop the state collection of works of art and the facilities and operations of the Queensland Art Gallery.”

On May 17, Bates got to her feet and said “this bill enables the Art Gallery board of trustees to establish a committee to carry on the crucial activities of the foundation for the benefit of the community. The foundation was originally formed in 1979 for the purpose of assisting the board to maintain, improve and develop the state collection of works of art and the facilities and operations of the Queensland Art Gallery.” And so on.

As is immediately apparent on a comparison of the Hansards, Bates and her staff simply failed to vet the speech presented to her.

Bates blamed the department. The day after the embarrassing gaffe came to light in local newspapers, Rowlands was dismissed.

In Parliament this week, Bates has claimed the sacking was initiated by Rowlands’ immediate superior, the director general of the Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, Philip Reed. But what exactly was Rowlands sacked for? Providing the minister with advice over a bill is the job of the department. Given that the bill was identical to the one presented by Labor, it makes sense that the advice was also the same. It’s hardly the department’s fault if the minister reads out that advice and is embarrassed by the consequences.

Of course, the more cynical might observe that ministerial embarrassment is always the department’s fault. But the Westminster system is not supposed to work like that: it is in fact the minister who is meant to be accountable to Parliament. When the new cabinet was sworn in at the beginning of April, Premier Campbell Newman promised the return of “proper Westminster accountability … to Queensland”.

No matter: Rowlands is gone.

Opposition arts spokeswoman Jackie Trad is fresh to Parliament after winning Anna Bligh’s old seat of South Brisbane. “The fact that this has happen the day after a story broke about the minister plagiarising a speech delivered by the former Labor arts minister is deeply concerning,” she wrote in an email. “If the public servant has been sacked for this reason then what this amounts to is a monumental dummy spit from a Minister who is clearly out of her depth.”

Labor’s Trad points out that Bates was in the chamber in November when Nolan read out the speech, and should have remembered. “Less than six months ago Ros Bates sat in the Parliament while the former Labor minister delivered this speech and introduced the original bill,” Trad writes. “Ros Bates as a minister is provided with significant tax-payer funded resources including staff at her beck and call. She is responsible for ensuring that her speeches in Parliament contain her vision, her priorities and her own words.

“The public service is responsible for providing factually correct information, not political speeches.”

Rowlands, the deputy director general, was well-regarded in arts circles and had a background as a policy maker, academic and writer. Arts Queensland’s website doesn’t appear to have caught up with the news either: as of this morning, you could still see Rowlands’ biography on Arts Queensland’s website. She is believed to be considering appealing the decision.

A source inside Arts Queensland told Crikey that Rowlands was a popular figure inside the department and that staff were “shocked and dismayed” by the dismissal. Crikey understands there is considerable turnover in the ranks of the department: a number of Labor-sympathising staff have already quit, and all temporary contracts are not being renewed.

“We get to have cake every week,” the source said, owing to the number of staff departing.

Crikey approached Ros Bates and Phillip Reed for comment, but so far none has been received.

Ben Eltham —

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

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