Senate debates

Monday, 23 November 2015

Matters of Public Importance

Arts Funding

4:04 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The attack on arms-length peer-reviewed arts funding presented by the Abbott-Turnbull government's ministerial arts slush fund.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

The proposal is supported. I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:05 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The dumping of Senator Brandis from the arts portfolio was the perfect opportunity for this government to dump its disastrous thought bubble of an arts policy. The National Program for Excellence in the Arts, the NPEA, was universally rejected by the arts community, and it was rejected for a number of very good reasons. Firstly, the policy was not evidence backed; it was not created in response to change. It was announced on the whim of the failed arts minister, Senator Brandis. Secondly, it was developed without any consultation with the arts sector or, sadly, even a basic understanding of how the arts sector works. Consequently, it has caused a large amount of fear and uncertainty in the Australian arts community and has led to organisations collapsing. Thirdly, the new program goes against the widely held and highly respected principle of arms-length funding for the arts.

The Australia Council has worked hard for over 40 years to develop a world's-best arms-length funding model that is the envy of the world. But, instead of dumping the NPEA, the government have rebranded and relaunched it as Catalyst. It is basically the same policy, but now they have covered it in glitter. The government has stolen the title from a Western Australian community arts fund and instead of focussing on some undefined notion of 'excellence', as we had with the NPEA, Catalyst now focuses on some undefined notion of 'innovation'. Presumably this is to make the policy sound 'cutting-edge' rather than 'elitist' like the NPEA did.

So, let us compare the old fund with the new. Is there any new funding for the arts sector? No, there is still no new funding. Will individuals be able to get funding? No, individuals are not able to apply for Catalyst funding. Is it evidence-backed policy? No. Can organisations use funding under the new program for operational funding? No, they cannot. Will the Australia Council have less money for grants than previously? Yes, the Australia Council will indeed have less money for grants than it did before the NPEA was announced. Finally, does the minister still get to make the decision about which organisations and projects get funding? Yes, Minister Fifield gets to make the final decision about funding under the Catalyst program.

It is quite clear that Catalyst is just a government slush fund and that this government does not believe in arm's-length arts funding. Former arts minister Brandis saw himself as a modern-day Medici whose God-given right was to fund 'excellence'. And although Minister Fifield had the opportunity to change that, unfortunately he has delivered a hopelessly outdated approach to arts funding using the catchy buzzword 'innovation'. But he is not fooling anyone.

Through the Senate public hearings, Senator Macdonald said on many occasions that if organisations want arts funding they should talk to their coalition member or senator. It cannot be clearer that Senator Macdonald and coalition senators think that arts funding should be the gift of a minister, a senator or a member to give to whatever arts organisations they have a particular affection for. This is not the way arts funding should be allocated in this country. For the coalition senators, arts funding has become a new opportunity for pork-barrelling—a contemporary 'regional rorts' program.

Under my questioning earlier today, ministry officials stated that there may be only a minimum of one independent assessor out of a minimum panel of three assessors. This means that department-appointed assessors could be in the majority when assessing every single applications under the Catalyst program. Not only does Minister Fifield have the final say as to what projects will receive final approval but also his departmental staff will be able to control which projects are recommended to the minister. This decision, sadly, has set Australian arts policy back 40 years. It is a completely retrograde move and is typical of the government's heavy-handed approach to policy development.

From the beginning, before even announcing the NPEA, the government should have consulted with the arts community about their thoughts on arm's-length funding, because artists across Australia have been universal in their praise for arm's-length funding and extremely critical of the ministerial slush fund model. At the Hobart hearing, Ms Gallagher of the Tasmanian Writer's Centre told the committee:

… the Australia Council, with all its faults, at least is peer-review, arm's-length. The money being pooled into the ministry for the arts means that we are subject to the political nuances of whoever happens to be in power. We do not have arm's-length support anymore. It creates an atmosphere of fear. People are afraid to speak out.

We already know of a number of instances where there has been retribution. I am sure that the Biennale in Sydney has not been well received in the ministry of arts sector. We had reassurance from the Australia Council in terms of knowing that we had that arms-length. We did not have to worry so much about the political interference.

This is quite critical evidence against the government's NPEA and now Catalyst arts slush fund. Similarly, Dr Angelo Loukakis of the Australian Society of Authors told the Committee in Sydney:

… these decisions have precious little connection with the system of government and governance we have developed in this country. We do not need arts tsars or pseudoculture ministers here. Ours is a democracy. In this democracy, we have developed an excellent system for decision making about cultural and artistic affairs as well in the form of peer reviewed, arms-length funding via a statutory body insulated from direct political interference in its day-to-day operations.

Professor Edgar Snell, Chair of University Art Museums Australia told the Perth hearing:

With the abandonment of arms-length funding policy and its replacement by a ministerial decision-making process, it is difficult to see how decisions made under this new regime will not be contaminated by the spectre of pork-barrelling, personal prejudice and undue influence.

Whatever the name of the slush fund—NPEA, Catalyst, dog's breakfast—it is a bad idea. This government's ideological attacks on the arts has caused untold confusion, anger and heartbreak. It has caused companies and organisations to close.

The changes will be particularly felt in my home state of Tasmania. Tasmania has a wonderful, vibrant, innovative and extremely talented arts industry. It is full of extraordinarily passionate artists that strive to tell the stories of our home state to a world-class standard. But this government has failed them. Individual artists are particularly negatively affected by the government's creation of a slush fund. Individuals are not eligible to apply for funding under the Catalyst program, yet they will be competing for a smaller pool of Australia Council grant funding against small to medium organisations that cannot receive operational funding from Catalyst.

It is clear that the government has put into jeopardy the careers of thousands of individual artists. These hardworking artists are the backbone of arts organisations, yet they have been totally left out to dry. While small to medium organisations can receive project funding under the Catalyst program, organisations still need operating funding to survive. The place for small to medium organisations to turn to for operational funding is the Australia Council grants pool, which has been cut to pay for Catalyst. While the government says that Catalyst will prioritise project funding for small to medium organisations, the truth is that the lack of operational funding will mean that many small to medium organisations will fold. It is also clear that the government is discriminating against certain art practices in the design of its new slush fund. Visual arts in particular are affected by these changes. Writing, painting and photography are most often solitary activities. Australian writers, painters and photographers are producing innovative new work yet cannot apply under the new slush fund.

Does the government not consider these artists as 'innovative'? There is a clear bias against these individual practices, and this government has failed these artists. This government and this minister has failed all Australia's artists. They have sought to destroy the arm's-length funding model that has served Australia so well. They have destroyed the Australia Council's visionary plan for six-year funding, a change that the sector overwhelmingly supported. And the new minister has failed to dump his failed predecessor's slush fund and has simply rebranded it. It is time for the government to truly listen to the arts sector and return all of the funding to the Australia Council and to dump their slush funds once and for all.

I will just say to that side of the chamber, it is time to sharpen your pencils, guys. Give Australian artists a fair go, and especially give individuals a fair go when applying for arts funding.

4:14 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This afternoon's debate hinges on just two points. The first is: is there an alternative way to be funding Australian arts? I absolutely agree there is an alternative way, and we should not be shy from having those sorts of discussions. Secondly, should we be broadening the base for Australians to go and witness those cultural and artistic pursuits and, indeed, broadening the opportunity for small- and medium-sized cultural and arts organisations to get funding? Clearly, the answer is 'yes' to both of those questions.

Fulminations and faux outrage from Labor senators this afternoon—

It must be the beginning of another sitting week here in the Australian Senate. But I have to confess that I am very surprised that in a week where security issues and concerns would be top of mind for most Australians, even those with artistic interests, it is the question of arts funding that the Labor Party wishes to focus its efforts upon. But, of course, that is their prerogative today.

There is no argument that Australians currently enjoy the full range of artistic and cultural pursuits. What the government has decided to do is to deepen and broaden the opportunities that are available to them and to arts organisations. What has occurred here, as the minister has already noted, is precisely what was always intended to occur. The government said it would consult with the Australian artistic community about these changes and what the government announced last Friday stems directly from those conversations and consultations that Minister Fifield has been engaged in.

The government announced a proposal earlier in the year and said we would consult with the arts sector. The Labor Party complained. Now that those consultations have concluded, a decision has been reached which has been welcomed by significant figures across the arts community—and I will come to that in a moment. Again, the Labor Party is still complaining. Yet what we have not heard from those opposite is their concrete alternative plan. It is all very well to sit in the cheap seats and throw popcorn at the screen, which is what the Labor Party has been doing on this—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

and on many other budget measures, but where is your alternative plan, Senator Bilyk? The government clearly has a plan.

We are contemplating the already substantial levels of public investment in the arts in Australia by establishing a new $12 million annual arts funding program called Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund, which is designed to complement existing arts funding initiatives. I note that the chief complaint in this MPI from the opposition today is that the government is launching an attack on arms-length funding. That is just utter nonsense.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You were there this morning!

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was there this morning. It was utter nonsense this morning and it is utter nonsense this afternoon! Applications to receive funding support from Catalyst will be made by independent assessors and staff in the Ministry for the Arts. These funding decisions are not being made by the minister. I think it is important to highlight that point—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Bilyk!

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

because either the opposition do not understand it, or they are wilfully misrepresenting the facts. The minister or his delegate—in this case, his delegate; in the future, perhaps her delegate—will approve funding based on those independent recommendations. That is entirely consistent, and this is an important point, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, with existing programs administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts. Indeed, it is also consistent with arrangements for funding in every state and territory government.

What is especially exciting about Catalyst is that it is consistent with this government's core policy objective of promoting innovation. This fund will provide financial resources to support projects conceived by galleries, by libraries and by the museum sector. Many of these are not usually eligible for grants from the Australia Council, so we are diversifying their funding sources. As the guidelines make clear, funding is only made available to organisations, not to individuals, and it is only for specific projects. It cannot be used by organisations for operational funding.

But, as I was saying earlier, these proposals have been developed following consultation with a wide range of people active in our arts and creative industries. Catalyst will recognise the important contribution made to the vitality of Australia's arts scene by small and medium-sized organisations, most particularly those active in regional communities around the nation—indeed, regional communities across my home state of Western Australia. Funds can also be used to attract further private sector investments for arts projects, including infrastructure. I think that is an important and valuable point. All too often in Australia we have overlooked the significant cultural investments made by businesses in the private sector, but they too play a crucial role.

Grants made will be capped at a maximum level of $500,000 a year, which will help to make certain that more projects from more regions can be funded. The program will have $12 million available to it each year. Of course, there is still significant financial support available to individual artists, as well, through the Australia Council. And as a result of the government's decision last week, $32 million will now be made available to the Australia Council over the period of the forward estimates, bringing a total of $783 million over the four years across the forward estimates so that the Australia Council can continue its work.

But what we did not hear today, what we did not hear this afternoon—or certainly not yet—in contrast to the belly-aching attitude adopted by those opposite, was that this measure has been welcomed by the Australia Council's chief executive, who said in a statement that these decisions would allow the council:

… to increase investment in the two core grant rounds for 2015-16, …

This is news that I am sure will be welcomed by individual artists who need support for their new works. Likewise, Nicole Beyer of ArtsPeak, a major representative body in the arts sector, said on ABC Radio last week, 'It's great. You know we're really pleased this is happening.'

I know these sorts of comments are intensely irritating to those opposite, because the Labor Party like to think that they are the party for the arts community. In Australian political mythology, which is stoked at every opportunity by those opposite, the nation was covered in darkness before December 1972. It was only when Gough Whitlam moved into the Lodge that the nation suddenly discovered its creative side. That is what Labor senators would have you believe . In actual fact it was the Liberal government under John Gorton that first provided prominent public funding support for the arts in Australia and really breathed life into the Australia Council that we know— (Time expired).

4:22 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As much as I was enjoying that contribution by Senator Smith, time is up! It is ironic to have a coalition senator demanding to know from the opposition frontbenchers what their alternative plan is—he is leaving the chamber now—when the fact is: Senator George Brandis broke something that did not need fixing. The alternative plan is to have not established this $100 million vanity project which has been condemned from one end of the country to another.

I have been to a lot of Senate inquiries in my brief time in this place, and I have never seen this degree of unanimity of representation from one end of this country to another. Senator Bilyk and I have been chasing the inquiry that Senator Lazarus has been chairing for a couple of months now. I have never seen such a diversity of witnesses with such a unanimity of point of view. The NPEA, which has now been renamed, rebranded, as Catalyst, is uniformly despised. I should say that it is almost universally despised. We did find one witness, who gave evidence on a rainy afternoon in Parramatta a couple of weeks back, who had been knocked back for Australia Council funding a couple of years ago, who had a gripe and who thought this new thing could be good.

Apart from that, we heard from contemporary performing arts companies, dance companies, theatre companies, the local music industry, visual artists and designers, writers, digital artists, community and regional arts centres, practitioners and those who support them, arts lawyers, community arts centres, regional arts centres, peak representative bodies, publishers and teachers the length and breadth of the country and of Australia's extraordinarily diverse and powerful arts sector who thought that this should never have happened in the first place. In fact, they thought that they should not have been brought into the Senate inquiry, into this format where they had to defend something that had been broken when it simply did not need fixing—by Senator George Brandis or by anybody else.

This was an announcement that happened in May and that the Australia Council found out about on budget day, when Senator Brandis condescended to give the head of the Australia Council a phone call to let them know that the government had ripped this money out of the Australia Council's peer-reviewed process—which allows all comers to put forward their creative proposals—and put it into this isolated slush fund. There were a couple of draft guidelines that followed a few weeks later that simply made the problem worse and made the apprehension and the misgivings even worse.

We saw 2,260 submissions made to that inquiry. Senator Smith is right: if you comb through them, you will find a very small handful—you will find one or two; you will not find more than a dozen—of those 2¼ thousand submissions that supported the idea, for various reasons—that is fine; they have the right to submit to these inquiries as well—and an avalanche of dissent to this proposal. We have held 10 hearings across the country, and 218 organisations have presented, with this extraordinary opposition. We saw something last week from Minister Fifield—and, give him his due; there was a selective sigh of relief around the country when Senator Brandis lost that portfolio; go and concentrate on other stuff and leave the arts the hell alone. There was a bit of a sigh of relief because you could not miss the intent. The intent, laid on Senator Fifield's broad shoulders is: 'Fix this mess. Make this go away.'

So now, instead of a $20 million Senator Brandis slush fund, we have a $12 million Senator Fifield slush fund. They have clawed back a little over a third of the funding and put it back into the Australian Council's peer-reviewed process, where it belongs. That still leaves $12 million in this new Catalyst entity that nobody can figure out what it is for. We held a hearing for a couple of hours this morning with some of the senior bureaucrats from Senator Fifield's department trying to explain where the idea had come from. Where did the name come from? Where did the idea come from? Where did the figure of 12 million bucks come from? Where did any of this come from? Why is this happening at all? They were not able to describe why, but we know what is going on here. This is damage control. This is just to throw the arts sector a bone: 'What is the minimum that we can get away with throwing at people that will just have them shut up and will stop the dissent to what's been going on and stop the opposition?'

The one-third of the funds going back to the Australia Council's process is welcome, but we cannot welcome it unreservedly and unconditionally. Other options were open to Senator Fifield. Those officers this morning were good enough to inform us a couple of times—they were asked a number of times—that all options were on the table. I and a couple of other senators pressed them on this. The options included reversing this ridiculous idea and just pretending it had never happened. We would have let it go. I would have been happy to pretend that this whole sorry episode had never happened. That indeed was an option that would have been put to the government. Senator Fifield had the opportunity of fixing this mess.

Now it is going to have to go into future budget rounds, when people suddenly realise that there is this duplication of bureaucracy going on. This new Catalyst entity, which still will not be able to fund individual artists, is going to be in the mix with its $12 million, duplicating the work of the Australia Council, without the peer-reviewed oversight, without the six-year funding cycle, without the ability to fund individual artists, without the ability, for some reason, to fund certain kinds of digital art, including interactive work. It is very, very strange. This thing that just fell out of the sky on top of the arts sector on budget night is still with us—make no mistake. They have changed the name—well, gold star for that; it is a good bit of rebranding there, but it is not going to fool people. They have taken some of the money back, which you might as well acknowledge. It is a shame that Senator Smith did not. This is an acknowledgement—it is not a tacit one; it is an open acknowledgement—that this was a mistake, that some of the money has been returned.

It is very firmly the view of the Australian Greens that all of the money should be returned so that the Australian artistic community can get on not with making Senate inquiries, not with doing submissions to parliament, not with lobbying, not with drafting petitions or responding to guidelines but with making art. People do not go into this community in order to interface with this place. They have done so in good faith over a period of many years in order to hone the way that the Australia Council disburses precious taxpayers' money to creative endeavour. That engagement has been there, and we saw it come out and absolutely flourish. But that is not why people join the arts community, friends. That is not why they do it. So let us let them get back to it with as much money as this parliament, in its budget processes, can put to it, rather than establishing these vanity projects—a massive waste of people's time.

The only good thing that has come out of this process is that I think the arts community found its voice and found its strength. I thank all of those people from right across the country who took the time out from their work—and people working in this community do not earn huge amounts of money. This is a sector that runs on love not money—although the money is obviously appreciated. But they came out in numbers, and we discovered along the way that the arts sector is well represented. It is well informed. It is well and truly disgusted with the establishment of this fund but it is an extremely vibrant, lively community that spoke for itself very, very well.

The only good thing that has come from this process is that the sector got to link arms, see who it was and speak out. In all my time chasing Senate inquiries around the country, two things are very rare—one is rare and one is unique. The thing that was rare was that the public galleries were full. This is a community that supported its witnesses, advocates and people who came forward to give evidence. That was lovely, because we knew as senators—government senators certainly knew—that what we were doing was being watched, recorded and documented. That is good, because the last thing you want is for these processes to be happening in isolation. The second thing that happened, which is not merely rare but unique, was a warm round of applause after each of the witnesses had given their testimony for the heartfelt way in which they had put their point of view to the government: 'Wrong way. Go back. This is not what we need. We don't need more bureaucracy. We don't need disguised funding cuts; we just need a simple peer reviewed six-year funding cycle that can fund all comers—the big companies, the majors, the small to medium enterprises that are the backbone of creative endeavour in this country and the individual artists working on unique pieces of work that are not going to see the light of day any other way'. That is what these people want to be doing. Let's let them get on with it.

This story, unfortunately, is not finished. I thank and congratulate the opposition for bringing this motion forward. It is important that we address this today at the first opportunity, but this story is not done yet because Senator Fifield blinked. He could have fixed this as Senator Brandis would certainly not have been able to do. Senator Fifield could have fixed this and he did not, so there is more to tell. But, in the short term, I want to thank all of those who have added their voices and the strength of their creative work to this debate while we restore a little bit of sanity to arts funding in this country.

4:32 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to contribute and support this motion via the opposition and to discuss the future of Australian creativity, and the uncertain fate of many thousands of jobs, careers and community contributions in our community. Because, when we discuss this government taking $104 million from the Australia Council and returning only $32 million—or less than a third—as part of Minister Fifield's partial arts funding backflip, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and contributions that are at stake.

When we discuss this government taking arts funding decisions out of the hands of qualified independent experts—a process that has worked very well for many, many years in this country—and, instead, making final decisions by ministerial decree, with all the political interference and favouritism that invites, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and creative contributions that are at stake. Again, when we discuss this government's callous exclusion of individual artists from accessing its newly rebadged funding pool, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and those individuals' contributions to our creative industries that are at stake.

The small to medium arts sector in Australia is currently on its knees. A huge swathe of the arts sector's federal funding through the Australia Council has been removed and instead placed in a separate fund, known as of last week as Catalyst, under the arts minister's ultimate control. While independent assessors will make recommendations—I think it is three independent assessors from a pool of 300 on that program—the guidelines for that program explicitly state 'the Minister for the Arts or delegate in the Department will make the final decision regarding any funding awarded.'

Thanks to these changes, small to medium arts groups are now racked with uncertainty and unable to plan ahead. Despite the so-called change from the NPEA process under the previous minister to this new program called Catalyst, there is still the minister's discretion to make the final decision on what arts programs and group funding will be provided. It deeply lacks any kind of accountability and transparency. It gives the minister an incredible amount of power to make decisions about funding to the arts in this country at whim.

On top of that not only are small to medium arts groups in an incredible space of uncertainty and lacking stability but they have also been pitted against each other, competing for significantly reduced Australia Council funding. When it comes to recovering that lost funding via the minister's new discretionary fund, they are faced with a restrictive and politicised new system they know little about and which seems unfairly stacked against them.

These challenges are most severe in my home state of Tasmania, where virtually the entire arts sector is classified as small to medium. It is no exaggeration to say the entire health and wellbeing of the Tasmanian arts community is threatened by these funding changes.

The new arts minister will now bear almost sole responsibility for the imminent collapse of any small to medium arts groups, following revelations in a Senate committee hearing with the Ministry for the Arts. We learnt this morning that Minister Fifield had one last chance to do the right thing by Australia's small to medium arts community and, inexplicably, failed to do so. The executive director of the Ministry for the Arts, Sally Basser, appeared today before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee's inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth budget decisions on the arts. Ms Basser informed senators about the new system imposed on her department by this government.

In considering how to unscramble the mess created by first the former minister and now the current minister, Minister Fifield, Ms Basser confirmed that Minister Fifield was presented with a range of bureaucratic options. He was presented with a range of options, and one of those options was to return the funding to the Australia Council. We know that that is the option that some 300 or more submissions from the arts sector in this country put to this government and were calling for—that is, returning the full $104 million to the Australia Council; not having this separate administrated fund out of the ministry of the arts; and having the transparent and accountable process that the Australia Council provides by having independent experts evaluate each submission.

But, no, that was not the choice that the minister made. He decided to kind of tweak the former minister's NPEA and create his new program and give it a new name, Catalyst. And there we have it; we are pretty much in a similar position to that we were in under the previous minister. There may be some slight reprieve. Yes, the Australia Council has been given $8 million a year back to its bottom line, but that is in no way near the $104 million that it has lost and that it has been able to provide some to 148 small to medium Australian arts companies as well as 28 major organisations that have been funded by the Australia Council.

Despite evidence showing that, between 2010 and 2012, those 148 small to medium companies produced 2,897 new Australian works, which equates to 88 per cent of the body of work, while the majors produced 299 new works, which equates to 12 per cent, Basser again confirmed there are no guarantees that small to medium groups will receive the majority of the Catalyst funding. And despite being pressured to nominate a token budget restoration of $8 million, the Australia Council for the Arts still faces an incredible funding shortfall that will hit individuals and small applicants hard—particularly individuals because they have been left out of being able to apply for the Catalyst funding themselves. Australia's small to medium arts sector has made it very clear that funding decisions should be made by independent experts, not by a political slush fund at the minister's whim. Decisions that are made by independent experts is what is currently provided by the Australia Council through a very transparent process.

I do give some credit to Minister Fifield's for his partial backflip, but he has not gone far enough. It was a step in the right direction, Minister, but you need to take it a little bit further. It is not enough to restore certainty and stability to the small to medium arts sector. It is only returning to the Australia Council a third of the funding removed from the Australia Council, which will have a detrimental impact on individuals and on small to medium arts companies and groups, which are the backbone and the majority of contributors to our arts sector in this country. And, of course, the majority of that funding is still going to be allocated through the minister's final political whim, his own fund, known as Catalyst, instead of by independent experts and having a transparent process.

I agree that the arts community has found its voice and its strength through this process. But it should not have had to have gone through this. An incredible vibrant community came together with vigour, colour, love and passion for what they create and what they provide to Australia—a creative voice; our creative voice; our creativity—which makes Australia such a beautiful place to live. I do not want to see that creativity put in jeopardy. I am urging the minister to take this a step further and restore funding to the Australia Council for the Arts.

4:42 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to provide a reality check to this debate, which has so far been highlighted by deliberate misinformation and deliberate distortion of the facts of the matter. So I am delighted to be able to enter the debate, in the same way that I am pleased that Senator Brandis was able to initiate a reality check of arts funding in Australia—after all, the hundred million dollars plus that goes to arts funding is taxpayers' money. Taxpayers elect governments to look after their money. They do not elect governments to hand the money over to non-elected, non-accountable groups like the Australia Council.

I hasten to add that I have the highest regard for Mr Rupert Myer, the chair of the Australia Council. I think, generally speaking, the Australia Council do a good job, and I am a fan of Mr Tony Grybowski, the CEO of the Australia Council. But what is so wrong about a government elected by the people, accountable to the voters, having just a little tiny bit of a say in which Australian artist or art groups and which region of Australia should actually get some benefit from the taxpayers largesse in the arts funding arena?

The totally political basis of this inquiry, set up by the Greens, the Labor Party and Independent senator, Senator Lazarus, was very obvious from the speeches today. It appears that, when state Labor governments in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland distribute their funds in a certain way, that is okay—and there is not one word of complaint from the Greens and Labor—but, when the Commonwealth government does it exactly the same way, all hell breaks loose and the world is coming to an end! That just shows the hypocrisy and the downright political nature of this inquiry.

At today's hearing public servants said in answer to a question, 'We looked at what all the states did. This is how the states do it, and that is how we thought we would arrange this new direction of the Commonwealth program.'

I emphasise that more than 80 per cent of the funding for the arts is still going through the Australia Council. The representatives of the people, of the taxpayers, who are accountable to the taxpayers only deal with a small amount of funding. And I might say that some of that funding has already been with the government over many years under the Labor government, under the current government and under previous governments. So it was okay when the Labor government was doing it that way, but suddenly, because a coalition government wants to do it, it is the worst thing in the world. It shows the hypocrisy of the arguments raised.

I congratulate Senator Brandis for bringing this program forward and for issuing draft guidelines so that he could consult with people. People could have a look at them. If they did not like them or if they had suggestions they could get back to him, and that is exactly what has happened. I congratulate Senator Fifield on taking notice of the consultation. I know Senator Fifield involves himself in consultations with the arts community and he has listened to them and come to a conclusion—a conclusion which was actually suggested by the group of Australian artists who would have benefitted most from the NPEA that Senator Brandis proposed. They said, 'Let's have it. Let's introduce it incrementally, though. Not $20 million this year. A smaller bit this year and perhaps we can look at other things into the future.' That is what Senator Fifield has done.

You have heard others say that, 'Every witness came along and they all were as one in supporting the opposition to this.' Of course, again I should tell you that the witnesses are selected by the committee. The committee consists of Labor, Greens and a Green independent chairman. Usually, the meetings in the early stage were held on the days when neither of the two only government senators were available. So the people who were selected to come forward were those that the Greens and the Labor Party knew had a certain view on the issue. As it happened, a couple of others did come forward but—lo and behold!—their submissions had not been published. It was only when they contacted a committee member that the submissions were actually made public and belatedly the committee agreed to hear just one of them. But to assume that the total arts community were against this is just as fatuous and false as the rest of the arguments.

During the many hearings we had into this I also raised the issue of the principle—the philosophy—behind funding the arts. We in Australia have a wonderful arts community. We have some very talented people across the range and across the spectrum. We also have talented scientists. We have talented sportsmen. We have talented people in many fields. But you have to ask the question: why is it in the arts community that these talented people say, 'Taxpayers, I have a passion for this art. I am desperately interested in this. I am good, but I want you to pay me for my passion. I want you to pay me for doing what I love doing.'?

During one of the hearings I raised the position of the chairman of this committee, Senator Lazarus. He was not a bad footballer, but I am sure he did not go out in his early days and say, 'Hey, government, I have a passion for football. Can you look after me for five or six years until I make the big time and start earning the big bucks as a national rugby league player?' You have to keep it in perspective.

There are many that say—not necessarily me—that the arts community is a little closed group. The same assessors look after the same people; they are all in the Sydney-Melbourne sort of group. Those of us who do not live in Sydney or Melbourne sometimes have a slightly different view on who should be getting arts funding and who should not be. I do not make this as a criticism of the board or the CEO of the Australia Council, but it is interesting that the same people pop up all the time.

We heard today that if you happen to get the job as an independent assessor for the Australia Council you get 400 bucks a day for the job plus travelling allowance—the same as parliamentarians get—and I am sure they work for it. But there is this little group of assessors—there is this little group in Sydney and Melbourne—who know each other, and some of us who live outside of those circles sometimes think that perhaps a government, and perhaps a minister who is accountable to all Australians and to all taxpayers, should have a little bit of a say in where the taxpayers' money goes.

As I said, it works in the Labor states of Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. It seems to work well there but suddenly it does not work in the Commonwealth. To hear Senator Singh, who I understand was once a minister in the last long-forgotten—thank goodness—Labor government in Tasmania, would have been part of the government that actually handed out the arts money in Tasmania all those years ago when she was a minister. But that was okay then because she comes from the Labor party and she is supported by the Greens—so that is okay. But if you have independently minded people, very competent ministers like Senator Brandis and Senator Fifield do it, suddenly it becomes a real problem, even although time after time the Greens and the Labor Party were told by public servants that most of the work done in these programs that the Commonwealth do are run by public servants with independent assessors. That is exactly the same, in many instances, as the Australian Council does and certainly exactly the same as happens with the state Labor governments that currently have the same sort of system.

This whole inquiry was a political farce organised by the Labor Party, the Greens and the Green independent in this chamber to try to build up a groundswell of support against the coalition government. It will not work. Australian taxpayers want their money spent well and I am sure all sensible people in the arts community understand why these changes have been made.

4:52 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

After listening to that contribution, I am sure there are people out there who would take what Senator Macdonald said at face value, but the reality is that every single senator in this place, other than the coalition senators, voted for the inquiry because they were concerned that there was outrage in the community about the slush fund set up by Senator Brandis. The other point I wish to make is that every single senator in this place can be a participating member of a Senate committee and to suggest—

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do they get a vote?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

There would not have been a vote. Anyone who has been on a Senate committee here knows that people who want to go forward, to give evidence, are accommodated. Senator Canavan and Senator Macdonald would like you to think that the people who showed concern were somehow just naturally anti the government, but this is not the case. The case is there was overwhelming concern in the community, not only by those people who work in the arts sector but by those who support the arts sector, who enjoy going to events, going to look at the art being made all around Australia. There was concern all over the place. So for Senator Macdonald to come in here and to suggest that the Senate committee was stacked is an affront to the Senate. As I said, every single senator, other than members of the coalition, voted to establish the committee because of the slush fund that Senator Brandis put together. Senator Brandis has united every single non-government's senator in this place on this matter. He wanted to choose who was getting the money and that it was at his discretion. Not much has changed with Senator Fifield's new program, Catalyst.

We have seen rebranding and retooling of the Abbott-Turnbull government's arts slush fund as announced by Senator Fifield last Friday. That really says it all. They made the announcement on a Friday with not much fanfare either by Senator Fifield, who does not mind a bit of fanfare. When they put this out last week, we saw that it suffers the same fatal flaws as the program set up under Senator Brandis—I should say he sought to establish it because it was such a dud in the arts sector that they had to drag the portfolio from Senator Brandis to Senator Fifield to see if he could fix it up and he has fallen far short of that mark. What we had in Australia prior to the coalition coming to government was an arms-length peer-reviewed arts funding system.

The minister may have changed, the program name may have changed but at the end of the day the new arts program is still a ministerial slush fund under the personal and direct control of the Minister for the Arts. This has not changed and a significant proportion of the arts funding will remain the plaything of the Minister for the Arts. The arts sector is vital to our national cultural identity and they deserve better than this. I would say that we need more than a rebranded slush fund. We need this— (Time expired)

4:57 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on what I would call this so-called matter of public importance. Barely three hours ago in this place the leaders of all parties addressed a very serious issue of national security. It was a big disappointment that instead of addressing issues of national security and other genuine matters of public importance, we now have this issue again rehashed. Contrary to the shameless and blatant political scare campaign from those opposite, which absolutely and completely misrepresents the facts, the government's new $12 million Catalyst arts and culture fund will in fact for broaden the arts funding environment and will create more opportunities for the Australian arts community. Using emotive and misleading word such as 'plaything',' slush found', ' ripped out', 'fallen from the skies' and 'reductions', none of those terms equate with the facts. Rather than using emotional rhetoric, let us have the facts of this program.

Catalyst will in fact complement the work of other government arts funding organisations by focusing on small and medium arts organisations and encouraging innovation and collaboration in their programs. Contrary to the assertions of those opposite, it does not duplicate the work of the Australia Council. Further, Catalyst will encourage recipients to explore shared funding arrangements with the philanthropic and private sectors, which has to be a good thing to help them find more funding for their programs. The program also aims to forge new creative partnerships and to promote new ways to build participation by all Australians in our rich cultural life. This is a good thing. If those opposite had put forward this proposal in government, they would be saying exactly the opposite now. They would be trumpeting this fantastic new program to help small to medium arts organisations in this country. They cannot stand the fact that those on this side of the chamber put forward, not only for the environment but also for the arts, positive, innovative new programs to broaden support to the arts community. The Australia Council provided $175 million in funding in the 2012-13 financial year, while during that same period $21.2 million was provided to support arts in regional and remote Australia. The Catalyst program is also seeking to address inequitable per capita distribution of Australia Council funding to the states and territories. Those opposite now say that, while the Australia Council does some fantastic things, it is not equitable. For example, my home state of Western Australia receives $5 per capita per year and Queensland receives $3.40 per capita per year in comparison to Victoria with $6.80 per capita year and New South Wales with $7.80 per capita per year. That is not equitable and it is not fair, and it needs to be addressed. This new funding model is a new approach designed to support new artistic endeavours.

To highlight the absurdity of the opposition's claim that the government is attacking peer reviewed arts funding—I think Senator Ludlam referred to it as 'the arts community run on love, not money'—this government is committing $783 million to the Australia Council over the forward estimates. That is over three-quarters of a billion dollars, so I would say to Senator Ludlam; that is not just love; that is a lot of taxpayers' funding. As Senator Macdonald said, it is absolutely critical that we make sure that this taxpayers' money is spent as wisely as possible.

What are we doing? This government, despite its fiscal restraints, has not reduced arts funding in this country. Despite the rhetoric that you hear day after day from those opposite, from which you would think that that funding has been reduced, it has not. Almost $200 million per year still goes from the Australia Council to our many arts organisations. But it is not just the Australia Council; I have examples of at least seven other programs that are funded by this government. Screen Australia, as we all know, is a fantastic organisation that is behind a lot of the blockbuster TV and film programs in this country, including our No. 1 film at the moment, a wonderful film, The Dressmaker. There is the Regional Arts Fund, which supports sustainable cultural development in regional and remote Australia. The Creative Partnerships Australia is another program that helps to connect private, philanthropic and social arts donors with the arts community. Sounds Australia, Arts Access Australia, the National Cultural Heritage Account, are other organisations that are strongly supported by this government—again, completely contrary to what those opposite have been saying. I would hardly call this government's policy an assault on arts funding. Not only have we maintained the funding but we are also providing a wider range of arts organisations within this country to access these funds.

Those opposite keep mentioning this inquiry by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, which I also sat on for a while and I participated in the hearings. In my personal opinion, this inquiry is probably one of the most disgraceful abuses of the Senate committee process I have witnessed so far in this place. In the last budget the government maintained arts funding. What they did was reallocate just over 15 per cent of that funding from the Australia Council to another program—another program that is absolutely consistent with the way states and territories allocate their arts funding.

Instead of just introducing the program and saying, 'Here are the guidelines,' the government issued draft guidelines and made them open for the entire arts community to make submissions on, which they did. This Senate inquiry has had, I believe, up to 10 hearings around this country. I can think of no other inquiry in recent times that has had 10 hearings around the country, and on an absurd situation—on draft guidelines that had already been subject to public consultation. I do not think there is anything—national security, tax reform, health, education, welfare reform—that has had 10 hearings around the country. To me that is an abuse of the Senate process. Again, just because those opposite say it is unfair and use all of these emotive words, it does not make it so.

One of the things I particularly like in this program is that there is a specific international and cultural diplomacy funding stream which will further promote Australia's talents and interests overseas. It will also support Australian arts organisations to bring art and artists to Australia to broaden the range and the exposure Australian audiences have to overseas performers.

The Catalyst funding model is a welcome new concept, and one that aligns with the government's agenda to deliver innovative arts funding to provide the most public benefit. It does not conflict with the Australia Council funding. Just because it is different and just because those opposite have not suggested it, does not mean that it is a bad thing. The facts simply do not support the disingenuous rhetoric of those opposite. As much as it may gall those opposite, we are looking after the Australian arts community in a very tight fiscal environment. We have maintained arts funding and broadened it.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for this discussion has now expired.