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Free ride for sports just not equitable

Date

Ben Quilty

"Someone needs to point out to our sporting heroes that the spotlight is harsh but that Afghanistan is harsher."

"Someone needs to point out to our sporting heroes that the spotlight is harsh but that Afghanistan is harsher." Photo: Steve Christo

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.

Someone needs to point out to our sporting heroes that the spotlight is harsh but that Afghanistan is harsher. 

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.

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814 comments

  • Why should these spoilt people get my tax money I worked hard for the government to take from me? If they were in business they would have been fired. So much spent with little or no ROI.
    Far more important and better causes to use this money on. Why we have an NBN that needs funding! Seriously, at least this could benefit many, unlike the so few unsuccessful athletes who suck up so much tax funding.

    Commenter
    timeforchange
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 6:56AM
    • This is probably one of the most cogent, succinct, well-written articles I have read in a long time. He highlights exactly the inequity of sports funding in this country. Considering what they contribute to society, exactly WHY are sports people given a free ride? It's nonsense. The US doesn't have any of this public funding nonsense and they seem to do OK at the Olympics and other sports somehow.

      Commenter
      luke
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:07AM
    • For the few that make serious errors in judgement - like the relay team - there are a hell of a lot of athletes that put in the hard yards for a flash of recognition every four years (Jarred Tallent anyone?!) - and for the record all AIs scholarship athletes who attend uni don't have decrees paid for. They are on HECS like the rest of us. Sports funding isn't just for the elite - it goes to grassroots as well as coaching and officiating.

      Commenter
      Just saying
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:13AM
    • Yep take all the Tax money away.

      Your kidding yourselves if you thought this type of behavior doesnt occur.

      Most professional sports people get good pay packets, some get great pay packets. Most are great role models and give kids something to aspire to.

      If the Tax funding doesnt occur no more olympics, no more advertising, no more sport. Then what are you all going to talk about sitting in your arm chairs, because your all so smart and know everything.

      Commenter
      dee
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:14AM
    • Great artist and great article. Now is the time to do it, budget is blown and everyone needs to make some concessions. The tax free AIS is on the wrong side of history ...

      Commenter
      Philly Slim
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:16AM
    • "Why should these spoilt people get my tax money I worked hard for...So much spent with little or no ROI"...

      I agree, let's get rid of Politicians! That's who you were talking about, right? ;-)

      Commenter
      Schaden Freudian
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:17AM
    • dee - "If the Tax funding doesnt occur no more olympics, no more advertising, no more sport. Then what are you all going to talk about sitting in your arm chairs, because your all so smart and know everything."

      dee - for a start, without Sports, without Olympics, without the advertising, it is possible that we may direct our attention and powers to things that actually matter.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:24AM
    • The reality of a swimmers day: 5am-8am pool training. 9am-10am weight training. 12.00-2pm rest for recovery 3.30pm-6pm pool training. Throw in running, rowing, physician visits, dietary testing etc etc. Exactly when do you propose these swimmers engage in other work? Swimmers work hard to achieve qualifying for the Olympics, and simply wouldnt qualify without being paid to train.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:31AM
    • Wow! I've read through the comments and its near unanimous support for taxing sports people the same way every other occupation is taxed. I agree too.

      But then I wondered where all of you sensible people were in the debate over taxing super profit on Australian resources. You've shown an ability to recognise an inequity in tax levels, but why did that go out the window in mining super tax debate? Just because billionaires and mostly OS owned miners ran a shlick propaganda campaign that cost us billions in monies we could be using for schools and hospitals etc?

      Does this mean that if the AIS now runs a campaign with a bunch of swimmers standing next to utes, telling us how Aussie they are, you will all march in the streets for the rights sports people to pay less than their fair share of tax?

      Commenter
      QED
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:35AM
    • @Just saying --- ""flash of recognition every four years...."?????

      You mean like the multi million $$$ endorsements the majority of the swimmers get? Is that the "flash of recognition" you refer to? I would love to have had a multi million $$$ flash of recognition when I completed my degree, paid for from my OWN POCKET!!!

      Commenter
      TommyP
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 8:36AM

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