Pre-election promises or just one big Con?

Right now, equally significant discussions are happening around the relationship between governments and universities, and the increasing corporatisation of our academic institutions.

Art by Simona Frances

The arts often play a significant role in political campaigns, but these electoral promises can be seen as easy vote-grabs by candidates. Even before it opened in 1915, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has inadvertently been a controversial part of these campaigns and debates. 

Right now, equally significant discussions are happening around the relationship between governments and universities, and the increasing corporatisation of our academic institutions. The Con is a perfect microcosm of these debates. The arts rely heavily on government funding — without the historical aristocratic patronage, they cannot exist. Arts exist to bring people together through shared cultural experiences, not to generate financial profit.

It was during the Labor Party’s first-ever term administering NSW policy that the government filled the void left by lacklustre private funding, founding the NSW State Conservatorium of Music. This was due to the efforts of Campbell Carmichael, the then-Minister for Public Instruction under Labor Premier W.A. Holman, through some questionable methods (see: establishing a committee without parliamentary debate). 

It may seem odd to many that the historically blue-collared Labor Party put effort into the establishment of an institution for serious classical music in a Sydney lacking the upper-class demographic found in Adelaide and Melbourne. For the Con to be run by the government was also an odd choice, as conservatoires in the British Empire were typically affiliated with a university. 

Carmichael’s reasoning for this was simple: European governments were not afraid to invest capital into institutions of fine art, as they understood the public cultural profit, instead of the economic profit. Labor also wanted to subvert the English academic valuation of music from its religious usage, instead being one for full public benefit.

However, by the 1950s, the Conservatorium was on the verge of collapse — decades of shoestring budgets from both Liberal and Labor governments meant it was a place of massive growth without the ability to change. After 40 years of operations, not a single member of the teaching staff was employed full-time. The building was falling apart, library books were stacked in corridors, there was no staff common room, a lack of practice rooms, mould, leaks, the list continued. Barely any students actively participated in ensembles. Something needed to change. 

The 1970s saw the Conservatorium’s Golden Era, a time of radical change and excitement, created as a confluence of culture and politics under the Director Rex Hobcroft and the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who both started in 1972. Yes, the Coalition under John Gorton had indeed founded the Australian Council for the Arts in 1968, but it was seemingly just for electoral brownie points. Whitlam and his government oversaw massive increases in funding for the arts — a doubling in the first year, and then another 50% in 1974. 

A first in Australia, jazz studies was introduced to the Conservatorium, and by 1974 had 200 students enrolled; this inclusion was a major factor in the Australian jazz renaissance. Church music, piano tuning, historical performance, and ethnomusicology were also included as areas of study, and the Con’s Electronic Music Studio was established. He also saw the establishment of Wollongong Conservatorium in 1972, and many other music schools in regional centres – all under administration from Sydney. 

The Conservatorium Students’ Association (CSA) also saw its activist heyday during this time — doubtlessly attributable to Peter Sams. It was in 1978 that the CSA invited NSW Labor Opposition Leader Neville Wran to see the shocking state of the building, which once again was not big enough for its needs; he said to reporters afterwards that the Conservatorium “is not even fit for horses.” 

The site of the Con has always been an incredibly political affair. Holman’s Labor publicly committed to reducing vice-regal expenditure, opening up Government House and its grounds for the public — something fiercely opposed by members of the Liberal Reform party. Renovations have constantly been needed on the building to suit its needs, starting the moment Verbrugghen stepped off the boat from Belgium. 

The original 1912 plans for the Conservatorium was to include other fine arts: painting, sculpture, and theatre. Unfortunately, this idea never saw realisation, as the Dawkins Reforms to higher education meant that all CAEs had to either become independent universities in their own right, or join another pre-established university. As the Conservatorium did not have the capacity to be financially independent it was forced to join another university; its knight in shining armour was Sydney University.

USyd still seems to be riding on this prestige from times long-gone, after failing to understand the funds needed to run an arts school, with continual centralisations in the guise of efficiency and good economic management bringing back the issues previously seen. Con staff have the highest workloads in the Uni and are underpaid, buildings have constant maintenance issues with mould aplenty and new degrees no longer offer private lessons. It’s no wonder many consider the Con’s merger a failure and call for “Con-dependence”. 

The founding values behind the Con (cultural benefits over profits) have seemingly disappeared, with the further corporatisation of our universities the greatest threat to its existence. Most of the things the state government is able to do in this regard is make the lives of musicians and music students easier, so they can spend more time studying and refining their craft. 

Whilst both Federal and State Labor have continually shown they will support the arts and the Con with funds and political will, we still must keep vigilant to ensure they will truly support what we actually need. After seeing the Federal Coalition’s Job-Ready package, which has increased the personal costs to study music whilst decreasing the amount of funding it receives, we must remain vigilant to the Universities Accord by Federal Labor. Whilst we don’t know the details of this Accord, we must ensure that the agreements made are the ones that most benefit us.

Both major parties, Liberal and Labor, have put forward proposals to replace pokies with live music, as a two-fold measure to decrease the negative impacts of gambling, and better support musicians through more opportunities to perform. NSW Labor has a commitment to Musicians Australia’s campaign to ensure $250 payments for every musician in public gigs. Whilst this is a great initiative, the campaign falls short in its support for private gigs — weddings, cocktail parties, etc. — which often run under the guise of exposure over pay and are the hardest to fight for. 

Disclaimer: Alexander Poirier is the President of the Conservatorium Students’ Association and a member of the Labor Party.