Many years ago, the then federal arts minister in Malcolm Fraser’s cabinet, Tony Staley, told me it took a very sophisticated politician to be comfortable with handing out government subsidies in the arts and then being criticised in the work of the recipient artists and companies. As reports of censorship (self censorship?) of a line at the (very mild) expense of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman in the Queensland Theatre Company production of Australia Day suggests, some politicians are more sophisticated than others. Or should I say more sensitive than others?
I would speculate that, in the great tradition of an earlier Queensland premier, Joh Bjeleke-Peterson, on receiving a second-hand account of the reference to the Premier, Campbell Newman’s office had threatened to remove the QTC’s state subsidy if the offending line were not removed pronto. The government has the power to do so. Would it be the right thing to do? Of course not. For its part, the QTC board and artistic director have the power to resign rather than accept political censorship. Would it be the right thing to do in these circumstances? I believe it would. It would stimulate a national debate about the kind of society in which we want to live and the proper limits to political interference in artistic expression.
During the Vietnam War and just after the visit to Melbourne of Lyndon B. Johnson, the actor Clive Winmill, appearing in The Knack directed by George Ogilvie for the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now the Melbourne Theatre Company), stopped the play in full flight, stepped forward into the footlights and broke into a personal and passionate attack on Australian government taking us into the war. The stage manager brought up the house lights and that was the end of the show for that night. The next morning the actor was given a dressing down by John Sumner, director of the company, and the show finished its season as scheduled without further interruption. Winmill never worked at the company again but, to my knowledge, no complaint about the incident was ever made by a federal politician.
Keating! The Musical took the axe of ridicule to a bevy of federal politicians: Paul Keating himself, Alexander Downer outrageous in fishnet stockings, Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot in a schmaltzy love duet, and a squeaky John Howard in a large Akubra. I never heard of any of the politicians complaining. Indeed, Keating came to love the send-up. It is part of the territory for politicians who live in the public spotlight and who usually seem to believe that any publicity is better than no publicity.
For some politicians, however, laughter may be considered more lethal.
I was chairman of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for six years, mostly under Jeff Kennett as premier and arts minister. One of the major annual highlights is Upfront, a night of women’s comedy featuring Australia’s best female stand-ups. To support the festival, the then parliamentary secretary for the arts, Lorraine Elliott, very kindly offered to bring all her female parliamentary Liberal and National Party colleagues along. Wouldn’t you know, it was the time of the dock strike in Melbourne; almost every artist drew tough laughs at the expense of Peter Reith, John Howard and the Liberal Party, with collateral damage to the Liberal premier. The next day, a substantial part of the state parliamentary debate was taken up with attacks on the Comedy Festival, which was portrayed as a hotbed of left-wing sedition.
To protect the festival, I had to write a letter of apology to Lorraine Elliott, but of course I pointed out that current affairs was always the source of material for comedians — it is what they do for a living and why they are so valuable. “To hold a mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet says. I noted that if I had gone backstage before the show and told them not to mention the dispute they would have trebled the volume and intensity of the ridicule.
Kennett did not like the Comedy Festival much because he didn’t like the idea of people laughing at him. Other Victorian premiers Joan Kirner and John Cain were neutral. Ted Baillieu positively loved the Comedy Festival; indeed, during my term as chairman I invited him onto the board because I knew he had gone to Melbourne University with Rod Quantock and others in the business, and of course the university’s annual Architecture Revue was itself the training ground for many later professional stand-ups.
My relationship with Kennett took another turn for the worse when I was arrested at Albert Park. The Grand Prix is not my thing, but I appreciate that others love it, inexplicably including two of my own children. I seriously disliked the appropriation of public parklands for private profit and joined the Save Albert Park organisation. I had not, however, joined the protests at the destruction of a thousand trees or the construction of major infrastructure in the park. It was only when the premier decreed that he alone would have the authority to determine whether compensation was paid and, if so, how much was paid to home owners in Middle Park whose houses were cracking due to the compaction works involved in building the Grand Prix course. Along with others, I figured that people had been fighting and dying since the Magna Carta, and probably before that, for the right of appeal to an independent judiciary against a wilful executive.
With James McCaughey theatre director and then governor’s son, Julia Hamer, the former Liberal premier’s daughter, and artist Mirka Mora, I took myself down to Albert Park. We sat down on the “wrong” side of a taped line where the Grand Prix pit building was to be built. In a skit-like scene that would have graced the Comedy Festival, the police tried to persuade us to sit on the other side of the line but we sweetly refused and in the end they had to arrest us. It was all done with great courtesy, even good humour. At the end, not wanting to be seen driving the paddy wagon up the Government House drive, the police asked us sweetly to find our own way home.
I was told somewhat later by a colleague within government that the political response lacked the same good humour. As reported to me and subsequently confirmed in conversation with a senior government figure, Kennett’s good friend Ron Walker, then chairman of the Grand Prix Corporation, did not take kindly to the extensive media coverage that our arrest provoked in that evening’s news. He reportedly made an irate phone call to the premier who phoned the arts minister instructing him to take away the public subsidy from the Playbox Theatre with which I was associated. The minister had a cooler head and pointed out to the premier that by this time I was no longer a paid employee of Playbox but rather served on the board. I was supporting Playbox rather than the other way around. The government could indeed take away the company’s subsidy but it would put 30 people out of work without touching me. It would be a big but negative story for the government and could hardly be recommended as wise politics. The premier backed off but it would be fair to say our relationship was not warm for the rest of his term.
As a postscript, the next time I met Kennett was many years later on the doorstep of a mutual friend’s house to which we had both been invited to dinner without knowing the identity of the other guests. With our wives, we stood there on the doorstep and our eyes met in what I took as a silent and mutual pact that we would be on our very best behaviour all night. We were, and as the dinner progressed we had an open and fascinating conversation about details of government funding for the arts and Jeffrey’s proud record of major achievements in this area.
All of us, yes even politicians, have sensitivities that fade with time. Freedom of expression is always worth fighting for.