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Why nobody knew: Budget 2015 revelation

Ben Eltham

The Minister for the Arts has admitted to Senate Estimates that he did not consult anyone in the arts sector before setting up the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.
Why nobody knew: Budget 2015 revelation

Image by Richard Tadday via trekearth

In testimony before a Senate Estimates hearing yesterday, Arts Minister George Brandis said that he didn’t consult with the Australia Council or any arts organisations before ripping $104 million from the agency in the May budget.


Brandis confirmed that the first person to hear about the massive funding cuts was Australia Council chair, Rupert Myer, just hours before the budget was handed down.

In a long and often confusing Senate hearing, Minister Brandis was questioned at length by Labor and Greens senators on the background, rationale and process by which the new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts was set up.

Those following the controversial policy debate were listening closely for hints confirming any of the wild rumours currently floating around the sector, some of which suggest that certain major performing arts companies knew about the Australia Council raid before it was announced and had even been promised a slice of the Excellence funding.

However, Brandis told the Estimates hearing that the first person outside the government to hear about the Australia Council funding cuts was Myer. No-one else was told, and there was no consultation with either the Australia Council or the cultural sector.

'In relation to the specific program about which you ask—the National Program for Excellence in the Arts—I telephoned Mr Myer late in the afternoon of budget day to tell him what the government had decided to do,' Brandis told the hearing.

Labor’s Jacinta Collins pressed him on the matter. 'So ahead of your phone conversation to Mr Myer on 12 May there had been no consultation regarding that announcement?' she asked.

'Not that particular announcement,' Brandis confirmed.

Details on the new programe remain sketchy. When questioned about how it work and what criteria it would use, top Attorney-General’s Department bureaucrat Sally Basser told the hearing that the guidelines were still being drawn up.

'We are anticipating that program funding will be available to assist with the cost of delivering arts and cultural projects on an annual or multi-year basis,' Basser explained.

There will be three streams: an endowment stream, which will tip government funds into arts foundations; an international stream, which will support overseas tours and 'cultural diplomacy', and a strategic stream, which Sally Basser explained as 'a key mechanism for driving outcomes against planned and developing priorities and to respond to new opportunities, challenges and issues.'

The guidelines are expected to be ready by 'the end of June or in early July.'

When Collins pushed Basser for further details, there were none forthcoming.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Is there anything further you can tell me at this stage about the criteria?

Ms Basser: No, Senator.

When asked why he set up the new program, Brandis continued his justification that it was all about 'contestability' – the argument that arts organisations should be able to apply to more than one Commonwealth body for funding. In a long speech, justifying the decision he said the two programmes represented a middle path between an arms-length agency model and arts funding situated in the Ministry.

There are those who take a very purest view and say that no arts dollars should be spent except at arms-length from government by a peer-reviewed process through the Australia Council, and there are those who take the opposite view and say that every dollar that is spent by government should ultimately bear the impress of the Minister's endorsement so the Minister can be answerable for it but, as in most of these debates, the sensible position I think lies in the middle.

What we have tried to do is reflect the fact that the Australia Council and the arms-length process is a good model, which is why 88 per cent of arts expenditure will continue to be directed through the Australia Council, but also to accommodate the alternative view that there ought to be some ministerial responsibility for arts funding by providing for about 12 per cent of funding in the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, for which the Minister is directly responsible, so those who favour the Australia Council model have their views fully accommodated and those who are critics of it also have their view accommodated. That is why I said all along that the principle underlying this new model is contestability.

There was also a revealing exchange between Brandis and LNP Senator Ian Macdonald, in which the long-running issue of Townsville’s Australian Festival for Chamber Music came up.

Macdonald, who chairs the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, appeared delighted with the new excellence program, because it could fund the festival in his home electorate. 

CHAIR: But before I start, Minister, I want to congratulate you on this program. I have long had a view that, in a representative government, the government gets the criticism where arts funding is not appropriate—that is, in relation to the Festival of Chamber Music …

Later in the hearing, Brandis used the chamber music festival as a case study for why the Australia Council model wasn’t working.

'You will recall the very long discussion we had about the Australian Festival of Chamber Music at a recent estimates committee,' the Minister reminded the committee. 'That is a good case study actually of why we wanted to have this alternative funding stream because that was a music festival that everybody thought, including Mr Grybowski, I remember, was a very worthy music festival, but there were particular reasons why it was not being funded in the coming year by the Australia Council.'

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam probed the Minister on whether he had concerns about the Australia Council’s independence or any of its funding decisions. Brandis replied that he had no concerns about the council’s independence, but that he was concerned about some individual funding decisions made by the Australia Council.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you want to share any criticisms of particular decisions? If we are clear on independence and we are clear on conduct, do you have particular concerns about individual decisions that they have made or some of the particular work that they have funded?

Senator Brandis: The honest answer to your question is: yes. That being said, I think it would be quite invidious and wrong for me as the minister to critique particular decisions, because I am not involved in that decision-making process and I do not question the integrity or the regularity of the decision-making process. Those of us who read Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph or watch Andrew Bolt's marvellous program on Channel 10 have noticed some of the teasing remarks they have made in recent days about certain decisions.

That led to an amusing back-and-forth in which Ludlam observed he wasn’t a regular watcher of Bolt’s show. 'I think Mr Bolt is a careful watcher of you, Senator Ludlam,' Brandis replied.

Ludlam also asked whether anyone from his office had been in touch with companies from the major performing arts sector. Brandis said no.

During this exchange, the Arts Minister again confirmed that he dumped the policy on the Australia Council and the cultural sector with no consultation.

Ludlam: Did anybody know that you were intending to announce a contestable fund separate from the Australia Council?

Senator Brandis: I cannot do better than my previous answer. Nobody other than Mr Rupert Myer, whom I called as a matter of courtesy about two hours or so before the budget speech, was told of the specific measure in advance, nor should they have been.

In testimony that may well become important in coming weeks, as the recipients of the new excellence fund are announced, the Arts Minister made his feelings about the value of the major performing arts companies clear.

Senator Brandis: All the talk has been about the small to mediums and I understand that. But let us not forget that the major performing arts companies are the heart and soul of the performing arts sector in this country. They are the big employers of artists and arts workers. They are the people who undertake most of the touring, including the regional touring, as well as the international touring. They are the people who provide the performances that the great audiences of Australia enjoy. As I have always said, one of my misgivings about the exclusive peer-to-peer funding model is: who represents the audience around the table? The minister, being the responsible officer in charge of taxpayers' money, has to be the voice for audiences. What are the shows, what are the performances, what are the concerts that the audiences go to? Primarily, they go to the performances of the major performing arts companies, whether it be drama, music, opera, ballet, dance or whatever art form it may be. 

The Estimates testimony also revealed that the new Book Council of Australia, announced last year, was created as the result of direct lobbying by Melbourne University Publishing boss Louise Adler.

'It came as a result of conversations at the highest level of the government,' Brandis explained. 'Ms Adler and I have of course spoken about this, and I know Ms Adler has spoken directly with the Prime Minister.' Louise Adler is expected to be the chair of the Book Council. 

There were some lighter moments. In one exchange early in the hearing, Labor’s Jacinta Collins referred to the Excellence Programme as 'the minister’s discretionary fund.'

'Why don't we call it by its name: the National Program for Excellence in the Arts?' Brandis asked.

'Because it takes so long!' Collins shot back. 'Do you think an acronym would work better?'

'You could call it the NPEA,' Brandis admitted, 'but it is a program, it does have a name and I think it is probably regular to call it by its name.'

About the author

Ben Eltham is ArtsHub's industry columnist.