Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 #MEAAMusic #MEAASOMA News
MEAA Online

Howard Manley (front), with the executive of SOMA, including Simon Collins (standing far left).

After about 18 years at the helm of the Symphony Orchestra Musicians’ Association and three decades in total with our union, Howard Manley is retiring as SOMA national officer on December 16. His replacement will be Bow Campbell, who comes to MEAA from the Community and Public Sector Union. Before he hung up his boots, Howard reflected on his time at MEAA with long-time SOMA activist and current MEAA federal president Simon Collins.

Simon Collins: The first time I met you Howard was, I think, in 1991 during the process of the amalgamation vote amongst four unions including the Musicians’ Union [of Australia] (MUA). And I came into the office to do some phoning around of musician union members to encourage them to vote yes, which they didn’t do. I think you were the branch secretary of Actors’ Equity at the time? So when did you start working with Equity?

Howard Manley: I started as a theatre organiser with Equity in late 1987 and prior to that I had worked for what is now the Communications Union working for what were then Telecom telephonists for about five years. I worked for Actors’ Equity as a theatre organiser, organiser for the ballet dancers at the time, and obviously actors, singers, working in theatre. Then I was the Victorian secretary of Actors’ Equity leading into the amalgamation and had a fair bit to do with the MUA at the time, because of the overlapping membership between the two organisations. And then with the amalgamation which, as you say, was when members of the Musicians’ Union chose not to be part of the MEAA. Following the amalgamation I was, at different times, the assistant secretary, then Victorian secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance before I started working for SOMA in the late 90s, probably 1998.

That sounds about right. So what was your first impression suddenly working for orchestras? Did you know anything about symphony orchestras when you first started?

I’d been to a number of concerts over the years but I can’t say I knew much about orchestras.

I remember in the early days after you took the job, sitting down and explaining to you the hierarchy, for instance of the personnel in the orchestra.


So you’ve gone from a starting point of knowing virtually nothing about orchestras to being one of the country’s experts on the subject.

Well, as I often say, over the years I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge about the political economy of orchestras. I still know nothing about music! In all these years working for unions, whatever the type of work people do and whatever you do as a union member, the issues tend to be very common.

The way in which people work is obviously different – the culture is often a bit different – but the key things are remarkably similar. The thing that strikes you most of all about orchestras is their representative structures, in the way committees work – the closeness of relationships within orchestras is always endlessly surprising.

I remember when the concept of enterprise bargains first came in – I took the view that an orchestra was an enterprise bargain just by the way it did its work. So you joined or took over the reins of SOMA, shortly after we had come in to MEAA, and had we already completed the outcome of the Mansfield Report and separated the orchestras? Or was it in train when you started?

It was well underway. A number of them had already left – MSO and SSO obviously. Adelaide and Queensland were being set up or had just been set up as separate companies owned by the ABC.

And one of the interesting things about that period was the empowerment of the musicians. Having spent the previous 12 to 15 years of my working life being an activist in an environment where managements often just chose not to talk to us, we were empowered by that process collectively, and it was the first time we were able to install proper consultative processes. What did you see were the big challenges once you came on board?

I think the continuing challenge has been, and no doubt will always be, funding issues for the orchestras. So there’s that dimension. And the other dimension, as you’ve indicated, is the importance of committees, and the support of those committees within the orchestras. And ensuring that we become very, very good at succession planning within the orchestras, in terms of the committees. Ensuring we make greater effort to train people to be able to actively be members of the committees, and ensure that over time there’s a reasonable turnover of representatives through the committees.

Because so much depends on the nature of that interaction between the committee and the orchestra management. Not only on a day to day basis, but the level of involvement that the players effectively have in the running of the orchestra. And it really depends in large part on how effective those committees are. It depends in part upon the personality of the elected reps, but mostly it depends on how effective those committees are as a group. So that’s one of the big continuing challenges. And clearly it’s within the musicians’ control as to how effective they are.

A history measured by government reviews

The most significant event shortly after all the orchestras had been successfully corporatised was in fact the first review done by Helen Nugent in 1999, which established what turned out to be some very robust formulae for funding all of the major companies. Let’s talk about Nugent and the effect that had on all the major companies, but particularly the orchestras.

Richard Alston was the minister at the time and there had been a long history of arts companies getting into financial trouble, having to be bailed out by additional government funding. Minister Richard Alston commissioned Helen Nugent and others to do an enquiry into what was required to ensure that they were artistically and financially viable. SOMA made a submission. The key recommendations included a recommendation for a funding model which was subsequently adopted by the government. But you might recall there were also recommendations to amalgamate Orchestra Victoria and MSO. And similarly with what were then the two Queensland orchestras, QPO And QSO. We campaigned against the amalgamation in Victoria. It was a very effective campaign, and after meeting with the minister and a fair bit of media, the government acknowledged that a merger wouldn’t be a good idea. But one of the consequences of running that campaign was that Richard Alston allocated additional money to the MSO to increase their wages.

As a Melbourne boy, he wanted to make sure that the orchestra in his town was competitive with the SSO. So one of the outcomes of that Victorian campaign, incongruously, was we stopped the merger, saved OV and the MSO got a significant wage increase. The Queensland merger went ahead, which set up for Queensland musicians a series of issues, and unquestionably a series of problems over the next decade. But at the time of the merger, it was at least in principal, supported by the musicians of the two orchestras in Queensland. The other thing that came out of the review was a funding model which was adopted by state and federal governments. Essentially it set down a level of funding for each of the arts companies, including the orchestras, with a level of indexation and a commitment to review the funding every three years to ensure the funding was adequate, and the companies were delivering what they were required to deliver in terms of artistic outcomes and access for the general community. And that was a proposition SOMA supported.

We measure our history in SOMA by reviews. The next review didn’t occur until 2005 conducted by James Strong, which was specifically into the orchestras. That had a number of unfortunate consequences for the ABC orchestras. What are the main features of the outcomes from that review?

The key thing was moving the orchestras out of ABC ownership, and that had been a  longstanding agenda by governments for a very long time – probably for a couple of decades – to progressively move them from control by ABC ownership to being fully independent companies. The recommendations that came down with Strong were essentially that the musicians in the new non-ABC companies would retain virtually all their employment arrangements; most importantly, Commonwealth superannuation and Commonwealth workers’ compensation. However when those recommendations went to the Government for consideration in the following budget, the Department of Finance essentially ruled them out. When the Government’s response came out with the budget which provided additional money to the companies, as had been recommended, the Government at that point said, despite the recommendations, that the musicians could no longer be part of Commonwealth super. That was, for us, a nasty surprise.

We lobbied heavily, and the consequence of that lobbying – which the companies also supported, as they knew it was simply not viable otherwise – the consequence was that there was compensation paid to the musicians to ensure that the outcome of the new superannuation arrangements would be no worse for musicians than what it would have been had they stayed in Commonwealth super. Unfortunately we were forced out of Commonwealth workers’ comp system to the state system. We weren’t able to change that but for the most part the conditions that musicians had had when employed by ABC-owned companies continued on.

One of the other outcomes of the Strong Review was the biggest fight that SOMA had since its formation and that was with respect to the recommendation to reduce the size of three of the orchestras – the Queensland, the Tasmanian and the Adelaide orchestras. Strong was very much inhibited in his recommendations by the requirement that he didn’t have access to extra funding and so his solution was, in order to save money, to savage the size of those orchestras. Would you like to relate some of what happened in the backroom negotiating to get around that and how SOMA conducted that campaign?

It was one of the more remarkable scenarios. During the course of the review, we had spent a fair bit of time lobbying MPs about what the possible outcomes might be of the enquiry. And we were concerned that because the enquiry was being conducted essentially out of Sydney that there might be less attention paid to the orchestras outside Melbourne and Sydney. So we spent a lot of time talking to Queensland Coalition backbenchers, similarly in Western Australia and South  Australia and Tasmania, to try and take out some insurance if the recommendations were going to adversely impact on the non-Melbourne Sydney orchestras. We’d taken a fair bit of insurance. When the Review was released and it was leaked, the recommendations were to downsize the orchestras in Tasmania, Adelaide and in Queensland by about a third. So we ensured there was a fair bit of publicity about that. We also ensured that the backbench MPs from those states were well briefed about the recommendations and the implications of the recommendations.

And then one of the more remarkable things happened. Parliament was sitting at the time when the Report came down and, led by George Brandis and Alexander Downer, there was a revolt in the Coalition during the regular party room meeting rejecting the downsizing. Minister Rod Kemp, given the rebellion in the party room, declared within the morning that these recommendations to downsize the three orchestras would not be accepted by the Government. All this happened within 48 hours of a recommendation coming down. It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds which certainly I have seen. In large part it was because we’d made a significant effort to brief the MPs from those states prior to the report coming down and there was significant support from MPs to ensure that the orchestra in their state was not going to be disadvantaged.

Meanwhile as Strong was only preoccupied with the symphony orchestras, the other two orchestras – members of SOMA , AOBO and Orchestra Victoria – were starting to have problems of their own. The next review would have been the review that was done into the opera and pit services.

There was a review immediately after Strong to look at OV and AOBO, and essentially the opera company (OA) in particular managed to negotiate some additional cash for AOBO out of that. And there was a marginal amount, but not much, for Orchestra Victoria coming out of that review. There was also supposed to be a triennial review of all the major companies two or three years after that. By which time the government had changed. So by the time the triennial review was programmed, Peter Garrett was the minister, and the Labour Government didn’t proceed with the triennial review, and the existing arrangements, aside from some sub CPI indexation, were essentially frozen. Which for orchestras – given the labour-intensity of these organisations and that their costs rise at a rate greater than inflation – means that if the funding is adjusted by something less than inflation, it’s only a matter of time before they get to crisis.

Finding the right balance

It was from this period that the crisis really started to cut in, and Orchestra Victoria was under particular pressure almost immediately, and some of the state symphony orchestras were starting to feel the pinch, particularly up in Queensland. What happened next? Because the Labor Government didn’t review the funding at all.

No. During this period, Orchestra Victoria had been under significant financial pressure and the Australia Council were very concerned about the future of Orchestra Victoria and at different times they commissioned consultants to come and review AOBO and Orchestra Victoria. One consultant commissioned by the Australia Council recommended that both orchestras should become casualised contract orchestras. We made it very plain that we would not accept those arrangements and we ran a bit of a media campaign around the slogan of WorkChoices for orchestras. We managed to chop the legs off that proposal by the consultants. Then there was a further enquiry the Australia Council set up which eventually led to the ownership of Orchestra Victoria being taken by The Australian Ballet. As part of that process there was additional funding for Orchestra Victoria as they moved to ballet ownership. But by and large for the other orchestras there have not been the adjustment in funding that is required, and so they all continue to move towards that scenario of increasing crisis.

This is the case to some degree of all the major companies under the AMPAG arrangements and it would be fair to say that if we had adhered to the fundamental concepts that Nugent put down back in 2000 we might be in a very different place.


Keeping a proper formula in place which had good justifications was the recommendation and this should have been regularly reviewed. So all of the major companies, it could be argued, are somewhere approaching a financial crisis or they are continuing to approach that. Are there any other issues for symphony orchestras now which you think need to be considered a priority other than funding? Things like working conditions and the way our agreements are structured?

I think the major thing for the orchestras – the challenge for them always – is finding that balance between the artistic imperatives and the access imperatives. Of ensuring that the programs they present are artistically diverse, challenging for the orchestra musicians and the audiences, but also at the same time catering for a broad general public. But also in terms of the access objectives of providing the opportunity for audiences not only outside the major centres, but also within the major cities in terms of diverse socio-economic groups. Education is clearly a part of that. So that’s a continual balancing act for the organisations and always will be. And whenever funding is tight it means that that challenge becomes increasingly difficult.

In terms of the musicians’ working arrangements, it fundamentally gets back to – as we were talking about before – the success of the committees. Because within reason, within the resource envelope, the committees, if effective, can have a significant influence on how the orchestra operates in terms of how work is organised and allocated, and also entitlements. So in large part, within that resource envelope, it gets down to how well organised the musicians are themselves in each orchestra.

One of the things that Helen Nugent raises in her very recent opera review, with regard to Opera Australia, is the significant amount of musicals of a commercial nature it is doing. I think probably the equivalent for orchestras is the ever-increasing number of film scores for instance that are played live underneath a screen, or backing of popular music as a backing band. There’s been a very big increase in this over the last few years. Would you say that this is largely a direct result of the funding problems we’ve been talking about?

Unquestionably there is an increasing pressure on the companies to do more and more of this commercial work. I think most musicians appreciate that a level of commercial work is not only required but is desirable for those sort of broad audience access reasons. But it is getting to the point, if not at the point, where the motivation for doing it becomes increasingly simply for financial reasons. Which raises, you know, significant issues about the artistic standing of the organisation. And this is something that the musicians need to be in continuing dialogue with their management - about the type of commercial work and the amount of commercial work which the organisation undertakes.

And in my 35 years as a member of the Melbourne Symphony, the nature of the job changed enormously. When I started the orchestra only played concerts, so the nature of the work was either rehearsing for the next concert or making a recording or performing a concert. By the time I retired there was a great deal more involved, including all sorts of education projects, community outreach projects, often using quite small numbers of musicians and ensembles of players. We’ve also seen a lot of division of the orchestras into multiple groups, performing in different places at the same time. This has put quite a big burden on the model of employment that we set out with, which was covered pretty much with a standard award arrangement. The enterprise agreements really just moved a little bit further on from the old award arrangements. Do you see any big challenges and any potential solutions for how we manage this changed work environment?

I think it’s constantly evolving, as you indicate. There has been a significant change and it will continue to change. I think the key to it and the current arrangements should ensure that for the most part these different activities – sometimes additional activities – are voluntary. Because it’s important that the organisation who wants to undertake more diverse activities takes the musicians with them, as part of a culture. There is little point saying to people you must participate in these other activities. It’s best to make it voluntary and over time change and adapt the culture so that it becomes a normal part of work. And it means the musicians have the opportunity to lead some of this additional activity, which is often the case. We’ve seen with all of the orchestras, often it’s groups of musicians who want to undertake different performance activities, and the companies should be supporting that. So I think that’s got to be the approach – that it’s evolving, it’s voluntary and it’s led increasingly by the musicians.

So if we look at the orchestras in the state they were when you took over SOMA and where they are now, would you say they’re in a good place? It’s a start that we’ve still got all of them!

That’s right, that’s a very good scenario. Many people have argued for decades of course, that orchestras have no future, but clearly they do have what I would think is a very bright future. But for those of us who are involved in the orchestral world, it is a constant and continuing challenge. And Simon, as you and I have been involved in the politics of maintaining orchestras, maintaining sizes of orchestras – as we know well – this is a process that will continue well after we’ve moved on to other things. So people in ten years, twenty years and beyond no doubt will be fighting exactly the same battles with many of the same arguments as has been the case for the last fifty years – probably the last hundred years. So I don’t think that will change. It’s an important battle which must be constantly fought.

So where to from here? What’s going to happen for Howard?

Travelling. Pursuing a different life of contemplation and travel. I look forward to it.

• This article was originally published in the December edition of SenzaSord, the SOMA journal.