It doesn’t take a censor to silence an artist — a sufficiently opaque and discretionary funding body can achieve the same effect. The Australia Council Review, which has grown out of the Cultural Policy Review initiated by Arts Minister Simon Crean, is doing an excellent job of illustrating this principle.

Since the Cultural Policy Review was launched last year, Crikey‘s Ben Eltham has been shining a light on the fate of artists and arts bodies that fall foul of the Australia Council’s whims. His is a lonely voice; few of his sources are willing to go on the record in support of his claims. But there’s plenty of applause from “Anonymous”.

With the Australia Council accountable to no one outside itself, elements of the council have a shameful track record of serving their own agenda rather than nurturing artist-led organisations. Their decisions are inconsistent with their own guidelines; their processes and protocols opaque. That’s the experience of the stage and screenwriters the Australian Writers’ Guild represents and, judging by Eltham’s recent columns, dancers, crafts people and many others that the council is designed to support, share it. The unlimited tenure enjoyed by the council’s influential staff has further suppressed any criticism of an organisation whose real decision makers cannot even be subjected to Freedom of Information requests.

The review has finally created the opportunity artists and organisations have hoped for — to expose the workings of this super-bureaucracy to someone with the power to make changes.

What’s been said must have given the reviewers pause for thought.  The Australia Council Review has now launched a national survey to publicly consult on whether the Australia Council remains relevant today. Minister Crean said many of the 450 submissions received during the consultation process “discussed the role” of the agency.

It seems likely that many organisations who made public submissions “discussed the council’s role” rather than risk stating their specific concerns for fear of losing crucial survival funding should the council continue to operate in its current form once the review is done.

Three key issues they might have “discussed” more openly had the Australia Council been less of a fiefdom are transparency, independence and artist focus.

Each grant board within the Australia Council has a set of criteria according to which it supposedly transparently allocates funding. For example, the Literature Board’s published application material for the 2010 funding year stipulated that all three of its most basic criteria must be met in order for an applicant to even get past the first hurdle. The criteria were: a minimum of two grants from the Australia Council in the past three years; a minimum of 40% in income from sources other than the Australia Council; and that it must be legally constituted as an organisation.

However, just because the criteria are published and advertised as universally applicable doesn’t mean the Literature Board has felt bound by them. In that year, the board awarded funding to Writing Australia, which met none of these criteria because it did not even exist until the Australia Council coaxed it into being. The new entity was so far from being an organic, needs-based initiative, that the Australia Council had to give it a grant to pay a consultant to write the business plan that allowed it to become an entity. The Australia Council suggested that the business plan should be geared towards having Writing Australia recognised as an “emerging key organisation” and indicated that a quarter of a million dollars would be available for such an organisation. Then the council created a funding pool that had not previously existed. Lo and behold, it was for “emerging key organisations”.

It didn’t go unnoticed in the arts community, of course. When the AWG asked why a new national writers organisation was needed in addition to the long-established Australian Society of Authors, Australian Writers’ Guild, Australian Poetry, sundry state-based writers’ centres and the brand new Playwriting Australia — the answer was a cross between “because we say so” and “because our guidelines have changed”. The imperative of the guidelines appears to ebb and flow.

These flexible guidelines might not be such an issue if personal agendas and the public interest were separated through clear conflict-of-interest policies. But not only does the Australia Council have a habit of generosity toward organisations that it has been significantly instrumental in establishing, there are apparently no rules against the board members who set them up or approve their funding personally benefiting from those very funds. In one instance, the freshly funded Playwriting Australia, beneficiary of the limber guidelines mentioned above, awarded the chair of the theatre board a commission of $10,000 — the only one awarded that year — and an invitation to the National Script Workshop in 2010, one of only six highly coveted  spots for playwrights nationwide.

In this context it is not entirely unconcerning that the two chairs of the review both have had long-standing commitments, including board appointments, to organisations that consistently receive some of the Australia Council’s largest grants — more than 10 million annually between them.

It is an encouraging sign that the review has approved an anonymous survey to allow worried artists to do more than just “discuss” the role of the Australia Council. It would be more encouraging still if artists were able to speak out openly about their experiences without the fear of losing access to funding in future. Only fair, open and transparent processes can achieve that.