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What can Arts Minister Mitch Fifield be thinking ?

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Richard Letts is director of the music advocacy organisation The Music Trust and a former director of the Music Board of the Australia Council. He attended the Arts Debate in Melbourne on Wednesday when Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield arrived without an arts policy. He writes below some observations of the experience.


In this Federal election the arts community is focused upon the arts-friendly opposition parties and has lost interest in the Coalition, whose actions have been so hostile: derogatory statements from former arts minister Senator George Brandis and $300 million removed from the arts budget — way more that the total funding to the Australia Council.

But polling says that there is a 50/50 chance that the Coalition will be re-elected. So it would be a mistake to delete it from arts’ strategies. What is the Coalition thinking?

Senator Mitch Fifield picked up the Arts Ministry after George Brandis was sacked. A poisoned chalice.

But we want to be loved. Go into bat for us, Mitch, and we will be just so grateful. The opportunity is there for a clean slate. What will you do?

Early after his appointment as Arts Minister, Fifield made a gesture. He returned 40% of the funds hijacked from the Australia Council by Brandis. Modified rapture. Positive but not persuasive. Then there were allegations of pork-barrelling with the Ministry grant funds, and their use for inconsequential purposes while dead serious Australia Council clients were terminated.

The Brandis shadow lengthens and will remain unless Fifield does something decisive and positive.

ArtsPeak organised a public debate to be held on Wednesday, June 8 in Melbourne to which they invited Senator Fifield, shadow arts minister Mark Dreyfus and Greens spokesperson Adam Bandt to speak.

There was a quick acceptance by Dreyfus and Bandt and no word from Fifield. Why would he want to expose himself to an arts audience given the hostility the Coalition has built up?

During this period, Dreyfus and Bandt announced election platforms including specific funding promises, directed especially to returning the funds taken from the Australia Council and then adding to them to give more support to small organisations and individual artists. These promises are backed by actual policies. They are consistent with the sector’s agenda.


Somewhat surprisingly, Fifield eventually accepted the invitation to the debate. Given the circumstances, he surely would not come to this debate empty handed? He must be ready to announce a policy or at least, an election platform with a few positive undertakings. (The Coalition has not made public an arts policy ever since George Brandis became arts minister in the Howard government.)

The day came. The three debaters sat on the platform and fielded the questions. It slowly became apparent that Fifield had nothing to announce. He made positive statements about his government’s arts activities. He made general statements about “it’s the economy stupid” and arts would benefit from “trickle-down”.

We’re sure that Mitch Fifield does think the arts are important and wants to support them. But being Arts Minister demands more than nice feelings and thought bubbles.

He remained non combative through Dreyfus’s lashing of his and the government’s performance. He is a calm and pleasant man but that was about as far as it went. It was not impressive.

Which brings us to the point of this little exposition. In the circumstances, what could the Arts Minister have been thinking in accepting the invitation?!

Some speculations

· We are doing good things for the arts and I have a good story to tell. They’ll see.

· They’ve seen the Catalyst grants and they will be feeling more positive.

· To not turn up would be worse than turning up. It would be seen as dismissive. It probably doesn’t matter because no-one really cares about the arts but perhaps it’s better not to stir them up again. I’ll just have to wear it.

· I don’t have any ideas for a policy or a platform and in any case, ScoMo wouldn’t fund it and Malcolm won’t back me. I’ll just skate through somehow. I’ve faced worse. Couple of hours and it will all be over.

· The sector should devise the arts policy, not the Minister. It’s too late for that now, but I can give them hope. Maybe we can have a go at it in the new term.

The sector gave a lot of support to the policy-making efforts of former Labor government arts ministers Peter Garrett and Simon Crean. How much effort it would make for this government is another matter. After all, it gave clear advice to Fifield when he became arts minister, mostly ignored.

We’re sure that Mitch Fifield does think the arts are important and wants to support them. But being Arts Minister demands more than nice feelings and thought bubbles.

In principle, Fifield’s proposition makes sense. But say the sector, on his invitation, did come up with a policy. What then?

The effort is only worthwhile if the policy is implemented in a coherent way. So far, incoherence is a mark of this government’s arts support. Would the policy be treated as more than a grab-bag of ideas?

We are sure that Mitch Fifield does think the arts are important and does want to support them. But being Arts Minister demands more than nice feelings and thought bubbles.

Fifield is smart. We are smart and we are serious. We want an arts policy to match. Until it takes decisive, intelligent, strategic action, this government has few credentials as a supporter of arts and culture.

The arts will survive a negative government. With a positive government, our artists can take on the world.

6 responses to “What can Arts Minister Mitch Fifield be thinking ?

  1. Hmm …

    I’m afraid with revelations that Museum Directors get paid more than State Premiers, the fight of the deprived arts community is pretty well lost.

    1. What has one man’s massive pay got to do with the rest of the arts community – we should all be punished because he negotiated for a big pay package? Nice logic there.

  2. That is a silly comment by “Rutegar”.

    State gallery Directors are government officials whose jobs are to look after state “property”.. Their salaries are, ultimately, determined by governments — as are heads of Health Departments, who also are paid more than the doctors and nurses who look after the patients. Their salaries do not go to real artists, or writers, or composers.

    John CARMODY

  3. These idiotic comments about what museum directors may or may not get paid are irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the piece Richard Letts has written.

    Back in the day, the Liberal Party, in the early days of the Howard hegemony, did have an arts policy: good bad or indifferent. For its faults, the last Labor Government did have a consistent policy based on a considerable level of consultation and evidence.

    THAT is what is lacking from the current LNP: any kind of consistent, cohesive approach that is based on evidence, rather than the prejudice so egregiously and irrationally displayed by Brandis. Mr Fifield, to the extent he has a clue at all, seems to be saying “nothing to see here”, which presumably reflects Mr Turnbull’s position on the arts: “if we have no policy it will all go away”.

  4. Its NOT the salaries of the Directors, its the fact that ALL Australian Art is Government Art full stop. Being Government Art the people who work in Australian Art may be perfectly nice decent people individually BUT when they have to work within a public service environment their individual natures are sublimated and eventually lost altogether. I know I have worked and played with these people for decades. Slowly BUT SURELY the idealism of youth loses to the realities of Government employment until one cannot talk to them at all about the concerns of individual artists and creatives.

    AND YET the Arts are sold to the public as being all about creativity and “genius” but this is done through a few “chosen” individual artists who are somehow meant to represent all artists and creatives. I know I was once one of the “chosen” to a small extent. So basically its a system that will never be able to think outside itself as the public service is impervious to change, it actively discourages it. I found over the years it HATES individual artists who want to change things and will ostracize those artists as I have been ostracized.

    So I’m afraid people its almost useless without a proper radical change. Individuals can change things BUT Governments only listen to large numbers of people OR BIG names and the big names are as corrupted by the “system” as the public servants, at times they are the same people.

    Think about it!

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