REPORT FROM INQUIRY: Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts

The inquiry was established by Labor and Greens senators to look into the effects of then Arts Minister George Brandis’s removal of $105m of funds from the Australia Council to his Ministry where he would have direct control over their use. He instructed the Australia Council that its funding to major performing arts organisations must be maintained at its current level and so the entire impact of the loss of funds fell upon individual artists and small to medium organisations.

As is usual for such inquiries, submissions were invited and public hearings were held around the country. There were a remarkable 2,700 written submissions, most from a usually politically docile or fractured arts community. Opposition committee members commented upon an extraordinary level of unanimity among its witnesses, both in their opposition to the Minister’s actions and their support for the Australia Council. A number of members said that they had never seen such strong support for a government agency.

The inquiry committee has now published its report, including 13 recommendations. Government members of the committee, who were in the minority, have published a minority report which agrees with only four of the recommendations.

Very late in the progress of the inquiry, Senator Mitch Fifield, newly appointed as Arts Minister, decided to return $32m of the $105m to the Australia Council. He assigned $12m to what Brandis had called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts and renamed it Catalyst, with a brief to support innovation. (We have good reason to believe that this may have been on the recommendation of the Music Trust, though we wanted all the money returned to the Australia Council.)

The Recommendations

The most important of the recommendations can be stated briefly as follows.

  • The government develop and articulate a coherent and clear arts policy, including priorities for arts funding supported by evidence-based analysis, and greater clarity about the respective roles of the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council, as well as the other statutory arts bodies. (Senator Brandis never put forward a coherent policy justifying his action.)
  • The Commonwealth government restore to the Australia Council the full amount of funds diverted from it. (Didn’t happen.)
  • Should the Commonwealth government be unwilling or unable to identify new and additional funds for the Catalyst Fund, it should be disbanded, and the funds returned to the Australia Council. (Didn’t happen.)
  • Should the Catalyst fund proceed, the Ministry for the Arts further develop and clarify how the Catalyst fund will:
    • complement (and not duplicate) the role of the Australia Council; (The Minister’s own explanations do not survive scrutiny.)
    • ensure small-to-medium organisations will be prioritised, whether through a quota or some similar system; and… (There is a cap of $500k on grants. That is far more than would normally be provided to an SME applicant.)
  • Ministry for the Arts, the Australia Council and other funding bodies continue to work with the states and territories toward increased equity in arts funding between the states and territories, and between urban, regional, rural and remote communities. (There is evidence supporting perceptions of inequity.)
  • The Commonwealth government restore a program for funding innovation and development in interactive gaming. (Despite the Minister’s emphasis on innovation, he still excludes support to interactive games.)

The dissenting report from government members

These members presumably represent the viewpoint of the government of the day. What are they saying?

The government members accuse the opposition members of being politically motivated. Undoubtedly true of all combatants.

“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…” Do they really believe that?!

The testimony received by the committee was overall highly critical of the government’s (i.e. Senator Brandis’s) actions. The government members seek to discount this by suggesting various forms of manipulation by the opposition members of the committee or by the arts community. The arts community’s support for the Australia Council’s peer-review processes, despite its association with a failure rate of over 80%, might suggest that it has faith in its integrity.

But the government members write: “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.”

Minister Brandis made a number of large grants which, inasmuch as they did not seem to be the result of any competitive process, are widely seen as being personal decisions in support of personal preferences. As to transparency and accountability, Senator McDonald at least twice (in an Estimates hearing and in an inquiry hearing) brought lawyerly cross-examination to the Australia Council CEO to attempt to show that peer assessors could be exerting influence in a corrupt way. He was totally unsuccessful the first time and did no better the second time.

“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.” How then was Arts Minister Brandis able to direct the Council in the allocation of its budget, quarantining funding to major organisations?

Government members note that no criticism was directed to state arts ministries even though they function much in the way proposed for the Commonwealth ministry. That is fair comment except, of course, that this was an inquiry by the Commonwealth into itself. They also make the point that the Minister is an elected representative and so his funding decisions are democratically endorsed. Yes, but the thinking in setting up an arm’s length funding body goes way beyond that thinking.

From the writer’s viewpoint (and clearly he has an opinion or two), there are two things about the government members’ responses that are disappointing: their ignorance, and the partial nature of their arguments. They are if anything more partisan than those they criticise. It appears that they have come to the inquiry to defend a position that even, implicitly, the Prime Minister found wanting (and so appointed a new Arts Minister), and dismissed all the elicited evidence as self-interested. Well of course it is, but it is also informative and insightful and we might hope that the wisdom of our elected members might enable them to sort one from the other. In the witnesses and in themselves.

- Richard Letts

THE EDGE>>> The inquiry report is here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Arts_Funding/Report

Author

Richard Letts

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