Friday, August 29, 2003

The kitty is empty – inside Richard Alston’s head

Yesterday, the week so far was already the current Australian government’s worst ever three-days horribilus. Not about to be left out of the inferno, Richard Alston decided to make use of what was otherwise a pleasant day – of ribbon-cutting in the provinces* – to launch a swingeing “fuck you” at the ABC.

Those weren’t his exact words, of course. Rather, Senator Alston floated a proposal that could easily be part of a of CNNNN script, given its combination of deadpan delivery and over-the-top content.

This over-the-topness lays not so much in the view that the ABC start to think of itself as a charity – which suggestion is a product of Age editorialising, rather than what Alston said. Some may think that his actual proposal – that the ABC apply to be on the Register of Cultural Organisations, so as to be able to receive tax-deductible donations – is harmless enough. After all, when you look through the who’s who on the Register, the ABC would seem to be in some top-notch company potentially – so hardly reduced to some kind of mendicant rump.

But this is not the point. The Register was (1991) and is set up as a vehicle for private-sector arts development – a cause which generally falls outside the common-law definition of charity, and which therefore needs close statutory prescription, and, to a lesser exent so far, monitoring. Statutory/Register funds must be accounted for separately from general monies. While an arts entity on the Register may be able to, say paint the Sydney Opera House red (in the name of stunt-wise political art), if it used any statutory/Register funds in doing so, you could expect that Alston’s bureaucracy would soon de-Register it, for infringing its “principal purpose” (Starting to remind you of anything?)

In fact, tying up some of the ABC’s funds as being Register/”principal purpose” contingent would not only muzzle the ABC editorially – it would kill it outright as an independent national institution (the last three being not words I use lightly). Having a “principal purpose” devoted to amusing the upper classes (as the effective charters of most Register organisations are) means, for more than one reason, that the “principal purpose” test is mainly self-assessed at the moment. Given that a fair chunk of the ABC’s principal purpose surely involves broadcasting news and current affairs, the stage would be set for a head-on collision when it came to getting on the Register. Either the ABC could renounce being in the news and current affairs game at all, or it would be under a continual (and unsustainable, in the long term) regulatory blowtorch over the use and misuse of its Register (and therefore “non-political”) funds. And my guess is that Aunty wouldn’t exactly have to be unfurling banners on the Sydney Opera House to get up Alston’s nose, on this account.

* I’m allowed to say “provinces” because I grew up in The Rat.

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