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Government faces Senate Inquiry into arts funding

Deborah Stone

Labor, Greens and Independents have combined forces to pass a move for a Senate Inquiry into the National Programme for Excellence into the Arts.
Government faces Senate Inquiry into arts funding

Image: Australian Parliament House

The Senate has referred the issue of arts funding to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which will report by 15 September.

The Committee will examine the establishment of the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), which under a Federal Budget allocation will takes $27 million a year from the Australia Council budget to be allocated by the Ministry for the Arts.


The motion was moved by Labor Senator Jacinta Collins and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. It passed by 34 votes to 24 after all four Independent Senators supported the motion.

Senator Brandis declined to comment on the Inquiry, which is a direct attack on the changes announced in the Federal Budget on 12 May 2015. The move will result in the Australia Council losing $104 million over four years and remove the protections of peer review and arms-length decision making. Small-to-medium arts organisations and individual artists will be disproportionately affected as the Minister has guaranteed no major performing arts company will face reduced funding.

Government Senator Mitch Fifield argued the inquiry was unnecessary because Minister for the Arts Senator Brandis appeared before Senate Estimates only two weeks ago and answered question in relation to the NPEA.​

Senator Ludlam acknowleged that these issues had been discussed by Senator Brandis and two senior bureaucrats at Senate Estimates, but said:

'Guess who that leaves out? The entire arts community.'

'They weren't actually able to provide evidence on this extraordinary rip-off that Senator Brandis has perpetuated on arts funding and I and Senator Collins on behalf of the Labor Party would like to take more evidence than that provided by Senator Brandis.'

Outside the Parliament Senator Ludlam said, 'It is quite telling that the government thought the opinion of George Brandis and two senior bureaucrats was enough consultation on a $105 million arts funding raid.

'The Greens, the Labor Party and every member of the crossbench strongly disagreed.

'This inquiry is an opportunity for the Australian arts community to send the Government a message it won’t ever forget. The inquiry will be able to examine the costs and consequences of Senator Brandis’ behaviour, but it will also be a way for the Australia’s creative artists to remind MPs of the value of their work and the importance of eliminating political interference from arts funding.'​

Arguing against the Inquiry, Senator Fifield said an inquiry was premature because the NPEA was still being established, 'It should be obvious, I think, Mr President, how absurd it would be to establish a Senate Inquiry into the conduct of a program that has not even yet commenced.'

The arts community began a campaign for a Senate Inquiry after the Senate Estimates hearing in which Senator Brandis admitted he had not consulted with anybody in the sector before the Budget was announced. The campaign was driven by ArtsPeak and supported by Opposition Arts spokesman Mark Dreyfus on behalf of Labor and Senator Ludlam on behalf of the Greens.

Arts​Peak Co-Convenor Tamara Winikoff,said the call for a Senate Inquiry had been made in part because of the lack of research underpinning the Minister’s actions. ‘I think the reason many of the members of ArtsPeak felt the need to make such a call is that we still maintain that this is such an important decision, that it shouldn’t be made on the whim of an individual without due process.'

Free the Arts – an industry formed to protest the Budget changes – welcomed the Senate Inquiry. ‘We were delighted to see the motion jointly put forward by Senators Collins (Labor) and Ludlum (Greens) and supported strongly by the independent and crossbench Senators,’ said Norm Horton, a spokesperson for the Free the Arts alliance.

‘The Senate Inquiry adds significant weight to the national calls for Senator Brandis to put an immediate halt to his reckless and damaging changes to arts funding in Australia. The Inquiry now provides the opportunity for the arts and cultural sector to have a say in a decision which according to the evidence given by Senator Brandis in estimates hearings, no one was consulted on,’ Horton said.

Sixty arts delegates from across the country who will be meeting with the major parties on Thursday in Canberra to ask them to address the damage caused by the funding cuts to the Australia Council.

The Senate Inquiry will examine: 

(a) the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts; and

(b) the suitability and appropriateness of the establishment of a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, to be administered by the Ministry for the Arts, with particular reference to:

(i) the effect on funding arrangements for:

   (A) small to medium arts organisations,

   (B) individual artists,

   (C) young and emerging artists,

   (D) the Australia Council,

   (E) private sector funding of the arts, and

   (F) state and territory programs of support to the arts,

(ii) protection of freedom of artistic expression and prevention of political influence,

(iii) access to a diversity of quality arts and cultural experiences,

(iv) the funding criteria and implementation processes to be applied to the program,

(v) implications of any duplication of administration and resourcing, and

(vi) any related matter.​

The committee is expected to issue a call for submissions and develop a program of hearings shortly. Submissions and details of the inquiry will be available from the Legal and Constitution Affairs Committee.

NPEA inquiry from Feral Arts on Vimeo.

About the author

Deborah Stone is Editor of ArtsHub.