Standing up for Canberra

Transcript: Drive with Laura Tchilinguirian

SUBJECTS: Joint Standing Committee for National Capital and External Territory inquiry into the national institutions.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: What does the future hold for our national institutions? It’s a question that’s being asked at a federal inquiry, which started today in Canberra. Labor Member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann, is the Deputy Chair of the inquiry – she’s been there all day, and joins me now in the studio. Hello.

GAI BRODTMANN, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Lovely to be with you Laura.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: What came out of today’s public hearing?

BRODTMANN: Lots of things. I think one of the most important messages that came out of today, was the role of our national institutions in our cultural identity. The question we put to the national institutions we had before us today – the National Library, the National Archives, the National Film and Sound Archives, the CSIRO Discovery Centre, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies –

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Pretty much all the big ones.

BRODTMANN: We had these national treasures before us today. We put the question to them – Why are the institutions still relevant? Why are they important? It was wonderful having the opportunity to have a discussion about the role national institutions play in our national psyche – in our cultural identity. The philosophical objectives of these institutions, and the fact they are so vitally important to our cultural resilience, to who we are as a nation, who we are as individuals, particularly in this age where erosion of trust in institutions is everywhere – particularly in western democracies. These national institutions give us that sense of cultural identity – the good and the bad of our cultural identity – and also that cultural resilience.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Is there a feeling that they are still being as valued as they ever were?

BRODTMANN: Very much so. Just in terms of the attendance numbers, they’re all going up. They are still playing a significant role in telling our national history, telling our national story, telling our national heritage, archiving our national story – so they are still very, very relevant and the visitation numbers are just going up and up and up. The Cartier Exhibition – I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to get to that –


BRODTMANN: That was extraordinary. It was a bit of a crash tackle to actually get to the tiaras in that first section. The Gallery was saying they have broadened out their audience and they’ve had visitors who have never gone to a gallery before – so very significant.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Gai Brodtmann, the Terms of Reference talks about a number of things. It looks at maintaining viability and relevance to grow their profile, visitor numbers and revenue. What are some of the main concerns that came out of some of the submissions that were made today?

BRODTMANN: A number of challenges which we anticipated, but also others which were kind of unexpected. There is the obvious one of the efficiency dividend. That is having a significant impact on national institutions now, or will have a significant impact on them in the future.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Can you explain what that is?

BRODTMANN: The efficiency dividend is essentially, they get a certain amount of money – each year it gets pared back and back and back – and it’s been going on for some time. Their sum of money, in real terms, is falling each year. So that is actually having an impact on the way they do their business, and that is definitely biting – or is about to bite. So there was considerable concern expressed about the efficiency dividend.

Also, the cap on staffing rates. That is having an impact on the ability – particularly for those institutions – and most of them do engage in fundraising activities, they go out there and raise money from the private sector. They get this additional funding either from the Government or from the private sector, but they’ve still got the same amount of people to implement new programs. That’s a significant challenge for them.

There are challenges in terms of legislative constraints – in terms of their ability to raise money. Digitisation, and the fact there is a race to ensure our history is preserved –

TCHILINGUIRIAN: That is a key thing for the National Film and Sound Archive.

BRODTMANN: Absolutely. That’s their big concern – they’ve got a five to seven year window to digitise or we could lose part of our story.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: The Labor Member for Canberra is with me here on Drive, Gai Brodtmann. She is the Deputy Chair of the inquiry into our national institutions. It had its first public hearing today here in Canberra. The ACT Government also made a submission to the inquiry. What did it contribute to the discussion?

BRODTMANN: It made a significant contribution to the discussion. Their submission was very strong – and I commend the ACT Government on that. They made the suggestion that Questacon should be a statutory authority – their view is there are a number of legacy issues as a result of the Government’s arrangements around Questacon – and they quoted a review that was done about ten years ago and recommended that. They also spoke about paid parking in the Parliamentary Triangle, rather than going into consolidated revenue should go into the national institutions – you’re talking about $98.2 million dollars there -

TCHILINGUIRIAN: And there are still some strong opinions about that –

BRODTMANN: That’s right. They of course addressed the issue of the efficiency dividend and the impact that was having. They made the point – that yes it is important – and seeking private support and philanthropy should be encouraged by our national institutions. But Australia doesn’t traditionally have a history of that, unlike the United States and even the United Kingdom. But they made the point, even in the US where there is that strong, philanthropic tradition – the Smithsonian still receives two-thirds of its funding from Government.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: I’d love to know how important it is to have a representative from Canberra, like yourself, in this inquiry?

BRODTMANN: I think it’s important because these national institutions are vital for us, as our nation’s capital. They play an important role in defining who we are as Australians and who we are as a nation. I think it is vitally important that we have a Canberran on there because it has knock on effect, not just for the nation but for the Canberra community. We’ve seen as a result of the international flights – the ACT Government highlighted that – the visitation numbers have gone up, particularly from overseas visitors as a result of the overseas flights. It is good to have that Canberra perspective on it, because we’re living with this – this is in our backyard – we’re living with these national institutions, they are part of our fabric, and so I think it is important that Canberra does have a voice on that committee and definitely in this inquiry. I initiated the inquiry.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: There have been 70 plus submissions to his inquiry. Were most of them from institutions and interested groups here in Canberra? Or were there submissions made from anywhere else in the country?

BRODTMANN: The ones that I have read – and that’s about half of them – have all been from national institutions and from the friends of the national institutions. Some of those submissions have been really powerful. The stand out for me was from the Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive. An incredibly well researched piece – very well analysed and very well argued. So we’ve got the friends, the Greens have made a submission, the national institutions, and the government agencies. They’re the ones I’ve read so far.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Is there any fear that anything – any of our national institutions – will be scaled back as a result of this inquiry?

BRODTMANN: I can’t see that happening. Today was a beautiful day in so many ways. It was just the Chair and myself. Ben studied here at the ANU – he’s a former bus driver here, he was an ACTION bus driver while he was studying – so as I said to others, he knows every inch of Canberra. He’s loves Canberra – he’s a West Australian – but he loves Canberra.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: I spoke to him when the inquiry was first announced and he talked about how he loves bringing his son over to visit Questacon and how important it is to have these institutions in the nation’s capital. I know that day, people raised with me the concern – is this an excuse by the Federal Government or politicians to scale things back here. And hopefully that’s not the case.

BRODTMANN: As I said, I initiated the inquiry and I’m in Opposition. I initiated the inquiry because it’s been ten years since we’ve taken a close look at the national institutions. A lot has changed in that ten years – particularly on the social media front – and particularly on the digitisation of the national institutions and the way we engage – the sort of immersive technology that you now experience at national institutions overseas. So a lot has changed. The funding cuts have had an impact, the staffing cuts have had an impact. It was well and truly overdue, it is well and truly time to have a look at the national institutions, which is why I initiated it.

From the conversations today, it was as I said – and I know that beautiful gets bandied around – it was just a wonderful day just to reflect on how blessed we are to have these national institutions in our country, in our nation’s capital, in our wonderful Canberra, that are run by a group of volunteers and paid workers who are so committed and so passionate about actually talking and showcasing our national identity. We are blessed.

It was a wonderful day to have those broad philosophical conversations about access. The National Portrait Gallery were talking about the National Gallery in London, The House of Commons set that up in 1824, in Trafalgar Square – with the express purpose of allowing people from East London, from low socio-economic backgrounds to access it by walking, and for those who lived in the richer suburbs could catch a carriage there. The whole intent of that gallery – it was free then and it’s still free today – was so it could be accessible to everyone.

There is that notion of democracy, there is that notion of access, and there is that notion of equality that really is a philosophy that is driving our national institutions and all those who work there.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: Well, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what happens with the outcome of this inquiry. Thank you very much for coming in and talking about it. When is it due?

BRODTMANN: We’ve got a way yet – we’ve got a lot more hearings.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: All the best with it, we might touch base again soon.

BRODTMANN: Thank you.

TCHILINGUIRIAN: That is the Labor Member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann, who is also the Deputy Chair of the Inquiry into national institutions.