Free ride for sports just not equitable
By Ben Quilty
During the week following my 2011 Archibald win, one Melbourne radio announcer introduced me with the following: ''So if you can wear a horse suit and go 'neigh' you can call yourself an artist - on the line I have Ben Quilty''. I'd fired him up because I'd suggested in my Archibald acceptance speech that I felt it was time a Higher Education Contributions Scheme fee was implemented at the Australian Institute of Sport.
That was almost two years ago and I haven't stopped talking about it. Neither have I found a horse suit that fits me. Everyone pays HECS: nurses, paramedics, teachers, artists; we all pay for our education. We also pay tax from prizes won: the Archibald, Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, all literary prizes, film prizes, prizes for excellence in education and medical research. Even the Queensland Premiers' Literary Award was taxed, until it was axed. And I didn't whinge about being thrown into a higher tax bracket when I won the Whiteley Scholarship as a young artist until I realised that at the same time I was in Paris studying, the young emerging Olympians in Salt Lake City were there for free. In fact the prizes they would receive for winning were also tax-free, and so were their education and training.
My Melbourne mate on radio argued lawn bowlers couldn't make a living after competing at the Olympics and therefore shouldn't have to repay any debt to the rest of us. I gently pointed out I didn't go to art school to make money, and that school teachers sure as hell weren't making much from their full HECS-incurring degree and years of hard, thankless work in the education system. Surely if Eamon Sullivan and James Magnussen studied for nothing, then my little boy's school teacher Ms O'Rourke should also have received education for free?
I could see the headlines unfold last week as the men who embarrassed themselves in London on Stilnox and prank calls began the argument I've heard too many times before. It's always someone else's fault, the coach, team morale, always a lack of funding. When depression strikes them, inevitably someone says they need more money for therapy. Behaving well in the spotlight is a difficult thing to do for an excitable, testosterone-filled young man. Tell me about it!
I have just finished a year of work with some of the quietest, most heroic and least celebrated young men I've met. We met in Afghanistan where I was sent as the official war artist for the Australian Defence Force. Many of them are suffering from serious depression; as many from post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. You can ask any of them if they feel they are receiving the financial support it takes to repair broken young men returning from Afghanistan and I challenge you to find one who will tell you that the Department of Veterans Affairs is over-funded. Someone needs to point out to our sporting heroes that the spotlight is harsh but that Afghanistan is harsher. In reality our sporting heroes live an overly supported, safe and often wealthy existence. It's time they found a real problem.
I have brought up my idea of HECS at the AIS with many politicians. The most recent told me it was a dangerous topic that would be widely criticised. I disagree with him. Malcolm Turnbull was the only one who told me it was something he was considering. In fact he'd considered it before I even brought it up with him.
Don't get me wrong. I love sport. I'm about to start my 20th season playing right midfield for the Burrawang Robertson Rovers. I am not asking for HECS-free art schools; I'm not even asking for tax exemption on the prizes I might win. I'm just asking for equality because in Australia there is such enormous inequality with sport an endless drain of my tax. When retired sporting heroes decide to re-enroll at the AIS they do it for free. Perhaps tax to the AIS could be optional? I would opt out. I would redirect my money to the veterans of Afghanistan and to free education for school teachers, Lifeline counsellors, remote area medical staff, police, filmmakers, paramedics - the list is long. I won't be jumping into a horse suit any day soon, but I did repay my HECS debt after art school, and I won't stop talking about this inequality.
Artist Ben Quilty's After Afghanistan exhibition runs until April 13 at the National Art School, Darlinghurst, NSW.
Photo: Steve Christo