Bad job choice

I knew it was time to leave the Helpmann Academy, but the job offers for me in my preferred fields of health and welfare services just weren’t there. Late in 1997, the Liberal Party was back in power, and the Minister of Health was my nemesis from the Hillcrest Hospital dramas of five years before. I probably should have stuck it out in the Academy until something good came up, but my personal life was in chaos right at that moment, so when I was offered a job reviewing public subsidies for arts institutions, I grabbed it without really checking out what I was supposed to achieve. By the time I did, it was too late to turn back.

The new CEO of the Arts Department was an economic conservative, who had assured his Minister that substantial budget cuts were possible without much political risk. In our first discussion, he made several key points; viz;

• Most of the senior people in the State Theatre, the Festival Centre, State Opera, Art Galley of SA, etc, etc, were ‘socialist types’ who were too used to the easy life of government funding without much accountability for results;
• They weren’t trying nearly hard enough to raise funds from the private sector and the public; if this was the USA they would have to find most of their income from foundations and the like;
• It was time for a shake-up of people, so some amalgamations or other forms of re-structuring were needed to create opportunities to make the ‘fat cats’ apply for their own jobs;
• My job included finding substantial savings, beginning with at least a few hundred thousand dollars in the next financial year.

I was very uncomfortable. I had a sinking feeling that this guy would only get more strident and opinionated as we went along, and in other circumstances I would have walked away. But I had just separated from my wife, and I had to prioritise holding on to my public sector executive rank and salary, so that she and my kids would be OK financially. I’d already left the Helpmann Academy a few days before, and there was no going back. This time I had to take a job I didn’t want, the only time I can remember doing that. I asked how long I had to complete what was really a consultancy, and he suggested six months. I agreed and we shook hands.

It was near Christmas, so I had a couple of weeks off, time spent mainly finding somewhere to live, before I had to begin learning how the top end of the subsidised arts world worked. After moving into a friend’s house in Semaphore, it was back to the office. Within a short time, I had the walls covered in organisation charts, showing the people and the dollars, which were much less than I had imagined. I think there was less than $20 million in total for the twelve major organisations; and this was in South Australia, which prided itself on being the ‘Festival State’ because of events including the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the Fringe Festival and the world music event ‘WOMAD’, which were, and still are, much celebrated in Australia.

There had been several other reviews in the couple of years before this, both of individual organisations and of arts funding in general. I had to read them all, and there was little there to support the government’s current down-sizing objectives. I don’t know for sure if this had anything to do with it, but during that consultancy, the Arts Minister was the only member of the Liberal Government I ever saw at an arts event of any type, except for one performance of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, where I met the Minister of Health. The arts just wasn’t their scene, although I must say the Arts Minister was and still is a stalwart supporter of many art forms, so I think the fiscal pressure was coming from other Cabinet colleagues, most likely the Treasurer. My guess is she was a lonely voice in that Cabinet, not least because she was the only woman.

For about three months I prepared an overall summary of where the money was, how it was being spent, and how that all looked in comparison to other parts of Australia. It soon became obvious that South Australia was not providing any more public funds than anyone else, but the proportion of income raised from other sources was low compared to New South Wales and Victoria. One woman, a rich arts donor, told me our problem was that ‘Adelaide doesn’t have enough wealthy Jews. In Sydney, and especially in Melbourne, they are the backbone of the arts.’ Whatever the truth of that, I knew from my time in the Helpmann Academy that getting large donations and bequests for the arts was rare in Adelaide. I had so nearly proved otherwise with the Helpmann fortune, but nearly changes nothing. It was all very well to say the local subsidised bodies weren’t trying hard enough, but their Boards were stacked with conservative rich people, many appointed by the current government, and they didn’t seem to have the answers.

So my only recourse was to look at achieving some administrative savings by reducing the number of separate arts organisations. I had observed before what I think of as the iron law of separateness—organisations will tend to want to remain separate, unless there is a major incentive to change, or force is applied. CEOs and Board members work in their little corner of the world because they love it, and there needs to be a very good reason for them to lurch into the unknown. As I got to know all the CEOs of these arts agencies, I could see no signs of an appetite for new arrangements, except for those few who told me ‘strictly between you and me’ that they would be happy to absorb one or more of the others as long as they retained the lead role.

I bargained with my boss. How much did we actually have to save in the 1998/99 financial year? We eventually settled on $200,000, and I started devising scenarios that would achieve this. Was anything definitely off the table? The answer was ‘No, but you’d be crazy to touch organisation X, or Y, or Z.’ With few options left, I proposed two major amalgamations, both leaving one of the untouchables in charge and enlarged, which would yield $200,000 (Based on experience, I actually meant ‘Just might yield $200,000, with exceptional luck and steady management’, but consultants don’t say that sort of thing).

My boss was impressed, and surprised. What I suggested was ‘do-able’ (his term) as long as we kept it a secret until the Minister was on-side. I was to write it all up, prepare a one-page summary for the Minister, and say nothing to anyone else in the Department. I could then wind up my consultancy, and make my own arrangements to find other employment. Within a week, I delivered, and waited to be called to the Minister’s office, the usual next step in these things.

I’d done what was asked of me. I knew these changes would need very adroit political manoeuvring to have any chance, especially given some of the heavy-hitters on the Boards of the organisations who would think of themselves as losers. I intended to say that to the Minister when I saw her, and offer to assist. I liked her, and I didn’t want to see her get further marginalised among her conservative and minimally-arts-loving colleagues. But the call never came.

Somebody must have leaked. The Minister was confronted by journalists asking if it was true that a secret report existed; one that proposed to cut funding to iconic arts organisations. I thought she had received my briefing, because the Arts Department CEO had told me he handed it over personally. In retrospect, it’s just possible she was blindsided. She said the usual things, such as ‘We are always looking closely at how tax-payers’ dollars are spent, but no decisions have been made about any cuts of the type you describe.’ The journalists, obviously holding a copy of my report, pressed harder, but she managed to fend them off. I would be surprised if phone calls from irate Board members didn’t come in thick and fast.

I knew none of this. It happened a couple of weeks after I had finished that job, and I was just beginning a new role in the Health Department. Today’s constant newsfeed on the smart-phone didn’t exist then, and the interview had missed the evening news. It wasn’t till the day after the Minister’s run-in with journalists that I read in the paper what had happened in the Legislative Council the night before. The Minister told the Council that she had just been made aware of ‘The Meldrum Report’, which ‘contained some rather radical ideas about re-structuring the main arts bodies’. ‘But’, she went on, ‘it is certainly not my intention to implement any of these proposals.’

Which dropped me right in it. My first call was to the Arts Department CEO, but he never, and I mean never, got back to me. I wrote to the Minister, and got no reply. I was very stirred up, worried that my name would be mud in the arts world from now on. And it was, at least with people who didn’t know me well. Within a week, one Board I was on asked me to leave the room, while they discussed a vote of no confidence in me. This was brought on by a fellow Board member who happened to be CEO of one of the arts agencies I had recommended should be amalgamated with another. The vote was upheld; I returned to the meeting to be informed so; frostily thanked by the chairman, and asked to go. I gave a little speech, to a sea of thin lips, thanking them for the opportunity to support their work, and left in as dignified a manner as I could dredge up. The next few days were very hard for me.

Although I kept quiet, lots of people guessed correctly what had happened, and I didn’t lose any good friends. Ironically, because the arts world is so marginal to most peoples’ interests, almost nobody in the health/welfare world had even noticed. Which was great, because I didn’t want to deal with a reputation as a victim or a loser. As usual, I preferred to move on, even though I did feel wounded for a while. Some enmities persisted. The CEO of one arts company refused to speak with me ever again, whisking past me in the street or at events with exuberant disdain. But I could live with that. I was just doing my job; I was told funding cuts had to happen, and the proposals I made were the least damaging ones I could come up with. As for the Arts Minister, the CEO had told her significant savings were feasible without much political risk. He was wrong. So be it.

Recently Charmaine and I went to a fascinating talk on Japanese art from the 17th century. And there was the Arts Minister concerned, now long retired. We chatted easily, and I enjoyed her company for a few minutes. Those events in 1998 all seemed so unimportant now. We were just actors in a process of a type that goes on constantly. I know I did my best, and It’s likely she feels the same way about herself.

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