COMMITTEES;Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee;Report – 02 Dec 2015

It is funny because I have a quote from the chairman of the Theatre Council of Tasmania, Mr Rod Anderson:

‘Ignorant arrogance’ or ‘arrogant ignorance’—I just cannot make up my mind between the two.

That is how Mr Rod Anderson so eloquently described the thought process behind the creation of Minister George Brandis’ National Program for Excellence in the Arts slush fund at the Hobart public hearing. It is a view reflected in evidence given by the concerned, angry, upset and bewildered witnesses, evidence given by hundreds of artists and arts administrators to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into arts funding decisions. In the 10 public hearings I attended across the country, the committee heard passionate, intelligent and extremely hard-working artists who did not understand the motivation for this government’s continued attacks on the arts in the last two budgets.

The committee travelled right across Australia, to every state and territory, to hear evidence from members of the arts community. The Liberal government had failed to engage, no matter what Senator Macdonald said, and they had failed to consult and to listen to the arts community. So someone owed it to the artists to listen and that is what this inquiry did, because the decisions made in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 budgets were not in the best interests of the arts. They were not designed to build the sector in a meaningful way. They undermined, and devalued the work of thousands of artists over decades. They arrogantly and thoughtlessly smashed institutions that had been carefully crafted for decades, and demonstrated that the government fundamentally did not understand the sector. Decisions were made not by a minister for the arts, but by a minister against the arts. The effects were drastic, are ongoing and will be felt for decades to come.

While others have argued that this inquiry was partisan, it was referred to the committee not only by the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens but also—for those listening—by all eight members of the crossbench. It was not a party political issue, but one of genuine cross-party concern about the radical decisions made by the coalition government in 2014 and 2015 in relation to arts funding, and their potentially disastrous implications for the future of the arts in Australia. The almost unanimous view from the arts community was that the government’s arts policy is terrible. When a last-minute, unscheduled witness who supported the NPEA and the government’s position was finally found—they finally found one witness—the committee made time for their evidence to be heard. If the government had put up other witnesses, we would have been happy to hear from them, but they could not find anyone else to support the unsupportable.

The Senate inquiry was unlike any that I have experienced before. I have been here since the 2007 election and serving since July 2008. Rarely do you get more than a handful of people at a Senate public hearing, but there was a full house at every single hearing of this arts inquiry. We could have sold tickets and, given the eloquence, passion and intelligence of the witnesses, we would have got our money’s worth. The atmosphere was electric, witnesses were given rounds of applause, cartoonists live sketched and tweeted the hearings and witnesses and audience members interjected good-naturedly. You rarely see—and I do hope I never see again—a witness bullied by a government senator so badly that the hearing paused to give them time to compose themselves. That is shameful. I would like to thank all the witnesses, who shone brilliantly. I would especially like to thank those people who spent all day at the hearings. They often brought their cut lunches and thermoses along to support their fellow artists.

The arts community as a whole should be commended for the way they organised themselves so strongly in opposition to these policies. They rallied and spoke out publicly in print and in newspapers. They drew and painted and photographed their opposition. They supported each other, gave each other voice and acted in a coordinated manner to oppose policies that are fundamentally wrong. Surely, if anything, this is the definition of excellence.

The inquiry received over 2,719 submissions by its deadline of mid-July. This is an extraordinary figure for a Senate inquiry. Sometimes you receive only a handful of submissions and sometimes you might receive a couple of hundred. There were so many submissions that it proved a significant challenge to process them, and I thank everyone for their patience while they were being processed and published. In fact, the secretariat told us today that they had four people trying to get the submissions up at once, and that they broke the website. That is how much interest there has been.

Submissions came from a broad range of people and groups, including small, medium and large organisations working in every area of the arts. Academic experts, local and state government bodies, individual artists and members of the public, visual artists, writers, designers, dancers, philanthropists, academics, Indigenous artists, arts administrators, urban artists and regional artists all wrote to the committee to outline their concerns. The lack of witnesses supporting the NPEA was a genuine reflection of how poorly the program is viewed by the artistic community, not a reflection of the witnesses who were selected to appear before the committee. Any contrary view is not borne out by the truth and the facts. Time and time again the committee was told of the interconnectedness of the arts ecology, where artists work for multiple organisations in different roles to put together innovative new work on shoestring budgets. The greatest funders for the arts were actually the artists themselves, who give millions of hours of unpaid time every year. It is this that the government simply does not understand.

Government funding is vital. It is the vital spark that is needed to keep the arts going. This Senate report is calling for a complete reversal of the disastrous arts decisions that have been made by this government. The committee recommends that the budget funding taken from the Australia Council in 2014 and 2015 be returned. If the government insists on proceeding with the Catalyst slush fund, then they should find new money to fund it. The committee also recommends that Catalyst, if it proceeds, should adopt the same peer review register and processes as the Australia Council to reduce red tape and to ensure the fund is independent from inappropriate ministerial interference. The committee also recommends that funding be restored to ArtStart or a similar program directed towards early career artists, as well as to Screen Australia and to support interactive games.

I would like to sincerely thank—as Senator Lazarus did, but I do not think Senator Macdonald bothered to—the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee secretariat for the marvellous job they have done and for the patience they have shown in organising public hearings and crafting the report. It is no mean feat to organise 10 public hearings with over 200 witnesses and over 2,700 submissions, and they did a marvellous job in keeping the inquiry on track and in preparing the report. I would also like to thank Senator Lazarus and the other members of the committee who participated—Senator Collins, Senator Ludwig and Senator Ludlam. I would particularly like to thank Senator Lazarus for his decent and fair chairing. Senator Lazarus, I know it was not always easy for you and, in fact, I think you pulled me up a couple of times. When complete untruths are being told, it is important that you managed to keep things on track, so thank you. Obviously, I would also like to thank the Hansard staff for their great work.

Let me say this: while the Senate inquiry is over, the fight is not. These policies are a catalyst for disaster. There is $12 million in a ministerial slush fund for allocation by direction of the minister, a fact that is in conflict with the principle of hands-off funding allocation for the arts. This government has no issue with multinational corporations shifting billions of dollars in profits overseas in dodgy tax minimisation principles, yet it will hack the arts to the bone. If Minister Fifield wants to keep this disastrous policy, he needs to find new money for it. The Australia Council’s grants program has been slashed, and it will be impossible for them to continue to fund the same number of key organisations as they currently do.

The revolutionary model of six-year funding for organisations is now but a memory and organisations that were applying for this round have had their time, energy and passion wasted on a round that did not go ahead. Instead, they applied for the four-year grant round that closed yesterday, in the knowledge that there is considerably less funding for these organisations to continue.

Any or all of the eight organisations in Tasmania could lose their key organisation funding. The loss of any could move the industry past the tipping point. Wonderful organisations creating excellent and innovative work will close because Senator Brandis saw himself as a modern day Medici, a generous patron who could bathe in reflected glory of the contemporary Michelangelo he patronised. Such personal weakness has done untold damage to the Australian arts community, and we are looking at a scenario where the entire Tasmanians arts ecosystem could collapse due to these arrogant, short-sighted policy changes. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted.