On a sunny day in Tamworth earlier this week the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) proudly accepted a grant of $50,000 from NSW Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald to assist with “operations in the lead-up to the 2008 Country Music Awards”.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Federal Senator was Deputy Mayor Phil Betts, also a mover and shaker within the National Party who is running for the New England seat against standing Independent Tony Windsor.

“I am pleased the Australian Coalition Government has been able to support the CMAA in this way, playing its part in strengthening Australia’s country music industry,” Senator Macdonald said in the release.

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The large cheque from the “Federal Government of Australia” was proudly presented by NSW Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald to the CMAA in front of the infamous Tamworth guitar shaped obelisk that stands proudly in the centre of the country music capital of Australia. The funds are a welcome addition to the signing of Jayco as sponsor to a very popular event that is now in its 36th year.

Picture from Left to right: Rod Laing – CMAA Chairman, Phil Betts – Deputy Mayor of Tamworth Regional Council and National Party Candidate for the Federal Seat of New England, Sandy Macdonald – NSW Senator and Cheryl Hayes – CMAA General Manager.

But where the money from the “Australian Coalition Government” came from exactly is a little less clear. Normally, a regional arts organisation is required to complete a comprehensive grant application and acquittal that is either administered by the Australia Council for the Arts or a regional arts or touring body funded by the Arts Ministry within DCITA.

The CMAA didn’t jump any of these hoops usually afforded to most arts and music organisations in acquiring a few thousand dollars, let alone $50,000.

A Tamworth council insider has suggested to Crikey that the $50,000 was less about assisting in the production of the world famous Country Music Awards as the CMAA maintains, and more about covering a debt that the CMAA owed Tamworth Regional Council for use of its entertainment centre.

Crikey believes that a meeting was held between the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor to arrange the payment and on Tuesday 25 September a subsequent council meeting was held in Tamworth where a “Closed Council” motion proposed that:

That Council apply the TRECC Economic Benefit Policy venue hire by the Country Music Association of Australia to the extent as detailed in confidence for the 34th, 35th and 36th Country Music Festivals; and further the CMAA be advised to submit a Business Plan to the Tamworth Venues and Events Corporation for 2009.

It was a good photo opportunity for a National Party Senator who is seeking to remove the popular Independent Tony Windsor and replace him with his National Party colleague. And Senator Brandis was there to pork-barrel his National Party colleagues with his available discretionary funding.

For Tamworth, the rough and tumble of politics has always been a heated affair and every little bit of help counts. Even a bit of money to help the CMAA pay the rent.

In late 2004 the argy bargy between Windsor and the National Party reached its height when Windsor accused Senator Macdonald of organising local Tamworth businessman Greg Maguire to bribe Windsor to leave the seat of New England. At the time, Maguire angrily refuted the claims, dumping on Windsor.

Despite this, the National Party needs a 20% swing to remove Windsor and it appears that the “Australian Coalition Government” is even now prepared to throw money at arts organisations in safe non-Coalition seats.

DCITA maintains that the funding of the CMAA comes from the Cultural Development Fund. It sounds official, but is little more than a term to describe the discretionary funds that the Arts Minister has at his disposal. Just this week he floated $1.5million to the financially disastrous Sydney Dance Company as part of the ‘Cultural Development Fund’. Senator Brandis’s office is yet to confirm with Crikey how much money is available as part of this discretionary funding.

It could, however, be a new “Australian Coalition Government” model of funding the arts in Australia that Senator Brandis is now advocating. The need for process, accountability and pages upon pages of grant application forms could disappear along with the bureaucrats and the Australia Council for the Arts.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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