The new chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts is supposed to be a leading exponent of the virtues of accountability, transparency and all those other things that contribute to the good governance of corporations and public institutions.

As one of the country’s most respected corporate citizens, James Strong has a reputation for being a stickler for due process.

For instance, this is what the former Qantas chief and current chair of Woolies and IAG said in last Saturday’s The Weekend Australian about the importance due process at the nation’s premier arts funding organisation:

The Australia Council is handling a lot of money and I think the Government and the public expect not only good administration, they certainly expect due process. There’s this question, which is very important indeed, whether the need to show due process in everything you do means you do some things in a complex fashion. But there’s no alternative. I certainly do see meticulous attention to the process within council.

According to Strong, there’s a greater burden on a body like the Australia Council to be seen to be doing the right thing than there would be for a non-taxpayer organisation:

The special requirements to expending the public’s money mean there’s more emphasis on ensuring you’ve done things in a way that can withstand scrutiny than if it wasn’t public money.

If Strong seriously believes that the Australia Council’s processes are capable of withstanding public scrutiny, he simply doesn’t understand the organisation he now chairs, nor does he have any grasp of the deep-seated anger and frustration in the arts community over the organisation’s appalling opacity. (I know I’ve used that line before but I like it.)

It’s certainly true that the OzCo’s processes are complex but that complexity seems to be more for the sake of obfuscation than transparency.

In recent months, I’ve provided various examples of the organisation’s risible approach to accountability, but here’s a story that shows the OzCo taking bureaucratic stonewalling to a whole new level.

Anne Sanders is a postgraduate art history student at ANU in Canberra and is writing a thesis on public sculpture, including the history of the Australian Sculpture Triennials that were held between 1981 and 1993. Sanders wrote to the OzCo last March seeking access to its records on funding for the the sculpture events. Given the central role the OzCo has played in the art since the ’70s decades, Sanders saw its archive as an obvious source of information.

“Any art history of the last 35 years is more than likely going to involve the presence of the Australia Council,” Sanders told Crikey.

She wasn’t expecting any problems with her request, believing that there was nothing remarkable or controversial about the documents she was seeking. However, to cut short a very long story, the OzCo’s first reaction was to tell Sanders she would have to make a Freedom of Information application, and then after months of correspondence and phone calls, she was notified that the FoI request would cost her a minimum of $1750 and perhaps a good deal more. Her efforts to have the charges waived on the grounds that she is a student have so far been rejected.

I have read much of the correspondence in relation to this matter and the OzCo’s unyielding and officious attitude – couched in mind-numbing bureaucratese – is staggering for what it reveals about the organisation’s commitment to transparency. And what makes this case all the more disturbing is that Sanders is no rank outsider. Before returning to full-time study she managed a leading commercial gallery in Sydney and before that she was a policy officer for the OzCo. She knows how to work the system. If this is how a seasoned operator is treated, what hope is there for an emerging artist with no experience in dealing with the OzCo’s labyrinthine processes?

Note to James Strong: Sir, the organisation you chair is p-ssweak on accountability. You can’t be blamed for creating the problem but you will be held accountable if you don’t, as a matter of urgency, do something to fix it.

Peter Fray

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