New Arts Minister for NSW

Incoming MP Ben Franklin has big shoes to fill in following Don Harwin.
Image of Mr Ben Franklin wearing a pink shirt, to become new arts minister

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet announced his new cabinet this week, but significantly the line-up is missing Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin. In the week leading up to the reshuffle, Harwin hinted that he was considering whether he would commit to another eight-year term.

‘I have now decided I will not recontest my seat and therefore, this is the right time to end my ministerial service,’ the long-standing MP said in a formal statement on Saturday.

Harwin held the extensive portfolio of Special Minister of State, and Minister for the Public Service and Employee Relations, Aboriginal Affairs, and the Arts. He was first elected to the state’s upper house in 1999, and was assigned the Arts portfolio in January 2017.

He will be replaced by the Nationals upper house MP, Ben Franklin.

BEN FRANKLIN AS NEW ARTS MINISTER FOR NSW

This past week, Nationals upper house MP, Ben Franklin was appointed to Perrottet’s cabinet, and assigned the portfolios: Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Arts and Regional Youth.

Franklin served as the National Party’s State Director from 2008 to 2015, before being elected to the Legislative Council in 2015. He has been based on the NSW Far North Coast since then.

In January 2017, he became the Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy and Northern NSW, and in May 2019, was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Energy and the Arts. This week’s appointment is his first Ministry portfolio.

Franklin grew up at Barham on the Murray River, where his parents were teachers. Prior to joining the Nationals, he held the role of Communications Director for UNICEF Australia. His profile page says: ‘Ben is passionate about our regional towns and making sure they have access to employment, cultural and educational opportunities. His energy and tireless advocacy for those who live in the regions ensures the residents of Northern NSW are always represented.’

ArtsHub has reached out to the new Minister for an interview in the new year.

Arts Minister Don Harwin in blue suit in front of library of books.
Outgoing NSW Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin. Image supplied.

LOOKING AT HARWIN’S TENURE

In February 2018, ArtsHub sat down with then Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin, to reflect on his first year in office.

‘At a time when government expenditure overall has gone up 35%, the arts spend has gone up 85% during the time we have been in office. It is actually a great story to tell, and a great portfolio to have inherited.’ He added with a smile, ‘And that is not the limit of my ambition, but don’t tell the Treasurer.’

Said Treasurer at the time was Dominic Perrottet.

Read: ‘That is not the limit of my ambition’: One-on-one with the Arts Minister

Harwin went on to increase that ceiling of ambition over his five-year tenure as Minister. He delivered record capital works spending for the Australian Museum ($50.5 million), Sydney Opera House renewal project ($228 million); MAAS Powerhouse Precinct Parramatta ($1.1 billion committed), State Library of NSW upgrade ($12 million), Sydney Modern ($240 million) and Walsh Bay Arts Precinct ($370 million), and most recently Powerhouse at Ultimo ($480-$500 million) – the largest since Opera House.

But it wasn’t just about new builds; it was also about cultural maintenance, sustainability and visibility. Harwin was particularly proud of the Regional Cultural Fund ($100 million), and additional funding to regional infrastructure projects such as Bundanon Trust, Ngununggula, Orange Regional Gallery, and a performing arts centre for Goulburn, among others.

He also secured investment in the screen sector with the Made in NSW fund ($175 million (over five years); Arts Maintenance and Upgrade Fund ($104 million); Arts & Cultural Funding program ($62 million); Arts Rescue & Restart funding ($50 million), The National Art School ($18 million), and saved Theatre Royal from developers, with the state government taking on a 55-year lease and supporting the import of major productions.

Read: NSW receives $291 million boost for arts and culture

Powerhouse Museum (MAAS) Chief Executive Lisa Havilah this week described Harwin as ‘a legendary arts minister,’ in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

She continued: ‘What he achieved during his five years will have lasting generational impact … He has really repositioned where arts and culture sits – he believed everyone had the right to access to world-class arts and culture whether living in a regional town or suburban Sydney.’

While it was known that Harwin had a solid relationship with, and the ear of former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, that influence was to be lost with the generational shift Perrottet had planned.

There have been splashy news stories over Harwin’s tenure of mis-stepped decisions consistently over the years – including his meddling into funding decisions in 2018, leaked announcements and funding delays again in 2020, a protracted State Inquiry into its museums sector, breaking travel restrictions during COVID in 2020, and misjudging the relocation of Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta. It was widely understood that he loved the arts and attended whenever he could, including events in regional NSW.

He will also be remembered for his incredible lobbying on the Parliament floor to ensure cabinet-directed money to a struggling arts sector in the wake of the pandemic.

This not the first time during that five years that Harwin has stepped down from the role. In April 2020, he resigned over breaking non-essential travel restrictions.  He said: ‘There is nothing more important than the work of the government in fighting the coronavirus crisis. I will not allow my circumstances to be a distraction from that work and I very much regret that my residential arrangements have become an issue during this time.’

The decision was reversed, when he was cleared of the breach.

In terms of sustainability for the sector, Harwin got a permanent 10% funding increase for small to medium orgs and artists across the line in July 2021, $24 million – the largest permanent boost in 15 years.

The Minister told ArtsHub at the time: ‘We have listened and observed how strong the sector is and how much demand is unmet. …‘It is about more certainty and security for the arts sector. People want to know that this level of funding will continue, and I will give that guarantee.’

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina

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