Thursday, 4 February 2016
Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee; Report
I want to talk tonight about the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee's report into the arts and I want to congratulate Minister Fifield on the implementation of the Catalyst policy that had been foreshadowed by the former arts minister Senator Brandis in the last budget. This proposal was to give the government a small amount of money to contribute to and to support various art organisations around Australia that the government believed deserved support. Senators will know that most of the very considerable funding for the arts is distributed by the Australia Council, which is an independent body and a law unto itself. Very often they do quite good work, but many of us who do not come from the Sydney and Melbourne enclaves think that often the Australia Council does not recognise well enough the artistic talent that abounds in the more remote parts of Australia, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland, which statistics show were rather poorly dealt with. In the last round of Australia Council grants one electorate in Melbourne—I think it was the electorate of Melbourne—received, I think, 17 grants from the Australia Council whereas I recall the whole of North Queensland received only five grants—that is, five, six or seven electorates in North Queensland received five grants while the electorate of Melbourne received 17 grants. There has been disquiet that the Australia Council, as good as it is, is rather more narrowly focused. It seemed at times that there was a group of people, their assessors, who knew everybody. Everyone seemed to be in the club if they lived in Melbourne or Sydney, but outside of that you were not in the club.
Senator Brandis's idea, which Senator Fifield took up, was that the government, which was elected by the people of Australia to make these sorts of decisions, institute the first of what Senator Fifield called the Catalyst programs. I congratulate him. I particularly want to make reference to the grants that Senator Fifield made available to artists from the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, which is situated in the Cardwell area between Townsville and Cairns, and the Erub organisation in the Torres Strait. There are a number of wonderful artists there. Also, one of the Western Cape Indigenous communities was part of that grant. The artistic works of these three Indigenous corporations will be put on display in Sydney where they will have large exposure to people interested in that sort of art
Subsequently, the exhibition will go to Monaco, where it will be available to an international audience. It is the Catalyst program that the government has introduced that has allowed this to happen. We went around the countryside in this inquiry which the report is about with Labor, the Greens and the chairman, Senator Lazarus, condemning this program as is the want of those people on the committee. At every opportunity they were denigrating the government for this initiative in having a very small part of the total moneys available for the arts go to projects, which the elected government wanted to do as part of its process in governing Australia.
I think in many cases in Australia we have gone too far in this independent assessment of giving out government money because these independent organisations, not just in the arts but across the board, are all pretty good but very often they are accountable to no-one except themselves. Whereas if it is done by a minister who was elected to govern then the minister is very accountable because if the people of Australia think that the minister is pork-barrelling or making silly decisions on who gets the funding, the people of Australia have a remedy—they can vote them out the next at the next election. But that is not possible with groups like the Australia Council.
The Australia Council does do a lot of good work and has a very good CEO and a very good chairman. But sometimes their vision, their focus is a bit more narrow then I would like to see. During the inquiry of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into the impact of budget decisions on the arts, we heard evidence in Western Australia and in Queensland. We had statistics that showed that some of those states did not quite receive what the Sydney and Melbourne cohort were receiving. I am one of those coming from the north, and Senator Smith comes from the west. I am one of those who thinks that talent in Australia is spread all around the country. You do not have to live in Sydney or Melbourne to be a good artist or to benefit from taxpayers' money that does support the arts. I am delighted that Senator Fifield introduced that program. Congratulations to Senator Brandis for his initiative in raising the issue. I think the first round of grants by the minister has been well received. I congratulate the minister and I look forward to further grants to groups like the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation that could result from the Catalyst program.