The past pas de deux of the Australian Ballet and the Liberal Party

The unnaturally green lawns and the Queen Anne style house in the photo were in sharp contrast to the moral indignation of the words.

Arts funding had been sliced in the 2014 Federal budget, wrote the journalists at The Age, but aspiring young “ballerinas” were in luck with the Australian Ballet School scoring a $1 million Federal government grant to help the school buy a new residential building for students in the Melbourne suburb of Parkside.

(The photo accompanying the article was from the website of Jellis Craig, hence the vivid greenery, the real estate agents that sold the property for $4.7 million late in May.)

Well, that was one way to interpret the government funding to benefit what one unnamed “senior Liberal” labelled as “some rich kids”. (You can be sure that pre-professional dancers who have been accepted into the ABS are seldom rich and neither are their parents by the end of their offspring’s training from, say, 5 years old to 18 years old.)

And then there was the political angle. It looked as though the school benefited by $1 million because a board member of the Australian Ballet is the wife of the former Federal Arts Minister, Rod Kemp. Not only who you know it seems, but who you know in the party.

Imagine the outrage if the journalists had been spinning their yarns in the 1960s and 1970s.

The article took me back – way back – to the 1980s when I was editing a Saturday section of The Sydney Morning Herald and commissioned a feature on how members of the Liberal Party dominated the board of the Australian Ballet.

Every young journalist and eager editor likes to discover a “new” angle for themselves. That was one of mine. The only thing was, it was a non-story. What I didn’t know then was that the Liberal Party and Australian Ballet had walked hand in hand long before the 80s.

That cosy connection, though, is almost over. The emphasis these days in ballet and all the Australian performing arts is on nurturing patrons and on fund raising rather than lobbying governments.

The Libs and ballet in Australia were once so closely united that even a former chairman of the Australian Ballet, Sir Robert Southey, was concerned that the board was heavily overloaded with active members of the Liberal Party. In his opinion that was no way to run an arts company if only because the ballet company was vulnerable to a change of government.

The Liberal-ballet connections were in place well before Southey’s chairmanship. In 1961, the year before the Australian Ballet began, the governor of the Reserve Bank, “Nugget” Coombs, was pivotal in putting the pressure on the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, for funding. He was successful. Menzies agreed to guarantee a subsidy for the new company for an initial 30-week season and the money kept coming after that.

The Treasurer, of the Liberal Party, Harold Holt, was also a supporter and friend of the ballet. His father had worked with the “Firm” – J C Williamson – the theatre owner and promoter. With the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, whose founding chairman was Coombs, J C Williamson co-managed the Australian Ballet in its early days.

One of the first directors of the Australian Ballet was Fred Lampe, who went on to serve on the finance committee of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, along with Sir Ian Potter.

By 1975 the old boy Liberal-ballet network was still in place. The deputy chair of the Australian Ballet board was Ian Potter, and the company’s directors included W.T. (Bill) Arthur, who had been a Federal candidate for the seat of Barton, and Sir Vernon Christie, a Liberal Speaker for the Victorian Legislative Assembly (1967–73).

By 1983, the Australian Ballet chairman of was Robert Southey, who had been federal president of the Liberal Party from 1970 to 1975. Southey had previously been the deputy chairman of the Australian Ballet having taken over that role from W.T. (Bill) Arthur.

Also on the board of in 1983 was Fred Osborne, a former minister in the Menzies government, Lady Porter, wife of Robert Porter, former Liberal Lord Mayor of Adelaide from 1968 to 1971 and Lady Snedden, wife of former Liberal Party Prime Minister, Billy.

Another Liberal Party member who served on the Australian Ballet board was the former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson.

In recent years, the ballet’s chairmen have been businessmen or lawyers, including former Allen, Allen & Hemsley partner, Fred Millar, Mel Ward, Tim Cox, David Crawford, Chris Knoblanche and Jim Cousins.

Whether the recent chairmen have political connections or not, in the 21st century money speaks louder than Canberra in the arts.

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The Parkville, Melbourne, property that will become the Australian Ballet School residence for students

Robert Menzies

Sir Ian Potter, Lady Potter, Lady Southey, Sir Robert Southey meet Queen Elizabeth II at Covent Garden, 1988, photo © Desmond O’Neill

Harold Holt