LN - 5A (Dustfall in Orion), 2010-13. Oil on canvas, 130 x 130cm small

Guy Morgan, LN – 5A (Dustfall in Orion), 2010-13. Oil on canvas, 130 x 130cm, courtesy of the artist.

It’s a pity that people don’t take more notice of events in the literary world as omens of what might be about to occur in the larger world of politics. For if they did, the Prime Minister’s intervention on behalf of Richard Flanagan in the literary awards named in his honour in December last year might have served as warning of the knighthood he later gave to Prince Philip, a unilateral decision which almost toppled him. Earlier still, of course, there was the selection of the judging panels for the literary awards, in the key areas of fiction and non-fiction, which had so many ideologically suitable members appointed by the relevant section of the Ministry for the Arts, that there should have been no need for intervention in the first place.

I guess you can’t blame the Prime Minister for believing that the Prime Minister’s Awards are his to give. When Paul Keating was Prime Minister he created awards specifically for this purpose, which aptly enough, were to carry his name. If I were the Minister for the Arts and most of the funding for the arts was being administered by a government agency over which I had no control, I too might feel it was time to bring some of it back home, so that I could at least claim some of the credit for the benefits they bestowed. Last year Senator Brandis made a number of grants independently of the Australia Council, and without a process of assessment – to the Australian Ballet School and Melba Recordings – which showed his liking for this sort of direct patronage. In a speech just prior to the election, Brandis referred approvingly to ‘people such as Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb and me, who have been dedicated arts patrons in our respective cities for many years’ (Australian, 5 September 2013).

The transfer of $105 million from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts, in addition to the $6 million taken for the Book Council of Australia, and the $7 million in efficiency savings, has provoked a lot of talk about the importance of arm’s-length funding by government, which is obviously preferable to funding by a select ministerial committee appointed and overseen by the minister himself. However, it is important to distinguish the ethical but unrewarding ideal of ‘arms-length funding’, which aspires to be neutral and impersonal, from the seductive attractions of ‘patronage’, which brings acclaim and honour to the patron, while imposing a certain expectation of obligation or gratitude on the part of the patronised.

There is a vivid illustration of the rewards and obligations bound up in patronage, in the space given to them in the opening pages of the Australian Book Review, perhaps the most highly patronised of contemporary Australian literary publications. Across a two-page spread, it lists its named patrons in a scale of generosity, from ‘Realists’ through ‘Romantics’ to ‘Augustans’ and ‘Olympians’, including a ‘Perpetual Patron’, who presumably looks down on the magazine benignly from heaven. This roll-call is accompanied by a regular feature, with photograph, of the ‘Patron of the Month’. The ‘patrons’ are distinguished from ‘partners’, generally government funding agencies, but also foundations, which are listed on a separate page, not by categories of giving, but by their logos. So that even where the foundation carries a name, there is a degree of institutional impersonality or anonymity in the acknowledgement.

I don’t know whether there is a political difference to be found in attitudes to the giving of public money – whether a Liberal government, with a nostalgia for aristocratic modes of generosity, might favour ‘patronage’ over arms-length ‘funding’ for the recognition it brings to the giver – but the example of the Keatings would suggest otherwise. The ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’, which is to be funded with the $105 million redirected from the Australia Council, is described as providing support for ‘endowments, international touring and strategic projects, with an emphasis on attracting private sector support’, and this suggests a greater emphasis on philanthropic patronage and corporate sponsorship. It was the rejection of such patronage, from Transfield Holdings, by the Biennale of Sydney, which caused Senator Brandis to threaten the punishment which he has now carried out:

No doubt when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done (Guardian, 13 March 2014).

Inasmuch as patronage and sponsorship imply wealth and success in business, they are entirely compatible with, indeed expressions of, the Government’s own commitment to private enterprise. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Minister should find this mode of giving, with its acknowledgements and rewards, and its imposition of obligation on the needy, more attractive than the arms-length delivery of funds, given by artists for artists, in what purports to be an egalitarian and independent manner.

There is little to be gained ideologically from the decisions of the Australia Council, but there is a lot to object to, if, as a Liberal politician, you assume that those involved in the arms-length decision-making, the so-called ‘peers’, are likely to be Left-leaning in their beliefs. When Senator Brandis, in an interview with Michael Cathcart on ABC Radio National (19 May 2015), described the Australia Council as ‘an iron wall that you’re either inside or outside’, it was impossible not to hear the phrase ‘iron curtain’ echo in the distance. The implication is that the Australia Council is an instrument of – well, not communism or socialism now – but of the Left nevertheless.

The last time I heard the cry that the Australia Council was discriminating against writers on the basis of their ideological beliefs was in the 1980s, when Les Murray lead the charge. What it came down to, usually, was that Quadrant was receiving less funding than its left-wing counterparts, Meanjin and Overland. I haven’t heard that charge in recent times, nor the avalanche of complaints that Senator Brandis says he has experienced, and which he uses to invoke ‘the widely-held view’ that the Australia Council is a ‘closed shop’ (another anti-Left innuendo). I was surprised to see Les Murray on the judging panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, alongside his lieutenants in the poetry wars of the 1980s, Jamie Grant and Robert Gray, and one-time Quadrant editor and Liberal parliamentarian Peter Coleman, not because their appointment was unexpected, but because you would have thought that the Ministry for the Arts might have found a younger generation of appropriate judges who had come to prominence in the 30 years since then. Their rhetoric, and their appointments, make it look like the Minister and the Ministry have their gaze firmly locked on the past.

The situation is hard to read because Senator Brandis argues that the creation of his ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’, and the redirection of funds from the Australia Council that it requires, is designed to make arts funding both ‘more accessible’ and ‘more contestable’. Accessibility, particularly outside the metropolitan centres of Melbourne and Sydney, in regional areas and through smaller arts companies, you might easily identify with the Left – it is, in any case, an important part of the Australia Council’s stated mission. (The Minister’s attack on metropolitan elites is, once again, reminiscent of Les Murray’s in the 1980s.) On the other hand, the idea that we need two separate sources of arts funding, each in contest with the other, looks very much like the hallowed Liberal belief in competition and the free-market economy, now applied to the economy of arts-funding. When Michael Cathcart suggested, in his interview with George Brandis, that this curtailing of the power of the Australia Council, as the supposed ‘monopoly funder’ of the arts, in the name of ‘contestability’, was really an expression of ‘the principle of competition’, the Minister readily agreed.

He might see it as competition, but right now it looks like war. The Australia Council’s six-year funding program, on which the Sydney Review of Books and other literary journals had been depending, has been suspended. If there is no corresponding program forthcoming from the Ministry for the Arts, our existence will be threatened. The cancellation of the June round of funding will have an immediate effect on the publishers of Australian literary titles, requiring the cancellation or postponement of some of those titles. Senator Brandis claims that the transferral of funds to the Ministry for the Arts means only a 12–13% reduction in the budget of the Australia Council. When the government-directed programs, which are quarantined from cuts, are taken out of the equation, the reduction is more like 27%. Literature has always been the poor relation to the other arts when it comes to funding – if, in addition, you take out the $6 million transferred from the Australia Council budget for the new Book Council of Australia, the situation for us looks pretty grim.

I agree with Sophie Cunningham, previous chair of the Literature Board, when she noted recently on Facebook how difficult it is

to administer the handing over of large amounts of money, to a broad community of artists and institutions, and communicate with people on how and why this is happening.

You couldn’t do so without duplicating, to a considerable extent, the bureaucracy that already exists at the Australia Council. It will require a lot of time and resources. In order to economise, the Minister will have to depend – as he has already indicated – on an advisory panel of chosen experts, and a system of nomination and referral which makes the assessment of applicants as simple as possible. Since it has been invoked so often as a reason for redirecting funds from the Australia Council, one assumes that the idea of ‘excellence’ will be put to good use, in bringing the process of assessment to a swift and incontestable conclusion.

Sydney Review of Books this week turns its attention to one of the world’s preeminent nature writers and to the work of arguably the most formidable crime novelist of our time. In ‘Betraying the Loch’, Gregory Day examines Landmarks, the latest book by Robert Macfarlane. Nature writing, Day proposes, begins in the aesthetic and ends in the ethical, and Macfarlane’s psychogeographical excursions have implications that reach well beyond the specific landscapes he traverses. Macfarlane’s concern in Landmarks, argues Day,

is not so much with reprising any decorative or ‘what-ho’ tradition of intrepid literary adventurers, but rather with the urgent – as opposed to nostalgic – need to re-engage Britain’s largely metropolitan population with the marvellously specific and intricate habitats that continue to be smashed by industrialisation, population growth and sprawl. But there is a downside to this, a downside of reception, which is worth analysing, especially given his style’s compatibility with literary tourism.

In ‘Dance to the Music of Crime’, Adam Rivett immerses himself in the dark and obsessive world of James Ellroy, whose latest novel Perfidia he finds to be ‘an unhinged, florid, foolhardy book’. Ellroy’s novels, argues Rivett, ‘operate not as Whodunits, but Howdunits’; their fantastically intricate plots aim to give the most elaborate historical conspiracy theories the density and plausibility of reality. In tracing the evolution of Ellroy’s unique hardboiled style, Rivett also examines the perverse moral vision underlying the author’s depiction of a world in which violence, depravity and corruption are the only constants:

The novel’s four characters – in their voice, approach and goals – are agents of the overwhelmed, and offer the reader the complete range of Ellroyian types. They also display the writer at his best and worst.

From the Archives this week looks at the work of one of Australia’s best-loved crime writers, Kerry Greenwood. In ‘Tales of the City’, Jennifer Mills considers Tamam Shud, Greenwood’s investigation into ‘one of Adelaide’s great cold cases’ – that of the  unidentified ‘Somerton Man’, who was found dead on a beach in 1948 with a single page from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in his pocket. As Mills observes, this strange case is one of many notorious crimes haunting a city that Salman Rushdie once described as Australia’s answer to Amityville or Salem:

There are also the Beaumont children, who disappeared from Glenelg beach on Australia Day 1966. There is the case of fifteen-year-old Richard Kelvin, who in 1983 was kidnapped, tortured and dumped on an airstrip, and the connected Family murders of the early 1980s, which involved conspiracy theories about high-profile paedophile rings. There are the brutal Truro killings of the late 1970s and, more recently, the infamous Snowtown murders. Adelaide’s hauntings tend to be bloodthirsty.