Sorry but the NPEA’s not dead yet

The new Minister has admitted he is thinking of 'adjustments' to the NPEA. We examine the evidence that the Budget cuts to the Australia Council will be reconsidered.
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Kodi Tanner, Empty Tomb via Flickr

Could the new Minister for the Arts be about to the end of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA)?

Many in the arts sector hope so. There was considerable excitement when, in an interview with Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas this week, Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield conceded that there had been negative feedback about it, and that it could potentially be tweaked.

 Fifield, who took over from the Minister who created the controversial policy Senator Brandis after the Turbull coup,said he was re-examining the decision to remove $26 million annually from the Australia Council to fund the NPEA. The move is currently the subject of a Senate Inquiry which heard this week about the potential damage to regional arts and remote communities.

 ‘I think it’s important when you come into a portfolio to take the time to talk to stakeholders,’ Fifield told Karvelas. ​’I’ve got a bit more consultation to do and then I’ll make a decision.’

 ‘Could it be that he $26 million is returned to the Australia Council budget?’ Karvelas asked Fifield.

 ‘I don’t think that there’s much argument about moving the Festivals Australia and Visions [of Australia] funding from the Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts, that’s where it previously rested,​’Fifield replied. ​’What is in discussion is the $20 million transferred from the Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts for the Excellence Program.’

 ‘What I’m looking at is that particular element. There will be some adjustments but the exact nature of those, I still want to chat a little bit more about the exact nature of those adjustments.’

 Fifield also added that ​’I’m not announcing anything today.’

 The ABC immediately jumped on these comments, throwing up a story on the ABC website claiming that the Minister was backing down on the Excellence policy. “Australia’s creative sector has welcomed the Federal Government’s move to backtrack on a controversial program that would have given the arts minister control of millions of dollars in funding,” the article claimed.

This got pulses racing in the sector. For those not closely following the story, it appeared as though Fifield was abandoning the Excellence adventure.

 A media release yesterday from the Western Australian Chamber of Culture, for instance, stated that the chamber ​’is encouraged by Federal Arts Minister Fifield’s recent statements regarding the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) and his acknowledgment of the widespread concern among the arts and cultural sector regarding the previous draft guidelines for NPEA’.

 But a close listen to Fifield’s interview shows plenty of room for caution. Given the remarks it was based on, the ABC article was rather optimistic. It is doubtful that a single interview on Radio National constitutes a ​’move to backtrack​’ on the Excellence fund. All the Arts Minister said was that he was consulting stakeholders, and that ‘there will be some adjustments’.

 Moreover, when pressed by Karvelas, Fifield pointedly refused to say that he was abandoning the Excellence Program, or that he was moving the funding back to the Australia Council.

Fifield’s interview with Karvelas was completely consistent with everything he’s said since taking on the Arts portfolio. He has been making conciliatory noises, loudly proclaiming his listening skills, and hinting at “adjustments”, since before the Cultural Ministers Council meeting in Mildura.

 In Mildura, Fifield told reporters much the same thing he told Karvelas. At a doorstop interview on October 2nd, he said that ‘the Commonwealth Ministry of the Arts has been undertaking a consultation process, and the purpose of that is to get feedback and to make adjustments’.”

Recent Senate Estimates hearings showed that the Ministry is steadily pushing ahead with the Excellence Program, sorting out peer reviewers and preparing the final funding guidelines. Anyone who listened to the testimony of senior Arts Ministry bureaucrat Sally Basser at Estimates last week would have been been firmly convinced that the Excellence Program remains the policy of the government. 

Of course, bureaucrats often work on programs that are later cancelled. Fifield can change his mind and junk the Excellence Program today, or tomorrow, or next week. But, as a matter of public record, he hasn’t done that yet.

 Rumours of the Excellence Program’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

All we have so far are hints – extremely vague hints at that. Any celebrations from the sector would be premature, to say the least.

Ben Eltham
About the Author
Ben Eltham is ArtsHub's industry columnist.