The Australian
March 14, 2005.

Fine-tuning our symphony orchestras

LIKE public art galleries and museums, symphony orchestras are repositories of culture. It is fitting that residents of each state -- and not just those of the Sydney-Melbourne axis -- should have equal access to the masterpieces of classical music. The network of six state symphony orchestras was founded by the ABC in the 1940s, but 50 years of central control became stultifying. From the mid-1990s, the orchestras were slowly weaned from Aunty's bosom and encouraged to fend for themselves.

Their success has been mixed. The orchestras together consumed $57 million in public funds last year, and of Australia's eight full-time orchestras, five have managed to ring up accrued debts of more than $7 million. This plainly cannot continue. James Strong's clear-eyed report on orchestral music for the federal Government, released yesterday, proposes bringing orchestra costs into line with what their communities can afford. Strong wants to have smaller, more efficient orchestras in Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. This means cutting the positions of 42 musicians. The move will cause, well, discord, but the economic arguments are compelling. The Queensland Orchestra alone could save $700,000 a year. Strong insists that workplace reform -- which has affected the lives of most Australian workers but not orchestra musicians -- is urgently needed to make orchestras more efficient and productive.

But Strong has offered the orchestras a carrot as well as a baton: he has recommended that their debts be eliminated if they make the changes. Strong proposes a scheme to deal with underperforming musicians but he also wants a shakeout at the top. The orchestras are still subsidiaries of the ABC -- the report proposes winding them up and starting again, as public companies limited by guarantee. New boards of directors will be appointed that must be prepared to take responsibility for their orchestras' financial wellbeing. Our cities deserve music-making of the highest standard. Cost-effective, better managed orchestras will be music to the federal Government's ears.