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.