Side 1 Wall of Noise

Foundation Sound K (2002-5)

tuning in

In 1983, as MC of pop group, The Globos, I co-hosted the ABC-TV show Countdown.

The same year I had dinner with George Harrison but that’s just noise.

The Globos was an homage to 1960s Australian TV pop shows such as Bandstand. We mimed songs to a clicktrack inviting (favourable) comparisons to drag shows. One of the creators, Mark Trevorrow, an encyclopedic music journalist and a frustrated pop star, introduced us to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The Ronettes’ Be My Baby was one of the songs we ‘covered’. It was said to embody Spector’s revolutionary motif. When I first heard it, I was struck by how the singing sounded in conflict with the music; there was palpable tension between the melody and the dense forest of jangling, layered orchestral arrangement. At times, you actually could not hear the melody for the arrangement. It demanded of the listener a wholly new aesthetic challenge.

Although Spector never attempted a concept album, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys credits rock music’s first concept album Pet Sounds as an interpretation of Spector’s Wall of Sound recording methods.[1] Notwithstanding a couple of Top-10 hits, our post-modern art-pop experiment, The Globos, did not make so profound a contribution to the cultural lexicon and I turned my attention to more serious thespian pursuits.

In 1993, as I was packing my suitcase in preparation for a tour to Japan and Korea of an Australian production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, I had the radio on in the background and heard an interview with two sociologists arguing the deficits of something called ‘managerialism’. They claimed it was going to re-shape the world. It sounded a lot like Max Weber’s argument that bureaucracy was the defining agent of social change in the 20th C. I’d studied Weber in my undergraduate degree and found him a compelling thinker. Curiously the interview stayed with me throughout the tour. Even playing Edmund the Bastard, decidedly more Machiavelli than Weber, did not extinguish the persistent, prescient echo of the argument.

Within a few years, I had transmogrified from a performer into a maker of interdisciplinary artworks and the founding artistic director of a project-based arts company, not yet it’s difficult (nyid). As I asserted myself as an artist in my own right, I began applying for funding from the various local, state and federal arts bodies encountering managerialism in its respective, nascent forms.

Initially you could still hear the melody of the arts above the arrangements of managerialism in the government bureaucracies. But slowly a gravitational shift occurred which drew managerialism from the fringes of arts agencies into their centre. It was like being back on-stage with The Ronettes trying to isolate the singing from the wall of sound. I am not sure at which point it tipped over and the arrangement overwhelmed the song and the whole thing transmuted into a wall of noise. But it did. Song without melody. Sound without music. Noise without signal.

And not just in the arts. This is a process that has precipitated great change in Western democratic society over the last 40 years. In trying to understand the meanings and consequences of this shift, I resolved to unpack the agency and ideology of managerialism within the material, cultural and physical impacts on the arts and artists which I hope will offer a valuable micro-study with useful macro implications.

To do so, one must first appreciate the ideological prism through which managerialism can be viewed and identify its fellow-travellers. In the first instance, the rise of managerialism coincides with the rise of neo-liberalism and the success of the one is entwined with the other.


“Interview with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys in early 1980’s” Global Image Works, 1976. Retrieved 18/7/2014

concept #1 a neo-liberal composition

In Western democracies, neoliberalism is the ascendant ideology. Something of a shape-shifter in the early 20th C, its rise is due to the changing nature and behaviour of Capital from the mid-late 20th C.

In traditional or conventional capitalism – we are talking Adam Smith here – the cooperation of the workers is fundamental to its optimal functioning. The employer—the capitalist, the one making the profit—accepts that for capitalism to be ‘profitable’ the worker needs to be aspirationally if not concretely improving her lot.[2] Throughout the 20th C, Capitalism moved from this idealized, functional version through an iteration in which power was concentrated in the State towards the current version in which power is concentrated within the Corporation – a process that has essentially cannibalised the State absorbing it into a corporate superstructure.

This trajectory has been carried by the instruction of economist Frederic Hayek (1889-1992) and expanded by Milton Friedman at The Chicago School of Economics. In the 1950s, in one of its earliest and most comprehensive applications, a group of Chilean graduates of The Chicago School introduced neoliberal theory to the government of General Augusto Pinochet. Other local strains were developed in Latin America but it was in Europe and the United States that neoliberalism seeded, most prominently in the governments of Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Ronald Reagan (USA), and in Australian governments from the 1980s specifically that of Thatcher’s disciple, John Howard (1996-2007).

The underlying separation of values between the capitalism of neo-liberals and the capitalism of social democrats revolves around the axis of ‘regard’. In Smith’s analysis, human beings tend to be both ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’[3], that is, an interest in others is as vital as an interest in oneself.

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it…[4]

Compassion’s emotional sibling, empathy, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and is intrinsic to our ability to have regard for others. The practice of empathy is deeply embedded in the notion of ‘disinterest’ as articulated by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul.[5] Disinterest expresses the process for fairness, an other-regarding value that sits adjacent to equity, solidarity and sustainability, key planks of the social democracy platform.

Neo-liberals however reject the legitimacy of values that go beyond direct self-interest.[6] Their capacity for expressing other-regarding values is either absent or de-activated. They see no place for them alongside the essential values of security, liberty and property. Self-regard is the primary behavioural trait in this value-set. Looking only in the mirror leads the neo-liberal to conclude that there is no other than the self, at least no other of value. A corollary of this practiced narcissism is an absence of empathy. This in turn leads to the valorisation of the market over the human being. Whereas social democrats believe the market is composed for people, neo-liberals advocate that people be constantly re-designed for the market.

The privileging of the market above people creates gaps that, at their worst, invite a brutalism into the interactions of human beings. Hayek himself acknowledged as much when he advised against applying this market-before-people approach to ‘our more intimate groupings’ such as family and voluntary associations as it “would crush them”[7] It’s a significant fault-line in a philosophy that reduces all things to the notation of commodity. However, Hayek’s counsel has not been respected. Pity, compassion, sorrow, love, in fact any emotion is up for grabs if it can turn a profit.

The registration of emotional states as a ‘trademark’ is implicit in the carriage of neo-liberalism’s advertorial sensibility. It is an unsustainable distortion of our humanity and one that does, as promised, threaten to crush us.

Registered Trademarks K (2002)

Neoliberal capitalism is a wholly unique animal. Its pathological commodification of all things leads it to break the ‘social contract’. The hitherto mutual bonds of the employer and the worker are rendered null and void. Profit maximisation is its ultimate economic objective.

In this new ecology of Capital, the worker is no longer central to the equation and has been replaced by the shareholder and consumer. The shareholder’s concern is: ‘How much profit can I make?’ The consumer’s concern is: ‘How much can I spend and on what?’ Not only has this broken the traditional bonds on which capitalism is founded, it precipitated a chain of effects within Western democracy – and the global order – culminating in the amplification of neo-liberalism into a political project. For neoliberal capitalism to be wholly successful, democracy needs to be disabled.


In contrast to the simplicity of the market, democracy is complex. It tends to reflect the wishes of the many over the desires of the few. Democracy is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It is not economically or socially rational. It operates on a value-set of access, equity, sustainability and justice, social agenda items that reek of altruism far beyond the echo of self-interest. Democracy is anathema to neo-liberalism’s economically rational, profit-maximisation mantra. It is the main obstacle to its fruition.

Throughout the late 20th C, neo-liberalism seeped into democracy’s civic domain. The duality of the shareholder/consumer, an essential neo-liberal construct, displaced the worker/citizen as the primary social agent. Where previously the question ‘How do we want to live?’ was the basis of social interaction, the questions of profit and consumption now occup(y)ied a majority of individuals in Western democratic societies. The shift in the mental space of the individual—from that of the worker/citizen to the shareholder/consumer— has fundamentally altered the prevailing set of values that balanced social, cultural, environmental, labor and financial considerations to one dominated by the latter. With the collapse of the social-cultural contract and the rise of economic self-interest, our democratic political culture has become more vulnerable. By 2017, neo-liberalism had become a necessary and successful fusion of an economic project and a political project.

In the cultural sectors of Western democracy, the permeation of values underlying this compact has had devastating consequences. In the research, these consequences have been most comprehensively unpacked in the context of Britain’s arts and culture scenes. It is a useful resource for the Australian condition as many of those values were imported through the British New Labour experiment (1997-2010).

In Artificial Hells, art historian and critic Clare Bishop disrupts the progressively political position on participatory art, the rise of which over the last decade requires attention for what it connotes in the neoliberal context. Along the way, she makes some salient observations on the effect of British New Labour’s embrace of neo-liberalism on the arts. She identifies the marriage of a ‘creative industries policy’, on the one hand, with an instrumentalist approach for the arts in society, on the other. It is a marriage that conflates the economic and social utility of the arts in one cultural policy, a process that displaces the intrinsic value of the arts from all cultural equations.

In the first instance, Bishop notes that subject to New Labour policy, ‘the production and reception of the arts was therefore reshaped within a political logic in which audience figures and marketing statistics became essential to securing public funding.’[8] This led to a mania of audience and market development initiatives in step with the consolidation of ‘the creative industries’. Creative industries is a term created in the late 1990s by British New labour and has its roots in the dialectical brinkmanship around the ideas of ‘cultural industry’ propagated by Frankfurt School members Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and outlier, Walter Benjamin.[9] The trajectory, from Benjamin to Blair, maps the elimination of the intrinsic value of the arts through investment in the creation of creative capital (or wealth) until such value is forsaken for price, leaving the monetisation of the arts as its sole value to society. Creative industries discourse is often criticised for its proclivity to neglect culture, concentrating exclusively on economic outcomes as the measure of success. The ‘metrics virus’ hits the arts hard because its funding architecture and philosophy is not supportable by mainstream economic theory.[10] The value of the arts lies in emotional affect, the generation of ideas, the expression of intellectual, creative and personal freedoms, social well-being and cohesion all highly resistant to substantive measurement methodologies.

In the second instance, New Labour’s cultural policy embraced an instrumentalist approach to the arts by putting the arts at the service of government as an agent of social regeneration. The pivotal artistic trope of this agency is the participation of the audience in the act of creation. Bishop argues that social participation in the arts is ‘merely participation in the task of being individually responsible for what, in the past, was the collective concern of the state.’ [11] So the artist becomes co-opted and thus complicit in the ‘social contract’ of neo-liberalism. The success of her art is measured by her ability to convince the participants in her project to accept its accumulating unfairness and inequality.

In Fair Play – Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, academic Jen Harvie locates the artist’s complicity in the neo-liberal project in New Labour’s urging to become entrepreneurs by transposing the artistic characteristics of risk and innovation into the business activity of the arts. She warns that the transformation of the artist into the ‘artrepreneur’ will lead to ‘the devaluation of sociality, people, art and democracy.’[12] Harvie admirably paints an upside to every toxic agent that neoliberalism imposes upon the arts: the reduction of public funding, the reliance on philanthropic support and commercial partnerships, the creation of ‘creative cities’ and the cultivation of artists as entrepreneurs. However, she cannot help concluding that “neoliberal capitalism has ‘neoliberalized’ arts practices and damaged their potential social benefits.”[13]

Neither Bishop nor Harvie directly concern themselves with the carriage of neoliberalism through the public sector, specifically through government arts agencies. This is where my task departs from theirs. Government arts agencies at all levels tend to be regarded as recipients of, or subject to, neoliberal policy. However, in my own dealings with arts agencies, particularly in Australia, as a grant-recipient artist, producer, peer assessor, advisor and consultant, my impression has been for some time that they are often active agents in the production and proliferation of a neoliberal agenda and ambience.


Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Methuen and Co. London. 1776 P. 86, “A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost.”


Vernon L. Smith (1998). “The Two Faces of Adam Smith,” Southern Economic Journal, 65(1), p. 3 (pp. 119)


Adam Smith, Chapter 1 Sympathy, Section 1 Of the Sense of Propriety, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759


John Ralston Saul. The Unconscious Civilisation or How Mussolini Won The War. Penguin. Ringwood. 1997


Kevin Rudd. “Howard’s Brutopia”, The Monthly, November 2006.


Federick Hayek. The Fatal Conceit. Edited by William Warren Bartley. University of Chicago Press 1988. P.18


Claire Bishop. Artificial Hells: Participatory Arts and The Politics of Spectatorship. Verso. 2012. P32


Discussion of the ‘cultural industry’ centred around the production of cultural content in capitalist societies. Adorno and Horkenheimier framed their theory around a view of popular culture as a factory for the production of standardized cultural goods whilst Benjamin characterised popular culture as a site of left-wing resistance.


Ben Eltham. Platform Papers. When the Goalposts Move, Currency House. Sydney. 2016. P 49


Claire Bishop. Artificial Hells: Participatory Arts and The Politics of Spectatorship. Verso. UK. 2012 P34


Jen Harvie. Fair Play – Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Palgrave Macmillan. 2013. NY p.154


Jen Harvie. Fair Play – Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Palgrave Macmillan. 2013. NY P.357

concept #2 a managerialist arrangement

In his novel, Dark Diversions, John Ralston Saul compounds the elements of neo-liberalism’s narrative into a basic formula. Disguised as a fiction writer, he attends a lecture by noted Italian Fascist, Gianfranco Fini, of whose ruminations he observes:

He was sewing together into one the original fascist corporatism with contemporary managerialism and the rising forces of neo-conservatism.[14]

Of interest is what Ralston Saul names ‘contemporary managerialism’. The success of neo-liberalism has been in no small part a result of ‘the adoption of managerial practices that focus on issues of economic efficiency and increasing productivity in particular sectors’.[15] The language here is important because of its reductive nature. Efficiency. Productivity. The umbrella term ‘managerial practices’ is a descriptor of behaviours and belief systems that equate with a way of looking at the world that has taken hold widely and aggressively within our private and public sectors.

More than a corporate social philosophy, managerialism is an ideology created by managers for managers. Its genesis lies in the thinking of organisational psychologist, Elton Mayo, an ex-patriate Australian and Harvard academic. Mayo considered democracy ‘divisive and lacking in community spirit’, a view that led him to look towards corporate managers to restore social harmony that he believed the uprooting experiences of immigration and industrialization had destroyed and that democracy was incapable of repairing.[16] Within neo-liberal discourse, managerialism can be arranged just so:

the set of knowledges and practices that inform neoliberal operations and organisational governance.[17]

This arrangement has significant implications for the arts and cultural sectors. For in much of Western democracy, it is through the public sector that the relationship of the arts and culture to society is mediated. The insinuation of a set of knowledges and practices that inform neoliberal operations and organisational governance in the public sector inevitably led to a radicalisation of its functions, objectives, values and behaviour. This is evident in the arts and non-arts sectors, the latter I will allude to in the final tracks of this side of my concept album.

The problem for managerialism is that art is more like a gas than a mineral; it’s hard to contain, process, control and infiltrate. As soon as you think you have a handle on it, it morphs into something else. The nature of the arts’ ‘core business’ – making art – is an alchemical process that resists concretization. Echoing neo-liberalism’s relationship to democracy, managerialism sees itself as an antidote to this chaos, irrationality, disorder, and incompleteness [18] – art-making’s essential elements. So to inhibit the alchemical process of art-making, arts agencies mutated various versions of managerialism.

The Arts Council of England (ACE) has long been regarded one of western democracy’s more instrumentalist arts agencies. Its mission to help the arts field create culture has often been disrupted by its desire to curate culture on its own behalf. In her comments about the insinuation of neoliberal values into the ACE’s operation, Jen Harvie remarks on its forceful enthusiasm for the task. [19] Next-door, Scotland’s national arts agency, Creative Scotland, moved to apply the language of the ‘investment paradigm’ to funding – government grants became investment opportunities in 2011 – a move that precipitated a year-long backlash from the Scottish arts community over the cultural change within the agency that led to the resignation of CEO Andrew Dixon. [20]

One of the more egregious local examples occurred in one of Australia’s largest states, the State of Victoria. When elected to government in 2014, the Australian Labor Party adopted seemingly verbatim British New Labour’s neoliberal arts playbook of a decade earlier by replacing the state arts agency, Arts Victoria, with a new super agency, Creative Victoria, a direct consequence of the replacement of the Ministry for the Arts by the Ministry for Creative Industries. Victoria is now the only Australian state which has no Ministry for the Arts. The arts has been ‘disappeared’ into the new acronym, MCI, like some Politburo member in a Milan Kundera novel, airbrushed from history overnight by a bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. A government’s ministerial composition reflects its values to society. The erasure of the arts from the public consciousness of government business indicates its diminution in the political culture and encourages the same view in society.

These are all examples of arts agencies that are ‘of the government’, and whose actions and behaviours need to be read within that context.

It is my intent to use a case study of Australia’s national arts agency, the Australia Council for the Arts, constituted by its own Act that enshrines its independence and arms-length funding. [21] This independence means that there is a space between it and government that provides us an objective, at times, panoramic view of its behaviours and allows us to draw conclusions without needing to extract them from an analysis of government. As such it represents an excellent opportunity to examine neoliberal behaviour within the public sector and identify aspects of managerialism that are most emblematic of that behaviour.

Federally, from the mid-2000’s Australia’s national arts agency, the Australia Council for the Arts (ACA), built an institutionalised process by which art and artists could be observed and policy developed to ‘manage’ it and them.

In reaction and response to this process, the ACA’s situation has been in flux for some years due to a chain of events:

  • the 2012 Review of the ACA
  • the Review’s recommendations contained in Creative Australia (the National Cultural Policy of the Labor Government adopted in 2013)
  • the deletion of that policy by the incumbent (and more) conservative Coalition government in 2014
  • the retraction in 2015 and partial reinstatement in 2016 of 15% of the ACA’s budget by the Coalition government [22]
  • the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts
  • the transfer of the remainder of the ‘retracted funds’ from the Ministry for the Arts to the ACA in 2017.[23]

The following case study constructs a narrative of managerialism in the ACA from the purview of the independent artist referring to these events and changes within the ACA [24]. By so doing I intend to highlight the ill-(a)effects of managerialism on the arts sector, in general, and artists in particular. I also intend that these behaviours are analysed in such a way as to make them useful when refracted through non-arts sectors. I will also highlight the implications for democracy as managerialism appropriates the democratic mode of ‘consensus’ – a mode of thinking that ‘consults’ and attempts to manage change – and entombs it in in a never-ending cycle.


John Ralston Saul. Dark Diversions: A Traveler’s Tale, Penguin. 2012, P. 178


Nichole Georgeou and Susan Engel (2011) The Impact of Neoliberalism and New Managerialism on Development Volunteering: An Australian Case Study, Australian Journal of Political Science, 46:2, 297-311


Hoopes, James. “Managerialism: Its History and Dangers, Historically Speaking, September 2003


Nichole Georgeou and Susan Engel (2011) as above


Patrick Fitzsimons (1999), Managerialism and Education, Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education


Jen Harvie. Fair Play – Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Palgrave Macmillan. 2013. NY Ps 139-145


Changes to the Act occurred in 2012 which some may argue necessitated a closer relationship to government than previous iterations. However, key principles of independence and peer-assessment were maintained.


For our purposes, ‘independent artist’ describes a professional Australian artist working outside a major or key organisation in the Australian arts sector.

Mini EP (not) the style council

The Australia Council’s mission is to:

support the creation, presentation and appreciation of distinctive cultural works by providing assistance to Australian artists and making their works accessible to the public’.[25]

The ACA’s mission requires a balance of tasks including the provision of funding for artists and companies to make and present their work and the advocacy of those artworks, artists and the arts in general to the broader community to enable and enhance their appreciation.

In order to carry out its mission, the ACA relies on expert advice from artists and cultural operators – enshrined in the principle of peer assessment – and the tasks of management performed by bureaucrats. In the half-dozen or so years leading up to the 2012 Review of the Australia Council, the execution of its mission became distorted as managerialism slowly infected the agency.

The following are key ‘indicators’ or symptoms of this infection.

(1) Transference of Knowledge Integral to the application of managerialism is a belief in the transference of ‘knowledge’ or management practices across industries. This means that the skills required to run a marketing department in a telecommunications company are considered the same as those required to run a national arts organisation – the methodology is the same regardless of an organisation’s core business. In the ACA, this is evidenced in the appointment of a former marketing director of a telecommunications company to the position of CEO.[26] Managerialism often cuts deepest in organisations where managers are professional managers as opposed to managers with relevant industry expertise.

(2) Decrease of Staff with Professional Arts Practice Backgrounds The ACA’s recruitment policy for senior staff preferred those with minimal experience or understanding of art-making other than through the prisms of management, bureaucracy, communications and marketing (a marker also of the professionalisation of the sector). Fewer artists were employed as officers, a situation in contrast to the ACA’s formative years.

(3) The Rise of Managers The agency of managers became inversely proportional to the agency of the artist. As the artist’s agency decreased, the manager’s agency increased in terms of influence, income and reach. Managerialism tends to be felt most profoundly where the industry’s primary workers are endemically marginalized as is the case of artists in the arts. This is how managerialism is both a medium of neo-liberalism and a function of it. At the ACA, this was most explicit in the breakdown of art form board representation across artists and managers. In February 2013, during research for a commissioned essay, I invited a relevant sample of artists and curators to assess the proportion of artist representation on the ACA’s art form boards to which they were most closely aligned. The survey produced a surprisingly varied snapshot. The Visual Arts and Music boards had six of seven members who identified as artists. The Dance Board had two of seven members who identified as artists and the Theatre Board just one. In few of these instances were the artists, independent—that is, not formally attached to an institution such as a company or a university. The high concentration of managers in the influential position of assessing the artistic merit of artists’ applications was entirely problematic not to mention potentially in breach of the ACA’s mission with respect to the latter two Boards aligning with its stated values as outlined in my case study.

A direct consequence of this infection of managerialism was the development of an ‘organisational torsion’ that privileged infrastructure over artistic creation and narrowed the public appreciation of art into the ‘audience development’ paradigm. A number of initiatives, strategies and directives throughout the 2000s exemplify this shift:

  • the Audience Development Initiative funded (unsuccessful) efforts to increase audience sizes in the Major Performing Arts Organisations (MPAs) only
  • the Major Performing Arts Organisations Collaborative Projects program was established to facilitate projects between Key Organisations (representing the small-medium sector) and MPAs, with the MPAs the program’s funding-recipient
  • the Managing And Producing Services (MAPS) Initiatives
  • the historical, tacit quarantining of funding to MPAs which was formalised by the cuts to the 2015 Arts Budget made by then Arts Minister, George Brandis, a status retained by his successor, Senator Mitch Fifield

But for the last instance, these are programs funded by the ACA’s discretionary funds which is the only space of funding within the agency that accommodates the work of independent artists.

So rather than give money directly to artists for their art-making it was diverted to amplify the management architecture around them or to programs from which they were exempt. A whole generation of artists was left to scavenge. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s professional artist-population decreased from 2001-2006 for the first time since 1987, and remains static,[27] whereas the reverse is the case in the population of arts administrators (whether manager, producer, marketer, presenter or programmer).[28]

These actions document the insinuation and consequences of a set of ‘implicit values’ – sometimes called ‘shadow values’ – which run counter to the ACA’s stated values of service, diversity, respect, collaboration, leadership, resilience and integrity.[29] It is in the shadow of the agency’s stated values that the consequences of ‘deep managerialism’ are practised.

service market

We are reliable and engaged with our clients and communities, and pride ourselves on the pursuit of excellence in all our endeavours.

In the managerialist paradigm, public service is a governance structure geared to ‘market efficiency’. [30] It is an appellation which in a public service agency is entirely problematic as it establishes an unproductive friction between service to the public and service to the market. The bastard-child of the two service paradigms is a cacophony of competing values. This has been prosecuted to crippling effect in the small-medium and independent sector, a key source of the agency’s ‘clients and communities’.

At the Service of The Board To make the small-to-medium arts sector ‘market efficient’, the ACA imposed upon the sector’s organisational avatar, Key Organisations, the governance structures of the MPAs – institutions that often privilege commercial considerations over art-making.

The value-set of these governance structures manifests deeply in the establishment and operation of their Boards.

Internally, the effects can be draconian. When, as an artist, I was involved in the presentation culture of the major Australian festivals, in three separate instances I was told by Artistic Directors that their Boards would never allow them to program particular artworks as they might be perceived as transgressive.[31]

Externally, however, Australian arts boards tend to ‘roll-over’ in the face of external challenges. The Sydney Theatre Company’s Board is a case in point. When, in the aftermath of the Coalition Government’s dramatic retraction of ACA funds in the 2015 Budget, STC Chair David Gonski was reportedly dissuaded by the Minister’s advisors to put his company’s name to a letter of protest.[32] But it is the ACA’s own Board that provides the worst example. In response to the sustained assault on the agency by Arts Minister George Brandis, the Board displayed a deafening, corporate silence that has delivered an abject lack of service to the agency, the arts sector and the public. This genre of ‘board culture’ is the given reference point for the small-to-medium sector.

At the Service of Knowledge Transferring knowledge from one sector to another without regard to the idiosyncratic operating contexts of either sector is a hallmark of managerialism. It is often projected internally within the recipient-sector. Once again, transferring the governance structures of major organisations onto the small-to-medium sector exemplifies this managerialist conceit.

Rather than allowing small-to medium organisations to grow in response to, and at the service of, the diverse processes of artistic creation, organisations were built (or mutated to look) like mini-MPAs and then artists poured into them like wet cement, only to harden and concretize.

Governance once meant guidance, not the pathological over-regulation that the agency uses to control the independent and small-medium sector. This one-size-fits-all approach is counter-intuitive to the reality that these areas of artistic production are varied, complex and changeable, and ignorant of the rich vein of knowledge it produces.

At the Service of Business The ACA’s relationship with the small-medium sector was defined by the long-term use of the ‘Business Plan’ as an application template for funding those small-medium companies upgraded to Key Organisations where economic and administrative criteria are privileged above artistic merit and integrity. The oft-repeated mantra of philanthropist, businessman and inaugural ACA Theatre Officer, Carrillo Gantner, bears remembering here:

The arts should be business-like but they are not a business.[34]

Adding ignorance to incompetence, few if any ACA staff had sufficient expertise or experience in business to provide appropriate advice in the new paradigm. Many of the agency’s clients, artist-applicants like myself, felt the staff were in a constant process of upskilling due to a top-down directive which led to an internal risk-management approach that imposed further levels of compliance on applicants as staff provided advice of which they were uncertain. The internal logic of these adjustments is labyrinthine.

Unsurprisingly, the new governance values were communicated via a language and process that created further distance between the artist and the bureaucrat. The penetration of this language co-opted from the corporate sector has had bizarre manifestations.

Small-medium companies employing no permanent full-time staff and/or a handful of part-time staff are headed up by a CEO (Chief Executive Officer). Often as not that position is taken by a manager, administrator or producer, further displacing the artist from a position of influence. In some cases, where artists doggedly hold on to the company’s power-spot, they retain the corporate nomenclature in which the ACA has invested. Where there is often just an artist and one or two others part-time in an office, ‘The Artist as CEO’ is beyond parody, a performative reality show where no-one is present or switched on to witness the joke.

Incidental Art-Making As the small arts company has become a new field in which to grow governance protocols in a perversion of the agency’s value of service, art-making has been relegated to incidental activity. This process runs counter to the social agency of the arts and leaves it vulnerable to the reductive processes of economic rationalism, productivity and efficiency. Perversely, growth is obfuscated.


Kathy Keele was the CEO of the ACA from 2007 – 2012 when she resigned.


David Throsby and Anita Zednik. Do You Really Expect To Get Paid? 2010, Australia Council for the Arts, P. 7


David Throsby and Anita Zednik, 2010. P. 14. Artist occupations’ share of arts employment fell from 35% in 1996 to 27% in 2006 while arts-related occupations’ share increased from 48% to 61% respectively.


In the ACA’s Corporate Plan 2015-2019, the value ‘respect’ was replaced with ‘resilience’.


Patrick Fitzsimons (1999), Managerialism and Education, Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education. P. 4


These conversations were undertaken in confidence in international presenting contexts in Montreal in 2005, Brussels in 2008 and Essen in 2010.


The Business Plan template was renamed ‘Strategic Plan’ in 2012.


Carillo Gantner and Allison Carroll. Platform Papers. Finding A Place On The Asian Stage, Currency House, 2012

Sound File #1 Press Conference (2017)

diversity homogeneity

We respectfully embrace individual and collective differences

Ecological diversity In 1986, The Macleay Report [35] recommended the establishment of a Major Organisations Unit which cleaved around 80% of the ACA Performing Arts Board’s disbursable funds.

This act established a dichotomy which has characterised the Australian arts sector for three decades. In one chamber sits the major organizations and in the other, the independent arts community in which one finds individual artists and groups, small to medium in size.

Two separate ecologies, collectively different.

Few of the dynamics of the independent sector have correlatives in the mainstream of the majors; few companies across the two sectors share the same artistic values, organisational design or professional aspiration. The independent arts community fulfils a separate mission to that of the major organisations.

The two parts are not interdependent – as is often proposed – although they are related by a flow of artists and arts workers. Nor is it correct to say that the independent arts community is a feeder for the major organisations. It operates within its own parameters of organisational integrity. The independent arts community and the small-medium companies create their histories show-to-show, alter their mission to accommodate art-form evolution and social change and reinvent their artistic practices of necessity. Major organisations, to a lesser or greater degree, are defined by their history, their longstanding mission, and the performing art-form they are tasked with preserving. Issues of governance must necessarily respond to such different ways of behaving. What is true is this: whilst fundamentally different in operation, artistic practices and values, the two ecologies tend to thrive when each is doing as well as the other. In this way, the relationship is closer to a symbiosis.

In contrast to this view, in early 2012, the ACA introduced a structural reorganisation in which the MPAs and Key Organisations were brought under the one umbrella. This move added to the widespread suspicion in the field that the ACA viewed the small-to-medium sector as a feeder mechanism for the MPAs and not a separate ecology.

This perception reinforced the motivations behind Brandis’ 2015 cuts to the ACA at the expense of the small-medium and independent sector and his privileging of the MPAs in the guidelines of the Ministry’s newly established entity, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) – later rebranded Catalyst by his successor. These guidelines excluded individual artists from the application process.[36]

In contrast to the ACA’s perception of the independent and small-medium sector, evidence constituted at the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Arts ascribes to the small-medium and independent players the very model of sectoral, art-form, ethnic and linguistic diversity, a model that has been fundamentally compromised by Brandis’ actions. The value of the performing arts in Australia is diversity, not an homogeneity built on monolithic cultural constructs. The collective differences the ACA ‘respectfully embraces’ does not include those within the arts sector it administrates.

The artist’s diverse agency Further to this is the ‘pogrommatic’ approach to the diverse agency of individual artists. In order to communicate, reflect, engage and lead, artists require a singularity of purpose, identity and practice; an active individualism from which they express themselves artistically and with integrity.

Managerialism specifically denies that the fundamental nature of society is an aggregation of individuals.[37] Unsurprisingly arts agencies such as the ACA have in recent times manifest an aversion to artists and, in particular, to artists operating independently.

In order to deal with them, the ACA’s solution has been to turn the artist-individual into an artist-organisation. Artists have been encouraged to ‘incorporate’, to turn themselves into associations, companies – mini-institutions. In this way, the artist reflects an image the arts agency can recognise and organise within its own mechanistic view of the world.

For their part, the artist is introduced to the world of normative accountability and compliance that, through sheer weight, sidelines their artistic practice and endeavour – a direct consequence and goal of managerialism, as artistic expression is idiomatic to democracy, and, as I have argued, democracy is the main obstacle to the success of the neo-liberal economic project.

Policy initiatives arose out of this need to control the artist. In Theatre, the 2008 decision to redirect presentation costs away from project funding to venues deprived artists of their agency in dictating the direction of artistic and cultural production at a grassroots level. Where once it was possible for artists to use production grants to decide where they wished to produce a work and with whom, that responsibility passed to programmers and producers.[38]

For the independent theatre artist, this was a disaster.

For example, my practice had been uniquely defined by its capacity to pop-up artworks in unexpected sites such as a car-park, a stables, a suburban house, an army and navy club. This new regulation radically compromised my agency as an artist and the integrity of my practice. I had to go cap in hand to the new gate-keepers whose support became vital in the financing and presentation of my project. Whereas previously artists could have self-presented, now they were wholly subject to curatorial discretion. Five years later, the ACA altered the relevant clause which relaxed the compulsion of artists to secure a presenter without which their applications were ineligible. However, the new condition was modified to ‘strongly recommend’ they still do so.

The ACA’s language and tone in the communication of this single, conditioning directive manifest the agency’s pathological distrust of artists and their capabilities, a distrust that in public meetings bordered on distaste and disrespect.


Australia. Parliament. House of Representatives. Standing Committee on Expenditure. & Australia. Parliament.  (1986).  Patronage, power and the muse: inquiry into Commonwealth assistance to the arts.  Canberra :  Government Printer


Enteman, Willard F. (1993). Managerialism: the emergence of a new ideology. Madison, Wi: University of Wisconsin Press.


Production grants “support the premiere season of public performances of a new work and the stages leading up to it, where a presenting partner has already committed to a project.”

Sound File #2 Press Conference (2017)

respect disrespect

The introduction of prescriptive measurement tools compounds the ACA’s antagonistic relationship to the artist and her work. The Artistic Vibrancy tool, is a telling example. The concept of “Artistic Vibrancy” reportedly arose from discussions with some board members of MPA organisations who complained they had no shared language with their Artistic Directors. Senior ACA management resolved to invent a new language. This was deemed to be so revelatory that it was passed on to Key Organisations [39] adding to the burden of KPIs required to comply with their contractual obligations. Worse, it validated the spurious role industry gossip plays in the assessment process. As an ACA staff member explained to me, a measure of one’s artistic vibrancy was that you are being talked about in theatre foyers. To any artist, the idea that ‘foyer chat’, of which they are the subject, is one measure on which future art-making applications are assessed is insulting and disrespectful. It reflects poorly on the overall culture of measurement and the agency that initiates and legitimises it.

Aside from the sheer idiocy of this measurement, the anomalies are manifold, not the least of which is how MPA organisations have, in the first place, board members who cannot converse with their Artistic Directors and, in the second place, how artistic vibrancy can be a useful measure for a sector that behaves not at all like the MPAs.

Processes like these support the notion that managerialist values have taken hold within the agency as they reflect the concentration of decision-making in a managerial paradigm as opposed to a cultural one. They are based on ignorance, and do nothing but misrepresent the complexity of artistic practice and production, and engender disrespect for and from the artist.

Sound File #3 Press Conference (2017)

collaboration elitism

We actively work with one another and our stakeholders to realise our shared purpose.

The managerialist values of efficiency and productivity are at odds with the notion that the arts are first and foremost a public good. It is a disruption that demands the arts compete economically as an industry with other industries. As has been argued earlier, arts funding aligns in no favourable way with mainstream economic theory. The paradigm of economic competition reduces the arts to a commodity in the marketplace, a situation which is untenable and unsustainable because its real value is non-monetary. The dynamics of this contradiction is at the heart of the argument surrounding the value of the arts. Novelist Maria Vargas Llosa locates it where ‘the price became confused with the value of a work of art.’[40]

In receiving and embracing the managerialist orthodoxy, the ACA failed to fulfil a crucial platform of its mission which is to advocate and by implication to defend the arts as a public good, the purpose it shares with its ‘stakeholders’ – artists, companies and institutions. Through its Market Development department, the ACA began ‘selling’ the arts as cultural product thereby leeching its intrinsic value from practice and public discourse. This approach had dramatic consequences in the values-shift of the cultural sector and within the ACA itself. Internally, competition became an institutionalised mindset as artform departments competed for the greatest share of the ACA’s budget. This competitive mentality was then projected onto the professional field forcing a fundamental ‘disconnect’.

Artists, companies, organisations and institutions rely on each other to cooperate in the creation, development and engagement of audiences for the kinds of work they produce and the kind of ecology they wish to inhabit. Valorising competition within the arts is destructive and counter-productive to its reach and relevance and ignores the symbiotic mechanisms on which the arts in Australia were founded and operate. It disrupts the notion of ‘shared purpose’.

This is exacerbated by the fact that MPA organisations are not subject to any competitive context. On the contrary they are governed by an unspoken mandate of entitlement. Again, Brandis’ quarantining of the MPAs in his 2015 extraction of funds from the ACA’s budget confirmed this historical, tacit principle of governance in the Australian arts.[41]

An even greater perversity is found in evidence presented at the Senate Inquiry into the Arts brought about by Brandis’ incursion.[42] In the shadow of an FOI application to the ACA, Ben Eltham eventually received statistics from the ACA – vital information previously withheld from the journalist and administrators who had made similar requests – that proved the engine room of Australian arts in terms of reach, influence and productivity is not the MPAs – as Brandis had asserted at a 2014 Senate Estimates Hearing – but the small-medium organisations and independent artists. [43] In effect, Brandis was simply towing the ACA line and explains, in part, its reluctance to publicly contest Brandis’ actions. This institutionalised perception, borne of cultural inbreeding, reveals the ACA’s default setting that values major organisations above the independent and small-medium sector and reinforces its elitist operating procedures.

The ACA failed not only to realise its shared purpose of advocating for the arts as a public good, it obfuscated the delivery of key sector statistics and prosecuted a hierarchy that did not accurately reflect the true nature of Australia’s cultural landscape nor the real value of artists’ seminal and ongoing contribution. Here, collaboration is engaged in a singular relationship and with a single purpose, to foster and protect the elite class of the Australian arts scene, the MPAs.



Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture, Essays on Spectacle and Society, P.28, Faber and Faber, London 2015

Sound File #4 Press Conference (2017)

leadership management

We advocate our vision and inspire its achievement through our shared knowledge and sector engagement

On March 18, 2017, Minister for the Arts, Mitch Fifield, announced that the remainder of the funds that had been retracted from the ACA in 2015 by his predecessor, George Brandis, would be passed back to it. In a national newspaper, philanthropist Neil Balnaves took this opportunity to call for new leadership saying, “the Australia Council had failed its constituents and now was a good time to appoint more robust leaders”.[44]

Balnaves’ intervention should not be underestimated. It is uncommon for a philanthropist to publicly speak so critically of the leadership of a national arts agency and exemplifies the extent to which the arts sector no longer had confidence in the Council’s capacity to navigate the terrain ahead.

Six months earlier, at the conclusion of the Senate Inquiry into the Arts, politicians from across the spectrum rose in the Senate and elevated the Australia Council to the apotheosis of its moral authority and sector leadership in its 50 years of operation. Only problem, Council did not notice or understand or thank the sector which had advocated on its behalf during the Inquiry for delivering this historical moment.

Such lack of sector engagement was entirely consistent with Council’s behaviour throughout a year regularly pockmarked by leadership deficit to the point where it was remarked upon to CEO Tony Grybowski in Senate Estimates in early 2016. [45] When Greens Senator, Scott Ludlum, asked the CEO for the Australia Council’s response to the Senate inquiry into the budget cuts, he ‘said he did not have one’.

“You’re not just sitting back and taking it, is that what you’re telling me?” Senator Ludlum said. “It concerned the operations and funding of the Australia Council, that’s all.”[46]

In a later exchange Labor Senator, Catryna Bilyk, said:

“I think the council’s been conspicuously silent about the Coalition’s ­savage attack on it and the arts sector in general.”

When announcing radically reduced key organisational funding to a fraught sector in May 2016, Grybowski’s insensitive comments that it was ‘history-making’ highlighted the distance between real life and bureaucratic life.[47] In stark contrast, it was revealed that Grybowski and five senior ACA staff members accepted a performance bonus in a year in which their leadership oversaw a tsunami-sized loss of the ACA’s budget resulting in significant job losses in the small-medium sector.[48] The extraordinary lack of empathy that features in the double-bind of these twin acts is wholly consistent with the narcissism of the quintessential bureaucrat in the neo-liberal age.

Certainly, the most disturbing aspect of the behaviour of the ACA’s leadership has been its failure to push back against the government on behalf of the arts sector, let alone itself. Across the independent and mainstream media spectrum, the consistent view on record is that the Australia Council failed to advocate on behalf of the arts. In early 2016, the usually circumspect Matthew Westwood wrote in The Australian “the response from the Australia Council was circumspect in the extreme.” [49] Surrendering to Brandis with barely a whimper in May 2015 might be put down to being ‘blindsided’ – the ACA’s excuse at the time – but failing to petition his replacement, Mitch Fifield, when in September 2016 the sector successfully lobbied the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to sack Brandis, bookends an abject failure of leadership over almost a year-and-a-half of inertia.

Criticised by philanthropists, politicians and media for a fundamental failure in leadership, the ACA’s impotence is matched only by the irony in its persistent roll-out of innumerable cultural leadership programs. This litany of failings represents the institutional confusion that reigns in the Australian arts scene around leadership and management, two very different tasks requiring two very different skill-sets. In the case of the ACA, only one skill-set is displayed. Bad management thrives in the absence of leadership and can be recognised for its aversion to risk, fearfulness, operational impotence and institutionalised vanity.


Michaela Boland. Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski accused of bowing to Libs. The Australian, Feb 10, 2016.


Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski accused of bowing to Libs by Michaela Boland, The Australian, Feb 10 2016


65 arts organizations lose funding from Australia Council, by Deborah Stone, Arts Hub, May 13 2016


Australia Council awards bonuses amid budget cuts, by Matthew Westwood, The Australian Jan 19 2016

Sound File #5 Press Conference (2017)

integrity duplicity

We are trustworthy, ethical and accountable in all situations

The most successful resistance to Brandis’ incursion on the ACA manifested in the #freethearts campaign. Its success lay in its ‘distributive leadership’ model which operated on the sharing of campaign tasks nationally, regionally and locally. Ad hoc, run by the seat of its pants and using a strategy of rotating leaders and spokespeople, #freethearts is an exemplar of sectoral activism in Australian culture.

One of the sustained narratives of the campaign was the intransigence of the ACA to deal directly with the concerns of the sector in this active rubric. As mentioned earlier, the ACA held statistics vital to the accurate description of the value of the independent and small to medium sector’s contribution to Australian cultural activity, however, despite the efforts of various individuals and organisations making representations for that information it was not until journalist Ben Eltham submitted a Freedom of Information application that the research became suddenly available. It was then put on record in submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Arts.

I had written to this narrative in several publications and I was involved in the key strategy and organising groups of the #freethearts campaign. But it was not part of my responsibilities to engage the ACA directly. However, in one specific instance, I was directly engaged by the agency in relation to an essay published in the online journal, The Conversation. [50]

In the essay, Brandis is waging a Culture War: Artists must take Direct Action, I took the ACA to task for its response to Brandis’ cultural surgery criticising it for rationalising ‘its remaining budget by cutting programs that directly support independent artists. Instead of putting on notice any funding of the Major Organisations – the Australia Council took the soft option.’

My reading was consistent with information on the ACA’s website. The agency’s relationship to the Major Performing Arts Sector is governed by ‘the National Framework for Governments’ Support of the Major Performing Arts Sector (the MPA Framework) through which the ACA administers funding to the 28 MPA companies on behalf of the Australian Government and state governments, at levels they set and agree to’. The ACA plays an important leadership role in the management of the Framework. Internally, the MPA Panel established by the ACA Board ‘considers the MPA results in a broader context of support to other areas of the arts sector nationally. This overview and strategic understanding is critical to the health of each area of arts practice in Australia.’ [51] This observation implies the agency has the capacity to recommend adjustments to the conditions under which the MPAs operate. Further, MPAs can apply to receive funds directly from the Council through the MPA Collaborative Projects program and have historically benefited directly from the Audience Development Initiative.

On the morning of the publication of The Conversation article, I received a telephone call from an ACA officer known to me during my time working for the agency as a consultant.[52] At the outset it was a casual, informal chat about the article which eventually honed in on matters related to my suggestion that the ACA put ‘on notice any funding of the Major Organisations.’ The officer’s view was that it did not reflect the ACA’s capacity to impact on the MPAs as I had indicated and that the ACA had no control over discretionary funding to them. My reference in the essay was based on the above reading.

Some hours later I received a call from the Arts and Culture editor at The Conversation saying that his editor had been contacted by the ACA’s media department complaining that I had written incorrectly about the funding to the MPAs and that I had refused to alter the article consistent with the agency’s interpretation of its remit. In truth, I was never asked to correct the information in the article and so I was unable to refuse to do so. Although I received a written apology from the ACA Officer in question, I requested similar from the Media Department but none was forthcoming. [53]

Along with the ACA’s obfuscatory approach to requests for information from the sector, this is another example of the agency’s integrity deficit in being ‘trustworthy, ethical and accountable in all situations’.



From 2009-2011, I was contracted by the ACA as a consultant to establish the ACA-IETM Collaboration Project in Brussels where I was based for almost two years.


Personal email correspondence June 4, 2015

resilience weakness

The 2012 Australia Council Review, instigated by then Arts Minister Simon Crean who was concerned about the agency’s culture, clearly failed to task the ACA with the resilience required to fulfil its mission, a mission that was significantly challenged in the subsequent five years.

Clearly the biggest challenge was the retraction of a hundred million dollars of its funding by Arts Minister, George Brandis in May 2015. Even if one is to concede an initial paralysis brought on by the shock of Brandis’s actions – one must generously exclude Brandis’ publicly declared desire as Shadow Arts Minister to have more control over the Australia Council – it is difficult to read the agency’s lack of resistance as anything but an absence of organisational resilience.

The ACA issued no public statement of defence or protest. Nor did it assert its independence which is enabled by legislation. Nor did it publicly advocate or act on behalf of vulnerable artists and small companies in the precise circumstances for which advocacy was written into its Charter. Nor did it petition a new Minister for the return of the funds which it was entitled to do so.[54]

Like the words service, diversity, respect, collaboration, integrity and leadership, resilience is a word corrupted through its co-option by the corporate sector and ingested into the universe of the public utility. They have this in common these words and I feel sorry for them. It is not their fault that they are captured and imprisoned by organisations that mangle them to ‘mean’ the opposite of their true meanings, to talk about public service when they mean service to the market, to valorise competition within the rubric of collaboration, to be disrespectful when avowing respect, to confuse management with leadership and practise duplicity whilst forsaking integrity, and to explain diversity in singular, absolute frameworks. Resilience cannot operate or survive in this labyrinthine morality, and of all the words, it is the most tragic because its intimacy with the lexicon of managerialism is in its infancy. I hope it escapes before reaching adulthood.

Language has been toxified by managerialism. The culture of the ACA is a case in point. But the arts are the rule here not the exception. Paul Keating’s former speechwriter, Don Watson, has published tomes on the rise of ‘weasel words’ across sectors. I make mention of its effects on the artist in the following section but wish to note here that the devaluation of language, the construction of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ ties one sector of society to the next, and as I travel from the arts outwards to democracy my choice of language is deliberately intended to argue without fear or favour, to be resilient whilst that word still holds some authenticity.

45rpmanagerialism in the arts

(1) The impact of a national arts agency operating on values in opposition to its stated values is culturally tectonic. (2) Aside from creating internal confusion and uncertainty, the reverberations amplify far beyond the organisation itself. (3) Most profoundly, on the art-making and agency of artists seeking to avail themselves of public funding for their work – the primary source of income for independent artists.

Impact on making art (4) It is difficult to discern from the inside how these reverberations manifest in the artistic process and how they impact on the kind and quality of work that gets made, difficult because they are felt incrementally and are as ambient as they are actual. (5) So what is most useful for this context is an objective point of view, and I refer to discussions I had when based in Brussels as a consultant in 2009-2011 establishing the Collaboration Project between the ACA and the International Network for the Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) [55]. (6) Spending much of my time with European cultural operators, it was clear there was considerably less enthusiasm for Australian work than a generation earlier. Its idiosyncratic charm lay in its roughness and productive naivety. This had been replaced by a familiar, self-aware patina. (7) In translating the many observations, the best way to describe their main criticism is that Australian work exhibited a tendency to be ‘over-managed’.

What does this mean? (8) Basically, it means that considerably more financial resources and thinking are put into managing, marketing and producing an artistic work than in making it, or at least this is how the work is read. (9) Before an idea is allowed to grow, to see whether or not it has genuine potential, it is marketed, managed and produced within an inch of its life, and this unproductive alchemy is integrated and perceptible in the work. (10) This is directly linked to the ACA’s focus on infrastructure, a focus that devolves artistic practice to a marginal activity and that privileges output, income and governance over artistic quality, process and cultural agency. (11) Australian work is considered less vital than it used to be because of the structures and strictures under which it is now made.

(12) It also places the artist in a contorted position. Generally speaking, Australian artists seem to have developed the habit of looking at what is immediately in front of them rather than what is on the horizon. This is very much a managerialist reflex. Artists have become overly careful not to fall (and fail) in case they are crushed by the weight of non-artistic tasks now resting prematurely on their shoulders. (13) Artists elsewhere, in the western and northern parts of Europe particularly, tend to focus on what is ahead of them. (14) It is the reason why so much international work presented in Australia is sourced from there.

(15) Artistic quality increases considerably when it is created in an environment that is not risk-averse and in which the artistic impulse is not overloaded with expectations before its true value can be assessed. (16) These are familiar concerns expressed by Australian artists and producers disturbed by the conditions in which they create and produce.


Impact on artists (17) It is in the daily life activities of the independent artist that the greatest effects of managerialism manifests.

(18) As a contemporary artist working within and between the performing, visual and media arts in Australia, Asia and Europe, I have been involved in hundreds of applications to local, state, national and international funding bodies.

(19) I wrote my first funding application 30 years ago and have calculated that since then I have written some 200 applications to various arts agencies and organisations. (20) Of that number I was successful, roughly, half the time. On average I estimate each application required 60 hours of work – some required less, some required months of continuous attention. In the space of 30 years I expended on average 12,000 hours writing funding applications. In each year I worked an average 50 weeks @ 40 hours a week amounting to 2000 hours of work per year which over 30 years calculates at 60,000 hours of labour. If I take out 5 years for academic and curatorial appointments this reduces to 50,000 hours. (21) So almost one quarter of my working life as an artist has been expended in the seeking of funds to support my work.

(22) I calculate another 30% of my time has been expended on governance matters related to the running of my company, not yet it’s difficult – initially a project-based small to medium sized arts company and, for 4 of 20 years, a Key Organisation supported by the ACA with annual funding. (23) All up, 54% of my working life as an artist has been devoted to non-artistic practice.

(24) As an artist-applicant I am regarded within the professional arts community as one who has achieved a very high application success rate both as an independent and as the artistic leader of a small-medium-sized arts company. (25) So, it is not through lack of reward that I have come to the following position: The simple act of sitting down to write an arts application makes me feel physically unwell.

(26) Nor am I alone in the sufferance of this condition. Many established independent artists have confided similar visceral, professional and, in some cases, mental afflictions. “If I have to write another application I’ll just give up” is a common way of expressing the condition.

(27) It is not simply the volume of applications one must write to have any chance of adequately funding a project let alone putting food on the table for one’s family. (28) The most toxic of personal dystopias are brought about by the language one must use to have any success in the application process. (29) It is a language that defies the charismatic and enigmatic qualities of artistic practice, a language that does not appreciate the value of mystery and risk, a language that carves artistic ideas into non-artistic outcomes, a language that shapes an artwork before it has had a life as an idea and a dream, a language that prescribes financial benefit ahead of intrinsic value, a language that oppresses, distorts and bashes the artistic impulse into a cultural product that can be advertised to justify further funding for the same artless, soulless process.

(30) Like those used to resonate the ACA’s values, words and phrases such as ‘partnership’, ‘collaboration’, ‘innovation’, ‘creativity’, ‘key performance indicators’, ‘artistic vibrancy’, ‘urgency’, ‘risk-averse’, ‘cost-benefit analysis’, ‘integrity’, ‘leadership’, ‘service’, ‘governance’ and ‘excellence’ have been voided of their original meaning and put at the service of the application and assessment culture.

(31) Compounding the assault of language has been the request of increasingly more materials and information by arts agencies. (32) In the ACA frame, these included the provision of an Artistic Vibrancy assessment, additional ‘significant’ budgetary information and governance and compliance conditions including (preferred) board composition and uniform operating systems. (33) The impact of these additional requirements adversely affected the operation of my company necessitating the assignation of greater value – in terms of time and consideration – to matters of governance and compliance at the expense of art-making – despite our conscious resistance to every new impost from the agency.

(34) The diminution of the artist’s value to society, the occupation of – and excising of – professional spaces, hitherto her preserve, has resulted in her living and working in a toxic, caged environment. (35) The restrictions are mental, physical and social and – because managerialism operates on a process of attrition – often in(di)visible. (36) Producers spend most of their time producing, managers managing and marketers marketing; artists spend disproportionately more time writing applications for funding their work than they do on making it. (37) The process is a debilitating one and the conditions under which they work characterise their behaviours and shape this contemporary profile: today’s Australian artist is a twisted, proprietorial, impotent, corporate body, self-censored and silenced.

(38) This last point is a matter of real consequence in the context of applications of this thesis outside the arts. In 2013, former head of Queensland’s state arts agency, Leigh Tabrett publicly noted the surprising degree to which artists and cultural operators were scared to speak out for fear of upsetting funding bodies.[56] (39) When promoting his 2014 Platform Papers, Take Me To Your Leader, in which he bemoans the lack of cultural leadership in Australia, theatre and festival director, Wesley Enoch, said he has not heard any major artist – apart from Cate Blanchett and myself “speak out about what more than $100m in cuts to the arts announced in the federal budget means for the cultural life of the country.[57] (40) To be fair, over the ensuing three years, more artists did step up in the media and in the Senate Inquiry into the Arts to publicly declare positions in the Coalition’s culture war led by George Brandis.

(41) However, since the matter of the ACA’s funding was resolved, a return to silence has slowly re-settled. (42) It is not unfair to talk to a cultural ambience in which the artist is still too scared to speak out for fear of losing favour with funding and curatorial gatekeepers, and of being categorised as ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’, ‘outspoken’. (43) She shapes her work (and her work practices) to accommodate market expectations communicated by presenters, producers, bureaucrats and programmers; she seeks funds in an environment in which competition is valorised over cooperation which means her reflexes are trained accordingly; she has less agency to deploy those funds and her ‘identity’ is carved by governance structures that de-individuate and corporatise her.

(44) This characterisation of the independent artist has significant implications not just for the future of the arts in Australia but for society and democracy. (45) Because it is not just the artist that is being characterised here, but independence itself.


From Sept 2009-November 2011, I was Director of the IETM-Australia Council Collaboration Project.


Leigh Tabrett. It’s Culture, Stupid! Reflections of an arts bureaucrat. Sydney. Currency House, Platform Papers 34, 2013.

THE ARTIST Senate Inquiry (2015)

45rpmanagerialism in society

(1) These ‘alterations’ in the arts are wholly consistent with the prosecution of neo-liberalism in society. (2) Of all the social sectors, science is most like the arts because it is based on non-market values and so stands in direct opposition to neo-liberalism’s economic project of profit-maximisation. Science is a good starting point from which to work outwards.

(3) Let’s use the simple measure of funding to see how science fared in Tony Abbott’s Coalition Government (2013-2015). (4) Significant cuts were made to the CSIRO, the Australian Research Council, the Commonwealth Antarctic program, the ABC and SBS. (5) The Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation were unsuccessfully targeted. These entities have in common the production of a knowledge that is ‘inconvenient’ because it refuses to align with any government’s policy. It is their mission: to provide evidence-based truth rather than to serve the government-of-the-day’s interests or develop sustainable income streams. (6) The Coalition’s chief target here is ‘the ideal of the public good or the broader commons’.[58] (7) Because its value is located in the non-monetary (and the non-political), the public good is perceived as an obstacle to profit-maximisation. (8) Neo-liberalism has to root out the ideal of the public good from the operation of government for its economic project to succeed. The arts and sciences are obvious and significant targets in this process.

(9) Funding, however, operates in the space of numbers, which are finite. (10) So in reality, it is the space in which the least damage is caused. (11) The practices of managerialism are most fierce in the behaviours, attitudes and values of public servants because their nature is ambient. An atmosphere of professional permissiveness pervades the culture of the bureaucrat.

It’s not the crude chilling effect of funding cuts that’s the real worry – that rumble can still happen in the media, just. Instead, it’s the lockjaw creeping through a group of bureaucrats who see themselves as pseudo-businesspeople, who have turned out not to be much good at being either.[59]

(12) The creation of a managerial class, whose capacity is directed towards the lowest common denominator in the equation of human agency and economic output, manifests outside the arts and sciences and in the areas of sport, health, immigration, social services, higher education, and the media. I would like to make some anecdotal and evidence-based remarks here to support this view.

Sport (13) The kind of fractious knowledge transference that characterises managerialism was exposed in sports administration in the aftermath of the 2016 Rio Olympics. One of managerialism’s calling cards – the appointment of businessmen and bankers to lead the boards of major institutions that may or may not need their expertise – was cited by John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Commission (AOC) as a major cause of the paucity of Australian athletes’ success. He declared that ‘the policy of recruiting businessmen as leaders of Olympic sports had failed.’[60]

Health (14) A Departmental Deputy Director at one of Australia’s major hospitals recently confided that as a result of a new database their job now included sending appointment notifications to patients by text message – a job hitherto undertaken by administrative staff who had been re-assigned to the back office problem-solving the difficulties of the new system.[61] In the ancillary world of private health insurance, companies now tend to measure their success by favouring the allocation of resources over patient well-being.[62]

Immigration (15) A former employee, an artist unable to make a sustainable living in the arts, found themselves working in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection which within a year caused them to suffer ongoing mental health issues which were brought on by departmental regulations that prevented them from engaging in a humane manner with clients (read: refugee and asylum-seekers). Mental health issues suffered by those working in close proximity to the Department such as service providers like Save The Children have been well-documented.[63] (16) I’ll speak in more detail to the toxic ambience of this Department in the following section.

Social Services (17) In my work as artist-in-residence for philanthropic maverick, Igniting Change [64], I sometimes engage with people working at the frontier of crisis-management. In a meeting with a welfare worker operating in child protection, the following statement was made: “The only thing Child Protection (the government agency) protects is Child Protection”. (18) One of the observations made by Igniting Change CEO, Jane Tewson, is that services outsourced by government grow the gaps between complementary services rather than close them. The system establishes managerialist enclaves of service providers that tend to exacerbate rather than alleviate the problems they are contracted to solve. (19) But the most telling example of managerialism out of control in the Social Services is the government’s agency, Centrelink, whose ineptitude is surpassed only by its brutishness. The 2017 Centrelink Crisis continues to generate trauma for those it is charged with helping. Its automated debt recovery system is subject to a Senate Inquiry investigating the consequences for Centrelink clients for whom, according to Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, it “has had “catastrophic” effects’”[65] which include intimidation and harassment from debt collectors and in one tragic case, suicide.[66] In a single year to October 2016, nearly 29 million calls to Centrelink received a busy signal with another 7 million calls “abandoned” by customers unwilling to wait any longer.[67]

Higher Education (20) In the higher education system, neoliberal capitalism has utterly transformed the ideal of the university. Today the university resembles a manufacturing and retail outlet producing education as a product and selling it onsite. Any pedagogical value is contained within this business model. Research and knowledge production seem incidental. Managerialism has carried the day. Five years ago, a colleague working in a Go8 university bemoaned the fact that university administrators were now getting paid five times a Professor’s salary when ten years ago the ratio was 1:2. (21) Another colleague recently told of being interviewed by business managers asking what it is they actually do, as if the core tasks of an academic were something other than the production, communication and pedagogy of knowledge. (22) And when provided with an answer, the inquiring business manager blinked in disbelief as if he was listening to some strange or foreign language. (23) In today’s university, the student is a client, a thought is an asset, a research paper is a potential income stream, an office or studio is a space for outside hire.

(24) So extreme are the changes undergone in the culture of the university, the question begs: do these institutions still fit the definition of a university? British academic Terry Eagleton writes passionately about “the slow death of the university as a centre of humane critique”.[68] He seizes on the key element that distinguishes a university from a ‘technical training facility or a corporate research institute’, the presence and valorisation of the humanities:

Can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines? [69]

(25) In Australia, the war of attrition on the humanities in the university sector embodies one of the key contradictions of neo-liberalism. Whilst its proponents advocate the merits of access and equity that neo-liberalism supposedly affords, the reality is that wealth and economic privilege enable the chosen to exist outside its diminishing effects. (26) My company NYID’s dramaturg, Peter Eckersall, who is now based in America, worked in Australian universities for 20 years:

Group of Eight universities such as Melbourne and Monash continue to fund and pursue liberal arts education, but universities such as La Trobe and Deakin now seem to assume that their generally poorer and diverse student base don’t need or deserve to have access to studies in these fields. Such programs at these universities have been gutted in favour of studies in ‘applied skills’. Arts and Humanities majors are increasingly available only at elite universities. Meanwhile, people who need public services and good affordable public education are subjected to its full regulatory and dehumanizing force.[70]

(27) The great perversity exists in the fact that recent research indicates the ‘soft skills’ learned in arts and humanities are increasingly sought by employers.’[71] The ‘productivity and efficiency’ mantra of neo-liberalism is sabotaged by managerialism in the education sector in much the same way as it is by the imposition of the ‘compliance culture’ in the arts.

Media (28) The media is one of democracy’s caretakers and health-givers, and a major conduit between civil society and the political class. The quality of the media is largely measured in terms of transparency, objectivity and non-partisan reportage. The proper carriage of these elements enables important signals to be transmitted above the ‘noise’. (29) However, the prosecution of the neo-liberal mission in the mainstream media has collapsed the wall separating the media from political culture compromising their respective independence. (30) This new complicity was exposed in the mainstream media’s performance during the 2016 Federal Election.

(31) An enduring memory of the immediate post-election analysis was provided by ABC-TV around midnight on July 2, Election Day. In a roundtable conversation, the two major political parties were each represented by a spin-doctor and a campaign staffer. Given the election result was on a knife-edge and it would be unknown for some weeks, the consensus that LNP leader Malcolm Turnbull had run a successful campaign was astonishing given mainstream commentators had uniformly predicted a comfortable Coalition victory. (32) In the ensuing days, the tendency to characterise the result as ‘chaos’ bordered on hubris.

(33) Listening to seasoned commentators sheet home the blame for their inaccurate predictions to voters’ lack of finesse in understanding the complexity of the voting process was like watching The Titanic’s passengers waving at the wheel-house to veer left and avoid the iceberg. (34) That the commentariat could not read the result as anything other than a reflection of the ineptitude of voters, reinforces the degree to which it is hard-wired into the operating system of the major parties’ political machinery. (35) Worse still, it seemed to spend much of the election reading nothing other than what it wrote itself. Its efforts seemed fixated on filling the 24-hour news cycle with unfiltered content or ill-considered opinion and applying it across multiple technological platforms. (36) The Monthly’s Sean Kelly was one of few prominent journalists who repeatedly expressed his suspicion that something was going on but he just couldn’t read it.[72] His was a lone voice in trying to pick up a signal rather than contribute to the noise.

(37) In truth, the electorate is ahead of the mainstream political-media complex that, at some deep level, has lost its values and its influence. The major newspapers are like newsletters advertising the wares of whichever major party they align with. We read Fairfax and Murdoch to understand the worldview of its owners, editors and journalists but it has a diminishing currency when forming our own. The swinging part of the electorate has a more nuanced understanding of the major parties’ strategies and the media messaging than the players themselves. (38) In a recent investigation of Fairfax Media, Mike Seccombe reports that striking staff were of the view “that their employers no longer see the commercial side of the business as a support for the journalism but see journalism as a support for the commercial side.” [73] It is a formula that echoes the neo-liberal mantra that people be constantly re-designed for the market.

(39) The collapse of the wall separating the media from political culture raises the noise levels many decibels. It is as if both sides, once a completion of the other, are now in a partisan contest. This is problematic for the arts and culture as its fraternal relationship with the media relies on the shared values of independence, objectivity and courageous interrogation. (40) A wholly diverse independent and mainstream media is as crucial to a healthy democracy as a wholly diverse independent and mainstream arts sector.

(41) These evocations create a noise in civil society that constitutes an oppressive ambience. (42) It is the new prevailing characteristic of our quotidian. (43) It exhausts and aggravates, distracts and diverts. It forces the citizen inwards, away from civil society towards a complacency, an ennui, a self-absorption that on a micro-level reflects the narcissism endemic to neo-liberalism. (44) Consumption is served well in this ambience as it provides sweet, short-term relief from our moral diabetes. (45) The greatest impact this condition has is on the functioning of democracy whose health is directly linked to a clear-eyed attention to and understanding of its workings. Without it, democracy is a fire sale.


Ben Eltham. Platform Papers. When the Goalposts Move, Currency House. Sydney. 2016. P. 28


Richard Locke. Spending Discipline. The Monthly. Schwarz Media. May 11 2016


Private Conversation with departmental head at Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital


Professor Peter Eckersall, in email conversation with David Pledger June 3, 2017.


Arts Hub, Libby Sanders, Employers want what arts graduates have, March 20, 2017


The Monthly, Sean Kelly, Day 51: A State of Confusion, May 12, 2016


The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, What The Future Holds For Fairfax, May13-19, 2017


Around about now, the sonic pressure that’s been building through Side 1 of my concept album will begin to break the membrane of its logic and order, becoming ever more insistent and oppressive. This is noise, institutional, mediated noise, embedded in and permeating the quotidian with neo-liberal’s self-regarding symphony, the air-conditioning system of society. Please bear with me through this final section as your mental processing contends with the oppression of sound.

45rpmanagerialism in political democracy

(1) The political culture of any democracy is a space that neo-liberalism must control for its economic project to succeed. Democracy’s demand on society’s time and labour is a great obstacle to that success. (2) The presence of managerialism in our political culture contests democracy on behalf of neo-liberalism and challenges its delivery and quality.

(3) The methodology and aim of managerialism in Australia’s political culture is straightforward. (4) Efficiency and productivity are privileged above the human and the social, manufacturing chains of power along which managerialism oozes with ever-increasing viscosity, and by sheer accumulation creates small fissures which become large breaks until its weight overbears, causing the political culture to crack and thereby disconnect with civil society thus disabling democracy. (5) It is a creeping and insidious fracturing of our bodypolitic.

(6) As in other Western democracies such as America and the UK, the hegemonic control of Australia’s political culture rests with one or other of two major political parties – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party (LPA) – depending on who forms government. (7) However, ‘implicit power’ actually resides in the unofficial alliance between the cohorts of professional politicians across the two parties. Rather than the policy or values it is this Laberal Coalition that defines mainstream Australian political culture.

(8) Once genuine representative parties, both the ALP and the LPA are now populated by professional politicians, many of whom have never held a job outside political culture. [74] (9) The primary objective of the professional politician is different to that of the representative politician. (10) Whereas the representative politician works to represent the interests of their constituency, the professional politician seeks the maintenance of power. (11) This necessitates a menu of behaviours characterised by an aversion to risk and an obsession with efficiency, regulation and protocols. (12) This leads to excessive government which is ironic given that a key platform of neo-liberalism is small government. (13) Whether it be the regulation of meta-data, border protection, information security or small business, Australians openly describe the nation’s governance culture as a Nanny State.

(14) In the Laberal mode of managerialism, politicians, like artists, find themselves in a contorted position only able to look at the ground in front of them and not ahead – a classic managerialist refllex. (15) In the arts, it is said that a manager deals with the everyday task whilst artists dream the future. (16) The risk-averse environment of politics – shaped by the adherence to the 24-hour information cycle, focus groups, spin doctors and ‘advisors’ – prohibits today’s politicians from imagining a vision for themselves, their constituency or the nation. (17) They can’t see the horizon for the next election. (18) They seem barely able to manage a straight answer to a straight question.

(19) In the context of the Ministerial cuts to the ACA, I attended a June 2015 meeting of arts leaders at Parliament House in Canberra. (20) I asked Mark Dreyfus, the Shadow Attorney-General and then Shadow Arts Minister if he would give an assurance that the ALP would restore to the ACA the $104 million the then Arts Minister, George Brandis, had extracted from the agency. (21) It was clear from his manner that the answer was yes. Every aspect of his body language was oozing the positive. However, it took some five minutes of prevarication and two interventions from myself before he managed to eke out that perilous 3-letter word that would bind him to a course of action.[75] (22) When he finally did so, a journalist promptly tweeted as much and an election commitment was born.

(23) Prevarication is a default setting for the Australian politician. It is also one of the softer outcomes of Laberal managerialism.

(24) One of its harder outcomes is played out in the Immigration portfolio where the bi-partisan prosecution of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy has led to institutionalised cruelty that transgresses international human rights laws.[76] (25) It is in this context that the physical body of the citizen and the bodypolitic find themselves on a catastrophic collision course.

(26) The current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is the latest in a long line of Laberal Immigration Ministers. (27) During his iteration, he has out-brutalised his predecessors with his public statements. (28) Not satisfied with insulting Australia’s refugee population during the 2016 Federal Election as innumerate and illiterate,[77] Dutton has characterised the self-immolation of refugees as a tactic to gain entry into Australia:

Some people have even gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia.[78]

(29) Let us unpack this proposition. When a person decides to self-immolate, that is, to burn themselves to death, they must equip themselves with an accelerant and an ignition source. This requires some planning. They must sense the pain they are about to receive at their own hands. They know it will be unbearable. They will try to find a reason not to inflict such pain on themselves. That reason will elude them only if its logic outweighs their despair or pain or desperation caused by their circumstances. (30) The following describes a video of the self-immolation of Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali on the island of Nauru in April 2016:

It (the video) shows a man, drenched in liquid, standing alone in a clearing, pleading. No one, it seems, wants to stand near him. In the background, the white shirts and blue caps of staff from the UN high commissioner for refugees are apparent.

“This is how tired we are,” the man yells desperately.

“This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

The man makes a swift, small movement with his right arm, and suddenly, his body is alight.[79]

(31) A person will deliberately do this to himself only if his situation is utterly unbearable, utterly untenable.

(32) Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s statement is delusional.

(33) In his heart, does he truly believe what he says? If he does then it suggests his psyche has suffered immeasurably from the tasks he has felt compelled to undertake as Minister for Immigration, and he is dangerously disconnected from humanity. (34) As our elected representative, his mental health is our responsibility for the work he is doing on our behalf.

(35) In a democracy, we do not elect a government and then abrogate responsibility for their actions if they do not align with our own. Our obligation as citizens is to be active in the democratic process at all times not just at ‘election time’. (36) And I say this without reproach. I say it because I believe that a citizen’s knowledge, experience and responsibility of repression, control and curtailment undertaken by government on her behalf insinuates itself into the citizen’s body, alters the physical sensibility of society, and re-wires the bodypolitic as dystopic and toxic.

(37) The burning bodies of Omid Masoumali and Somali refugee Hodan Yasin who set herself on fire a day later are a direct result of the actions of our bodypolitic. (38) As are the fates of Hamid Kehazaei, Reza Barati, Mohammad Nasim Najafi and Fazel Chegeni, “Abyan”, “Golestan” and “Nazanin”, all of whom have suffered or died in Australia’s gulag of detention centres. The Iranian journalist and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani, completes the circle of this argument:

“The system has humiliated me for a long time. This system threatened me and put me in a harsh place with no safety for a long time. My body has been damaged and I have lost a lot of things in my life, and the other refugees are the same as me… [80]

(39) Australia’s asylum-seeker policy condones child abuse, rape, sexual predation, corporal punishment and the deprivation of appropriate care to the acutely ill.[81] (40) Its objective is to inflict upon the communal and corporeal body of its subjects as much distress as it can bear.

(41) Managerialism is not simply the handmaiden of the economic project of neo-liberalism. It connects values and behaviours in society that incrementally dehumanize us and enables us to dehumanize others. (42) The arts bureaucrat who takes a performance bonus in a year in which their inaction and complacency have directly led to massive job losses; the university business manager who sees students and academics as income streams; the banker who (mis)leads the board of a company in an industry in which they have no experience; the managed attrition in the health and social services that compel the desperate to give up; the detention centre guard who looks the other way when a child is abused or an adult self-harms. (43) These are all connected by the carriage of managerialism, a medium that has at its heart the philosophy that elevates the self-regarding value above the other-regarding value, a moral hierarchy that epitomises neo-liberalism. (44) If neo-liberalism wins the contest for our hearts and minds then the noise you are struggling to cope with as you read these words will not be an artistic metaphor. (45) It will be our life.


Things Peter Dutton Has Said by Sean Kelly, The Monthly Today, August 18 2016

THE COACH The Sports Show (1997)


In music or dance, a coda is the word for a concluding passage or section, either an addition to the basic structure of the performance or its finale. In literature, it may refer to ‘a concluding event, remark or section.’[82] In this context, the coda is an addition to the structure which has the promise of altering or challenging that which comes before. The election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency, a victory perceived as fundamentally challenging the mechanics of Western democracy, requires the addition of a coda to this side of my concept album. It acknowledges the manifest changes in Western democracy since mid-2016.

As if in direct answer to The Coach’s entreaty, Trump declared in his Inauguration Speech: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never let you down”. Whereas The Coach incites others to be instruments of his racism, to strike down the other, Trump accepts the responsibility himself “I will.”, he says, “I will strike.” And it’s not so much the vision that is disturbing here, it’s the sound of a body being beaten, the shouting of the perpetrators, the snarling of the animal-pack, the indignity of being abused to your face over and over again. This vicious, violent cannibalism is the full stop in the paragraph, Neo-Liberalism, in The Ongoing History of the World. Its new hero is The Apprentice President, Donald Trump #POTUS.

On May 6, 2017, 107 days after his Inauguration, President Trump met Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on-board the tourist attraction, USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft-carrier used for the day to host celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Less interested in enduring symbolism, Trump has made a habit of staging photo opportunities with other nation’s leaders to fill the world with visual noise bearing his individual signature. Turnbull came to the world’s attention in February when Trump employed a more visceral version by reportedly shouting at him in their first telephone call. These interactions with Turnbull are mere sound particles in the Wall of Noise that Trump constructed in his first 100 Days of office.

Trump Time is measured in tweets. Trump Space is measured in real estate. Trump Place is measured in race. Trump Sound is measured in decibels. Trump is the Torturer in Iraq who has placed his nation and, by default, the world in an empty container blasting its citizens with his narcissistic songs of making America GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! Not so much a President as a brand, Trump’s agency is contingent on his reshaping the American Presidency as a quadrennial long-form entertainment – a sequel to the election campaign – in which sustaining noise is the secret of electoral success. From bombs to tweets, shouts to threats, The Apprentice President is also The Noise-Machine of the Free World.

The line that once distinguished the product and the process of a reality TV show is now blurred by febrile white noise that demands attention for its alchemy of aesthetic and affective qualities. Hypnotically irresistible for its triumphalism of base human behaviour, The Apprentice President is an off-the-chart ratings success, a kaleidoscopic cacophony of vacuity. When Shakespeare wrote the Thane of Cawdor’s self-realisation that his vaulting ambition had immersed, and ultimately, consumed his life, he was projecting his protagonist across time into the non-martial figure of The Donald: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Donald J. Trump is THE POSTER BOY for neo-liberalism scoring perfect 10s across all KPIs: the valorisation of risk-taking, individual freedoms and personal responsibility; forceful advocacy for the impartiality of the state and the priority of the price mechanism; the almost spiritual belief that ‘society works best when the people and the institutions within it work or are shaped to work according to market principles.’[83]

These are the first lines of his biography:

Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence… He is the archetypal businessman – a deal maker without peer. [84]

Peerless he may be but Trump is not the prize here. He is a contestant, a noisy, narcissistic contestant, pathologically fearful of being THE BIGGEST LOSER. He is a 70-year old trapped in the mind-set of a spoiled adolescent, “an agent of chaos, both by habit and inclination”. His danger to his fellow-contestants and the show’s viewing audience lies in his attraction to all things authoritarian, someone who will “cultivate chaos as a means to unsettle their opponents,”[85] and one with his finger on the button.

His choice of Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist indicates his preparedness to be the Quintessential Disruptor in the business of American and global politics. Bannon is as famous for getting wealthy off the royalties of Seinfeld re-runs as he is for invoking Vladimir Lenin, declaring: “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”[86]

Such a task creates ear-splitting noise. From the mainstream media who are as mesmerised by Trump post-election as they were obsessively dismissive of him pre-election. From the professional political class whom he astutely wrong-footed because they’re still playing politics and he’s in the business of entertainment. From the citizenry who either will not accept his presidency to those who will not accept his presidency not being accepted. This kind of noise does not just disable democracy, it destroys it. And that is the intention of Trump’s Administration.

The Donald is the first authentic commodity manufactured by and for neo-liberalism. His production constitutes a metamorphosis for neo-liberalism, and as the dominant global ideology, it has pathological implications. In social and political terms, it is too early to discern its meaning. However, the questions it poses are clear. Will it constitute the structural collapse of capitalism in the West? Will it usher in a new era of fascism? Will it affect radical changes in the DNA of Western democracy? We may find elements of an answer in the election of Emmanuel Macron to the French Presidency and the mercurial rise of his nascent political party, En Marche, or in the rise of the progressive Jeremy Corbyn at the June 2017 UK Election, both of which have been read as a political antidote to Trump’s rise. In Australia, instruction will undoubtedly come from surprising sources such as this admission from Treasurer Scott Morrison to the 2017 Federal Liberal Party Council that, ‘many Australians are turning down the volume on Canberra’s noise.’

One of the more cogent analyses of Trumpism written in the first 100 Days of his Presidency comes from psychoanalyst, Joel Whitebook, in The New York Times. It distinguishes itself by providing an opinion that does not add to the noise but somehow qualifies it. It is an analysis that speaks to my proposition of neoliberalism creating a sickening, toxic environment.

Whitebook proposes that “Trumpism as a social-psychological phenomenon has aspects reminiscent of psychosis, in that it entails a systematic — and it seems likely intentional — attack on our relation to reality.” This is certainly consistent with the confabulation of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ that have developed as emblematic tropes in the Trump Administration’s vernacular. Whitebook argues that this strategy helps construct an alternate reality, a delusion that becomes ‘real’ the more content-creation the Administration engages in. The closing of this gap contributes to the confusion and anxiety surrounding Trumpism. It creates a psychosis that reverberates throughout the bodypolitic and into the hearts and minds of individuals everywhere. Whitebook then quotes the example of Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s long-time chief ideologue, who engages in ‘a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.’[87] Trump is an admirer of Putin and his tactics, and the unresolved allegations of Russian interference in the Presidential elections continue to dog them both.

Embodied in this analysis is a hint of how Trump may represent a departure from the neo-liberal trajectory and how managerialism may have met its match in the new Administration. There is no evidence of systematic behaviour in the Administration unless you characterise its unpredictability as systematic. This is legible in Surkov’s strategy but there are too many instances of senior Administration staff being wrong-footed by Trump for it to stand up here. It may be possible to say that Trumpism is a condition created by neo-liberalism if we frame neo-liberalism as a disciplinary regime, as in the Foucauldian sense. And although Trump’s winner-take-all message is pure neo-liberal propaganda, his demonization of race, gender and sexuality disrupts the hegemonic spaces on which neo-liberalism feeds. Neo-liberalism requires order so that the established hierarchy remains in situ. Trump is not interested in order. He craves chaos because it creates a landscape in which his narcissism can prosper. There does not yet seem to be any purpose other than vanity at play here and the marginalisation of Steve Bannon suggests the use of chaos as a strategic tool will be confined to Trump brand-building.

To provide a way forward, Whitebook reverts to standard operating procedure for dealing with Trump:

In the psychiatric setting, it only becomes possible to treat a patient in the psychotic range of the diagnostic spectrum when an analyst does not focus on the “manifest content” — on what actually happens on the surface — but finds a way to address the underlying dynamics in order to work them through and establish, first in the analytic setting, and then hopefully in the patient’s life, a less compromised relation to reality.

Whitebook offers sage advice.

Don’t focus on the “manifest content”, Shakespeare’s ‘sound and fury’, what I call ‘noise’. The experience of Trump’s soundtrack, his Wall of Noise, is not unlike hearing Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound for the first time. There is a palpable tension between the melody and the forest of jangling, layered orchestral arrangement, between the signal and the manifest content. It demands of the listener a wholly new aesthetic challenge.

It requires an uncommon, aural diligence to disentangle these elements, to find a way to address ‘the underlying dynamics’, to block out the noise and discover the techniques used to create it, and then disarm them.

In the first instance, we need to cultivate an altogether new way of listening.

In the second instance, we need to discover a silence that produces the space to transmit ideas and emotion in civil society and the political arena that acknowledges and accepts conflict without creating more.


Lester SpenceKnocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Term in Black Politics. (Punctum Books, 2016), 3.


Prof Barbara Perry, director of University of Virginia’s Miller Centre The Age Insight April 29, 2017


Pomerantsev, Peter‘Putin’s Rasputin,’ London Review of Books, 33 (20), 20 October 2011, pp. 3–6.