Abbott Government arts slush fund riles artists

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By The Hon Michael Danby MP

As most St Kilda residents will know, the Abbott Government has stripped the Australia Council of half of its funding, moving it to a new program, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). This is to run within the Ministry of the Arts, with the ultimate authority for funding decisions resting with Arts Minister Senator Brandis. As Barry Humphries said, ‘Sir Les has got a good idea. He said, “Why can’t we say that the Australia Council is a sporting body?” If we pretended that it was there for the promotion of football and cricket, the government would give it even more money.’

Since its inception, the Australia Council has supported Australian arts and arts organisations with two guiding principles: the pursuit of artistic excellence based on peer assessment and that funding decisions be made at arm’s length from the government.

In 2013 the then Labor government legislated to reform the Australia Council after extensive dialogue and in conjunction with the arts sector. In contrast, Senator Brandis admitted he had not consulted anyone in the arts community before making the announcement. The Chair of the Australia Council, Rupert Myer, was only told of the impending cuts late in the afternoon of budget day. This was supposed to be a budget about no surprises.

Because funding arrangements between the Australia Council and state and federal government bodies mean that funds to the 29 major art companies are quarantined. This means that the cuts to the Australia Council budget will disproportionately affect hundreds of small to medium arts companies. It is these companies that will be most dramatically affected by the stripping away of the $100 million of arts council funds. They are the grassroots of the arts community from which grow all of the future creativity of arts activity around Australia.

The true danger of this move is that there will be ministerial discretion over what arts in Australia is funded. This may have been appropriate in centuries past with Lorenzo de Medici or in the imagination of Sir Les Patterson—but the whole idea of non-interference in the arts was to have arms-length funding and assessment by one’s peers. Some in the media have questioned Senator Brandis’s role as an arbiter of excellence in the arts. They have a good point, but I think the problem is deeper. What is to stop Senator Brandis deciding that arts projects to be funded just happen to be in marginal seats or just happen to be connected to people connected with the Liberal Party?

The Guardian commented on the Twitter feeds of affected arts companies: “The most you’ll get is a ‘wow’, or an expression of shock… Amidst this kind of uncertainty, no company can afford the risk of making criticism public.”

It is a sad fact that the Minister for the Arts, who claims to be a fierce defender of free speech, has caused the arts sector to be afraid of saying anything for fear of losing more funding.

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