Senator Dave Sharma – Estimates questions regarding anti-Semitism in the arts sector

photo of Dave Sharma MP
May 31, 2024

Dr Arnott, I want to ask about the recent outburst in antisemitism in the creative and arts sector. You’d be aware that there was a well-publicised episode of doxxing of Jewish creatives last year. How are you dealing with that issue and seeking to combat that issue?

Senator SHARMA: Dr Arnott, I want to ask about the recent outburst in antisemitism in the creative and arts sector. You’d be aware that there was a well-publicised episode of doxxing of Jewish creatives last year. How are you dealing with that issue and seeking to combat that issue?

Dr Arnott : As part of the Revive reforms to Creative Australia, the government has established an area of Creative Australia called Creative Workplaces. The council that runs that is chaired by Kate Jenkins, and they have responsibility for working on ensuring safe workplaces for people working in the creative sector.

Senator SHARMA: Have you heard reports from within the sector that people, particularly people of the Jewish faith, are feeling unsafe or threatened?

Dr Arnott : I’m certainly aware that it’s a very difficult situation. I haven’t had direct reports, I don’t believe. Ali, do you want to comment on this?

Mrs Todd : Certainly. I would agree that there have been direct reports from within arts organisations and from individuals who have experienced discrimination.

Senator SHARMA: You’ve had direct reports in recent months?

Mrs Todd : I have sat in meetings with artists and organisations who are struggling with this issue, yes.

Senator SHARMA: Have you got Jewish staff in the Office for the Arts who have experienced this personally that you’re aware of, or who have come to you with concerns?

Mrs Todd : Not that I’m aware of.

Mr Betts : I’m not aware of any complaints. At the moment, we are undertaking an annual staff census which, among other things, asks questions anonymously about whether people have experienced bullying or harassment, and that would include any racial vilification. We won’t get the results of that until July, but it’s something we monitor regularly. Obviously, we take extremely seriously any issues of the kind that you describe arising in our workplace, but there have been no reports that I’m aware of at this stage.

Senator SHARMA: Have you had any instances of staff coming to the workplace wearing overtly political insignia supporting one side or the other in the Israel-Gaza conflict or creating any incidents in the workplace?

Dr Arnott : Not in the Office for the Arts.

Senator SHARMA: No-one wearing keffiyehs, carrying a Palestine flag around their shoulders—nothing like that?

Mr Betts : No.

Senator SHARMA: Have you had contact with the Sydney Theatre Company? Does the Office for the Arts support them or deal with them? You would have seen the high-profile decision of a number of their performers to wear keffiyehs at the opening night of The Seagull.

Dr Arnott : They’re funded through Creative Australia, but I don’t know whether we’ve had any direct conversations with them since that incident.

Mrs Todd : I have. I’ve sat in a few meetings with that organisation since that incident, yes.

Senator SHARMA: How are they handling that incident since? Have they changed the guidelines for their performers?

Mrs Todd : I’m not sure that I can comment on the measures that the Sydney Theatre Company have undertaken, and I wouldn’t be across all of those actions.

Senator SHARMA: Alright. There’s an open letter that’s being circulated today—I don’t know if you’re aware of it; I’m happy to table it—from public servants condemning, I’m quoting here, ‘the Australian government’s complicity in Palestinian genocide’. There are about 700-odd public servants, a large number of them federal government—

CHAIR: Is this related to the arts portfolio?

Senator SHARMA: It is, because one of the signatories identifies as coming from the arts portfolio. I’m happy to table the letter.

Mr Betts : That circulated today, did you say?

Senator SHARMA: Yes, I believe it’s in the media today, and I’ve obtained a copy to circulate. The one employee who self-identifies as being from the department of the arts is No. 781 on the list.

Mr Betts : We’ll take a look at that. If there are any issues in terms of the Public Service code of conduct, then they’ll be dealt with.

Senator SHARMA: Okay. Perhaps we can just explore that whilst this letter is being tabled and distributed. Amongst other things, the letter accuses the government of the day of ‘leading Australia to be complicit in an additional genocide, an additional colonial project, staining this nation’—that being Australia—’with more war crimes—even more than it lays claim to already’, and these war crimes are ‘in the service of foreign powers’. The letter also describes Israel as ‘the settler state that has been conducting genocide in historic Palestine since 1948’. Now, on the face of it, Mr Betts, would you think this meets the test of the APS values and the code of conduct—an open letter of this sort signed by federal public servants?

CHAIR: I think we should give Mr Betts the chance to read it.

Mr Betts : Yes. I don’t think ‘on the face of it’ is good enough. I think I would want to consider this very carefully. You of all people understand the sensitivity of this, and I wouldn’t want to be rushed into a judgement on something I haven’t seen.

Senator SHARMA: Have you had experiences in the past of federal public servants signing open letters to the government, condemning government policy and urging the change in government policy—by currently employed APS members rather than retired ones?

Mr Betts : I’ve only been a federal public servant for less than a couple of years, and, no, I haven’t come across that personally. But, obviously, having worked in state government, there is always a tension between the legitimate rights of individuals who may be employed by the Public Service to express political views and those things that they express in their capacity as public servants. We have codes of conduct at state and Commonwealth level designed to deal with these things, and I think we should consider it in that context but with the full information in front of us. There are processes through the Australian Public Service Commission to deal with that, and I would encourage you to address any concerns to the public service commissioner.

Senator SHARMA: Yes, absolutely. I’ll be taking it up with the Public Service Commission. They’re no longer at estimates this week, but we will be following up. But, just so I understand, one of the key APS values is impartiality, correct?

Mr Betts : Yes.

Senator SHARMA: So, on the face of it, signing an open letter, identifying oneself as a federal public servant, condemning government policy and demanding changes to it would seem to violate that fundamental principle of impartiality, would it not?

Mr Betts : I’m not going to make comments on the face of it. I’d like to be able to look at it properly, and I’m sure you’d understand that.

CHAIR: I think Mr Betts has, rightly, said he would like to consider this, as it’s obviously a serious issue.

Senator SHARMA: I respect that. The letter has just arrived; it’s being circulated now or tabled. It’s rather long.

CHAIR: It’s not being tabled; it’s being circulated. We tend not to table public documents. We just circulate them around the room.

Senator SHARMA: Perhaps once you’ve got it we could come back to that briefly, and I could get your response to it.

Mr Betts : I would like the opportunity to look at it and take advice and to give you a considered view, and that’s what I will do. I will commit to following up and let you know what conclusion we reach.

Senator SHARMA: As I said, you’ll see there are 829 signatories. I can’t vouch, obviously, for the veracity of their identity or anything else. Some of them identify as being from the arts portfolio; some of them just say ‘federal government’. Could I ask that you take on notice whether any of these or more than these are actually employed as public servants within the portfolio.

Mr Betts : I will take it on notice.

CHAIR: Can I just intervene here. Senator Sharma, given that this has a range of names and cites a range of portfolios, I would imagine that there would be a central point where everyone will be looking to the public service commissioner for some guidance on where we sit here.

Senator SHARMA: No, I respect that. But I imagine it would be of concern to the secretary that some of the people employed by his department and the Office for the Arts were signatories to this letter, because that would have implications for his duties as a secretary.

Mr Betts : Are you raising this in other committees with other secretaries?

Senator SHARMA: Yes, we do intend to. I’m afraid you’re the only secretary here today, rather than the head of an agency, so you drew the straw. But we will be following it up next week. Obviously, we would have taken it up with PM&C and the Australian Public Service Commission through the estimates process, but they are not here today. But we will be following it up with other departments and secretaries next week.

Mr Betts : And I will undertake to take advice from the public service commissioner as well.

Senator SHARMA: Alright. Thank you, Mr Betts.

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