Politics may complicate the crucial decision on who will run the federal screen agency.
29 Apr 2013 - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2013 - 10:33 AM

Screen Australia's board and the Liberal/National Party coalition may be on a collision course if the board appoints a chief executive, subject to Cabinet approval, before the September elections.

The Opposition has signalled it believes the government should not make any senior appointments- including that of the top job at Screen Australia- before the September 14 poll.

Applications for the post, arguably the most powerful in the screen production industry, presiding over an organisation with 110 staff and an annual budget of $110 million, closed on April 26, five weeks after the job was advertised. The incumbent, Ruth Harley, whose five-year term expires in November, told staff she would reapply.

The board has declined to reveal how long the process of interviewing applicants may take or when it expects to be in a position to select the CEO. But SBS Film understands the plan is to begin interviewing candidates via Braithwaite Steiner Pretty Executive Search in late May/June, after the Cannes International Film Festival, and to decide who'll get the job in July. That timetable assumes the successful candidate, if Dr. Harley is not reappointed, would need to give his or her current employer 2-3 months' notice.

Last week SBS Film asked Senator George Brandis, the shadow Arts Minister, if he thinks the agency and the Labor Government should postpone a decision on the CEO until after the election. His reply was unequivocal: “Yes. The Opposition is of the view that, except in exceptional circumstances, no appointments or reappointments should be made to senior Government positions where such appointments would commence after the election. Such appointments are a matter for the new Government – whether it be a re-elected Gillard Government or an Abbott Government.”

In a sign that may be ominous for the incoming CEO, Brandis added, “The Opposition reserves its right to reconsider all such appointments if it were to win the election.”

Several producers have told SBS Film they believe the Coalition is looking to revamp the system of federal screen funding which may result in Screen Australia narrowing its focus to supporting cultural projects, leaving the commercial sector to determine which films get funded.

The Opposition's views on the CEO's appointment are supported by elements of the film industry. “In terms of process, it might have been worth extending the present CEO's contract for three months from November and then starting the process after the election,” says Julie Marlow, a former senior policy consultant for the Screen Producers Association of Australia, who has worked with most state agencies.

“If the idea is to rush through the re-appointment of the present CEO prior to the election, it may well fall flat if the rumours about the Coalition's plans for the agency have any truth to them. And if a new candidate were appointed, the same would apply, unless that person got a big Coalition tick. So either way, it could be a poisoned chalice.”

“No final appointment should be made until after the election,” said one veteran filmmaker who asked not to be identified. That person advocates extending Harley's contract for three months or appointing an acting CEO for that period, arguing that, if someone is appointed before the election, “this will hurt the industry going forward; the CEO will be seen as a Labor mate and the board will be seen as Labor apparatchiks whom Brandis and Abbott won't trust.”

Producer Sue Milliken takes a contrary view, opining, “I see no reason why the board should not appoint a CEO before the election. Politics should have nothing to do with this appointment. It should be a matter of expertise on the board seeking the best applicant to run the organisation, and as quickly as possible. Anyway, given the way governments work, their chance of getting Cabinet approval before September would be as likely as Julia being re-elected. In other words it might happen, but the odds are against it.”

Spotted Turquoise Films' Garry Charny, who produced Jindabyne, says, “It might take a Liberal government to shake up things at Screen Oz. Historically, Oz film has always had brighter periods when the Coalition was in government. A flourishing film industry stopped being priority for the Labor party many moons ago.”

Whoever gets the job, there's a widespread view in the industry that the organisation needs a fresh approach and a closer engagement with stakeholders.

Milliken puts it succinctly: “A cultural change is needed to simplify the organisation and change its approach, which quite simply should be, 'How can we help you get your film made?' Filmmakers with a track record should sometimes be given the benefit of the doubt, (the recognition) that possibly they know better than the staff of Screen Australia. This has not been my experience."

Filmmaker Tom Broadhurst argues, “The current state of funding for Oz film isn't robust or fluid enough to be able to take the chances needed to pull an industry out of the current crisis. More money needs to be allocated towards finding emerging talent/creative teams that can successfully craft low-budget, genre- driven cinema that would be best delivered on TV and online. New funding should also be allocated towards TV and transmedia online productions that have a broad demographic and niche appeal with an established social media following. Funding that can be accessed quickly that doesn't take six months for a decision to arrive. There are too many great opportunities passing by people in this industry simply because the current funding opportunities are out of step with what is really going on across the world in terms of entertainment consumption and potential production.”

Footnote: This is the final blog from this writer. Thanks for all the feedback and comments- negative and positive – over the past four years. It's been an eventful journey.