Federal Arts Minister George Brandis has entered the debate over Transfield’s aborted sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale. The Australian reports he has written to the head of national arts funding body the Australia Council over the “insult”, saying:

“Artists, like everybody else, are entitled to voice their political opinions, but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements.

“Even more damagingly, the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve.”

Some of that we can agree with; we’ve argued in this space that artists’ successful boycott of the event won’t serve the sector in the long term. But it’s the not-particularly veiled threat that follows that will really worry the arts community:

“You will readily understand that taxpayers will say to themselves: ‘If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?'”

Brandis says it makes it “difficult to justify” government support for the Biennale, via the Australia Council; when the contract is renewed next year the government will “have regard to this episode and to the damage” it has done.

Sound familiar? Here’s Tony Abbott, speaking about the ABC’s defence of a Chaser skit involving conservative columnist Chris Kenny, recently:

“The point I make is that government money should be spent sensibly, and defending the indefensible is not a very good way to spend government money. Next time the ABC comes to the government looking for more money, this is the kind of thing that we would want to ask them questions about.”

It’s intimidation, pure and simple. As Raymond Gill reports for Crikey, arts companies are anxious. Last night, ABC chairman Jim Spigelman admitted management felt the “greater degree of scrutiny” the broadcaster has been subject to.

The funding may survive — at the ABC, for the Australia Council, elsewhere — but the intimidation will have worked.

Peter Fray

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