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Senate Arts Inquiry: 20 extraordinary, self-serving statements you need to read from the Government

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When former Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, unleashed his ill-thought raid on the independent Australia Council in May, taking $105 million from its budget to give to his own Ministry — where he and his appointees alone could decide which arts organisations were worthy of receiving tax-payer funds — the Greens and the ALP initiated a Senate inquiry.
Their inquiry into Brandis’ “National Program for Excellence in the Arts” drew an extraordinary and united response from artists and organisations across the country. They opposed the ludicrous plan that would severely damage — and possibly kill off — scores of small arts companies. These organisations act as the engine room and nurturers of talent for the big theatre, opera, ballet companies and orchestras that Brandis favoured by exempting them from the cuts.
“The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Issues inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 budget decisions on the arts” released its report on Wednesday night. It found that the $105 million taken from Australia Council would jeopardise the viability of many individual artists and small to medium arts organisations and it recommended the government fully restore the funding to the Australia Council.
The following 20 statements from the Government’s dissenting response to the inquiry are breathtaking in their cynicism and attempt to re-write recent events to serve their own political purposes. If there was ever any doubt that Brandis’ NPEA was about politics first, and arts a distant second, then these statements prove it.

Dissenting report from Government Members of the Committee
(Statements in bold have been highlighted by Daily Review)
“The Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee (‘the committee’) inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the arts (‘the inquiry’) was a cynical attempt by Opposition, Greens political party and some Independent Senators to politicise reform of arts funding mechanisms.”
“Claims by the Independent-Greens-Labor majority of the committee (‘the majority’) that the inquiry was not political in nature are clearly not supported. Throughout the conduct of the inquiry the majority has attempted to create a divisive and combative atmosphere that characterises the government as inherently opposed to supporting Australian arts and culture. This characterisation is unambiguously false.”
Government members of the committee are critical of attempts by the majority to marginalise the nation’s arts community, force them into taking a position against the government, and use arts and culture funding as a platform from which to launch cynical political attacks that lack factual basis and create uncertainty.”
Government Senators were effectively disenfranchised from the inquiry process by being disregarded in the scheduling of public hearings. This supports the conclusion that the conduct of the inquiry was for political rather than parliamentary (or, in fact, arts and culture-related) purposes.”
“Government Senators note that the ultimate client of all taxpayer-funded programming is the taxpayer him/herself. The government is mindful that in the main its funding activities must, as far as possible, reflect the interests and expectations of the Australian taxpayer rather than the interests and expectations of particular sectors or interest groups.”
“Austerity measures across all portfolios have been imposed to seek efficiencies that will reflect the public interest in national debt-management. The arts sector could not be said to have been asked to perform any ‘heavy lifting’ in pursuing this objective.”
“The arts funding pool provided to the Australia Council by the Commonwealth Government consisted of a total appropriation in 2012-13 of $188,000,000; 2013-14 of $218,800,000; a total appropriation in 2014-15 of $211,800,000; and a total appropriation in 2015-16 of $184,500,000. The government’s reduction in Australia Council funding, following the increased appropriation in 2013-14, reflects the austerity that has been applied across multiple portfolios in light of the serious national debt position inherited from the previous government. This reduction also reflects the government’s confidence in the spirit of arts funding reform measures.”
“The inquiry was established to investigate the proposed National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (‘NPEA’) however the subsequent replacement of the NPEA with the Catalyst model during the conduct of the inquiry—and the endorsement of this change by the Australia Council—is not reflected in the committee Chair’s inquiry report (‘the report’) that instead quotes heavily from highly emotive submissions and evidence gathered in the early stages of the inquiry.”
“The evidence to the committee—in the form of submissions and testimony at public hearings—was inherently incomplete in that only a very small range of like-minded interest groups were invited, or volunteered, to present their case. Page 77 of the report characterises this evidence as the response of ‘..the broader community’ which is an irresponsible and misleading statement. Government members of the committee note that the ‘broader community’—that is, every Australian other than those with some connection to the arts sector—did not on this occasion take the opportunity to make their feelings known.”
“Page 17 of the report cites the ‘…remarkable level of consistency in the evidence provided’, which comes as no surprise considering the evidence provided to the inquiry came, almost without exception, from artists and arts organisations who have a vested interest in attacking the government’s budgetary efficiencies.”
“The number of submissions with a common approach is also unsurprising in view of the many peak groups whose websites actively encouraged and assisted with the wording of letters of concern to the inquiry.”
“It is noted that the particulars of the efficiencies imposed by the Australia Council in response to budget measures were within the remit of the Australia Council itself. The inquiry heard evidence that was highly critical of, for example, the decision to discontinue the ArtStart program. The majority were willing to incorrectly characterise this as a decision of government rather than promote the true facts that this was a decision of the Australia Council.”
“In responding to the shift from peer-reviewed funding decisions to a more accountable and transparent process vested in the minister and the Department of Communications and the Arts, the Chair’s report warns at page 34 of ‘…political interference…’ in the allocation of arts funding. Government Senators are disturbed, but not surprised, that the majority consider that funding directions made in the public interest by duly-appointed ministers of a lawfully-elected representative government could constitute ‘interference’.”
“Government Senators also note the inconsistency of the majority report which, while it condemns the Commonwealth for its processes, had no words of condemnation for arrangements in state jurisdictions. The arrangements put in place by the Commonwealth Department of Communications and the Arts in relation to arts funding grants largely replicate current arrangements in all state and territory jurisdictions, four of which are run by Labor governments.”
“Government Senators recognise the importance of fostering the on-going development of Australian cultural and artistic expression however they are not persuaded that the peer-review model is in all cases the most reliable manner of expressing the wishes and interests of the Australia taxpayer regarding support for the arts.
“Government members of the committee have concerns regarding the transparency and accountability of the Australia Council peer-review process and note that submissions and evidence to the inquiry have failed to reassure them that the Australia Council peer review process is not susceptible to bias.”
“Government members were concerned by elements of the testimony provided to the committee that seemed to betray an unhealthy sense of entitlement to the financial support of the taxpayer in the absence of an effective oversight or regulatory regime.”
“The decision by the Minister for the Arts, Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, to create a new arts fund ‘Catalyst’ should be recognised for the valuable contribution it will make to an innovative arts and cultural industry. Instead it has been incorrectly portrayed by the majority as an attack on the autonomy of the arts sector. On the contrary, the Catalyst model lays the foundations for a sustainable arts funding model that will ensure our nation’s diverse arts sector continues to flourish.”
The Australia Council is effectively accountable only to itself. It provides an annual statement to the parliament but in operational terms continues to be independent. The Catalyst program, as a facet of the Department of Communications and the Arts, will be conducted with far greater oversight by government and the parliament. Catalyst will make funding decisions in alignment with the guidelines approved by the minister, an elected parliamentarian whose role is to guide departmental operations in a manner that reflects the wishes of the taxpayer. For a portion of arts funding to be deployed within such a framework is a good step towards ensuring that, across the spectrum, arts funding fosters innovation, provides cultural development, supports industry and reflects the wishes of the Australian people.
Government members acknowledge concerns about duplication of administrative costs however note that much of the burden will be shouldered by existing operational infrastructure within the Department of Communications and the Arts. When asked about the cost of administering the Catalyst program, the Executive Director of the Ministry for the Arts remarked that ‘Most of it we have absorbed within our current resources’.Additionally, with a smaller funding remit the Australia Council will benefit from being able to reduce its organisational footprint.”
Illustration: Michael Agzarian

2 responses to “Senate Arts Inquiry: 20 extraordinary, self-serving statements you need to read from the Government

  1. Thanks for pulling that together Raymond. The dissenting Senators comments are completely delusional and completely without shame. They should be treated with the disdain they deserve.

  2. The Arts are the “R & D” of society. If Malcolm truly wishes to embrace innovation the arts should be encouraged to lead the way. It is not the established companies who always take the risk by being innovative, it is the small performance companies, individual artists etc; it is the fringe who innovate, often with limited resources but boundless enthusiasm to achieve creative and innovative solutions to creative problems. Artists are creative problem solvers, exactly what is needed now given the problems confronting society.

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