The Howard government’s latest inquiry into bias at Canberra’s National Museum has revived alarms that the Coalition is stamping its politically corrected big-C Conservatism all over Australian culture. Despite the prime minister’s fondness for battlers, his government wound down the Art and Working Life policy because of its association with trade unions. Late in 1999, the National Gallery of Australia cancelled “Sensation”, which included works anathema to the religious Right organized in the Liberal Party’s Lyons Forum. Pressures from that quarter against “arty types” have also toughened the classifying of films and literature.

One barrier against ministerial meddling in the arts has been arms-length funding - the allocation of monies by independent boards. This solution emerged in revulsion to Cold War experiences at the Commonwealth Literary Fund where fellowships had to be endorsed by Prime Minister Menzies who would arrive armed with ASIO reports. Conservative members of his advisory board despaired in 1955 when Menzies denied an award to the apolitical poet and playwright Ray Mathew on suspicion of his being a “Red”. An applicant’s beliefs or extra-artistic behavior should never be at issue. Funding the right-flapping Quadrant and the left-leaning Overland should be decided on their contributions to our literary life alone.

Although arms-length funding can get bogged into reference committees of peer review, the need to overhaul its mechanism is no reason for jettisoning the principle that politicians should not be the arbiters of taste. The common sense behind an arms-length approach becomes apparent when the alternative is spelt out: Senator Rod Kemp decides who will sing the title role in Opera Australia’s April production of Lulu.

Regrettable as each intervention is in itself, its consequences can outlast its moment. For example, the 1977 refusal by the Fraser government to authorize the National Gallery’s purchase of Georges Braque’s Large Nude (1908) did more damage than the loss of a pivotal work in Western painting. Far worse, the veto derailed the Gallery’s collecting policy, a loss from which it has never recovered. In place of a coherent plan, the NGA thereafter acquired at random so that its overseas holdings look like an auctioneer’s sale room. In addition, loss of the Braque deprived Australian galleries another bargaining chip for securing loans. A short-term electorate advantage has left a legacy of costs, financial and artistic.

A comparable blow fell after “The Keatings” became slang for the long-term awards that had been conceived to sustain significant artists in mid-career, the point when they often need to remake themselves, to take risks that may lead nowhere, or to bring to fruition all that has gone before. No longer would we expect excellence on the cheap and on the run. The scheme went awry because – as its nickname indicates – the grants were personalized more than politicized. The Coalition could not be convinced of the intrinsic worth of the original impulse. That prop to the sustenance of creativity cannot be revived for another generation.

The continuing damage done by the scheme’s identification with Paul Keating’s pretensions can be hypothesized around composer Richard Mills. Had five-year stipends still been available in Mills’s forty-seventh year in 1996, he would have been able to work full-time on his two operas, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1996) and Batavia (2001). Instead, he was pressed for time in writing the latter and left without support to apply to their revision everything that he had learnt from their staging.

Arms-length funding can be subverted to achieve the partisanship that it had been intended to prevent. Indirect influence can be more pernicious than outright intervention when advisory boards are treated as rewards for political groupies. Australia’s pond of talent is not large enough to exclude half the contenders because of their political affiliations, or so small that ministers need whistle up the barking mad. Nicholas Hasluck’s 1998 appointment to chair the Literature Fund was exemplary for being as acceptable to the ALP as to the Coalition.

The Coalition’s push for corporate sponsorship is another distortion of arms-length funding that is springing as many traps as straight-out interference. Corporations have greater need to intervene because their brand names are all over the sponsored work, whereas the minister is at once remove. High among a sponsor’s motivations is the wish to enhance its brand, a big item in their balance sheets. Businesses will eschew controversy that can damage that asset.

Further, the corporate relations manager will favour programmes with the widest appeal. That preference frustrates the learning that keeps the arts alive. If potential audience numbers decide which art works will be promoted, our appreciation of human achievements will remain circumscribed, with a consequent drying up of creativity.

The sale of naming rights for Arts Festivals provides several instances of how this retreat from tax-support to corporate sponsorship can endanger inventiveness. Telstra threatened to withdraw from Peter Sellars’s 2002 Adelaide Festival over an advertisement which portrayed Hitler as a way of provoking debate around the maxim that works of art are uncommitted crimes.

In Tasmania, the need to land a corporate backer saw the director of this April’s Islands Festival, Robyn Archer, secure $50,000 from Forests Tasmania to become the principal backer, a role since downgraded. ALP premier Jim Bacon denounced outraged local artists as “cultural fascists” even while they were promising $70.000 to replace the wood-chippers’ friend. Such spontaneity and generosity set a standard for how politicians should approach culture.