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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8644

Senator LUDLAM (Western AustraliaCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:22): As much as I was enjoying that contribution by Senator Smith, time is up! It is ironic to have a coalition senator demanding to know from the opposition frontbenchers what their alternative plan is—he is leaving the chamber now—when the fact is: Senator George Brandis broke something that did not need fixing. The alternative plan is to have not established this $100 million vanity project which has been condemned from one end of the country to the other.

I have been to a lot of Senate inquiries in my brief time in this place, and I have never seen this degree of unanimity of representation from one end of this country to the other. Senator Bilyk and I have been chasing the inquiry that Senator Lazarus has been chairing for a couple of months now. I have never seen such a diversity of witnesses with such a unanimous of point of view. The NPEA, which has now been renamed, rebranded, as Catalyst, is uniformly despised. I should say that it is almost universally despised. We did find one witness, who gave evidence on a rainy afternoon in Parramatta a couple of weeks back, who had been knocked back for Australia Council funding a couple of years ago, who had a gripe and who thought this new thing could be good.

Apart from that, we heard from contemporary performing arts companies, dance companies, theatre companies, the local music industry, visual artists and designers, writers, digital artists, community and regional arts centres, practitioners and those who support them, arts lawyers, community arts centres, regional arts centres, peak representative bodies, publishers and teachers the length and breadth of the country and of Australia's extraordinarily diverse and powerful arts sector who thought that this should never have happened in the first place. In fact, they thought that they should not have been brought into the Senate inquiry, into this format where they had to defend something that had been broken when it simply did not need fixing—by Senator George Brandis or by anybody else.

This was an announcement that happened in May and the Australia Council found out about it on budget day, when Senator Brandis condescended to give the head of the Australia Council a phone call to let them know that the government had ripped this money out of the Australia Council's peer-reviewed process—which allows all comers to put forward their creative proposals—and put it into this isolated slush fund. There were a couple of draft guidelines that followed a few weeks later that simply made the problem worse and made the apprehension and the misgivings even worse.

We saw 2,260 submissions made to that inquiry. Senator Smith is right: if you comb through them, you will find a very small handful—you will find one or two; you will not find more than a dozen—of those 2¼ thousand submissions that supported the idea, for various reasons—that is fine; they have the right to submit to these inquiries as well—and an avalanche of dissent to this proposal. We have held 10 hearings across the country, and 218 organisations have presented, with this extraordinary opposition. We saw something last week from Minister Fifield—and, give him his due; there was a selective sigh of relief around the country when Senator Brandis lost that portfolio; go and concentrate on other stuff and leave the arts the hell alone. There was a bit of a sigh of relief because you could not miss the intent. The intent, laid on Senator Fifield's broad shoulders is: 'Fix this mess. Make this go away.'

So now, instead of a $20 million Senator Brandis slush fund, we have a $12 million Senator Fifield slush fund. They have clawed back a little over one-third of the funding and put it back into the Australian Council's peer-reviewed process, where it belongs. That still leaves $12 million in this new Catalyst entity that nobody can figure out what it is for. We held a hearing for a couple of hours this morning with some of the senior bureaucrats from Senator Fifield's department trying to explain where the idea had come from. Where did the name come from? Where did the idea come from? Where did the figure of 12 million bucks come from? Where did any of this come from? Why is this happening at all? They were not able to describe why, but we know what is going on here. This is damage control. This is just to throw the arts sector a bone: 'What is the minimum that we can get away with throwing at people that will just have them shut up and will stop the dissent to what's been going on and stop the opposition?'

The one-third of the funds going back to the Australia Council's process is welcome, but we cannot welcome it unreservedly and unconditionally. Other options were open to Senator Fifield. Those officers this morning were good enough to inform us a couple of times—they were asked a number of times—that all options were on the table. I and a couple of other senators pressed them on this. The options included reversing this ridiculous idea and just pretending it had never happened. We would have let it go. I would have been happy to pretend that this whole sorry episode had never happened. That indeed was an option that would have been put to the government. Senator Fifield had the opportunity of fixing this mess.

Now it is going to have to go into future budget rounds, when people suddenly realise that there is this duplication of bureaucracy going on. This new Catalyst entity, which still will not be able to fund individual artists, is going to be in the mix with its $12 million, duplicating the work of the Australia Council, without the peer-reviewed oversight, without the six-year funding cycle, without the ability to fund individual artists, without the ability, for some reason, to fund certain kinds of digital art, including interactive work. It is very, very strange. This thing that just fell out of the sky on top of the arts sector on budget night is still with us—make no mistake. They have changed the name—well, gold star for that; it is a good bit of rebranding there, but it is not going to fool people. They have taken some of the money back, which you might as well acknowledge. It is a shame that Senator Smith did not. This is an acknowledgement—it is not a tacit one; it is an open acknowledgement—that this was a mistake, that some of the money has been returned.

It is very firmly the view of the Australian Greens that all of the money should be returned so that the Australian artistic community can get on not with making Senate inquiries, not with doing submissions to parliament, not with lobbying, not with drafting petitions or responding to guidelines but with making art. People do not go into this community in order to interface with this place. They have done so in good faith over a period of many years in order to hone the way that the Australia Council disburses precious taxpayers' money to creative endeavour. That engagement has been there, and we saw it come out and absolutely flourish. But that is not why people join the arts community, friends. That is not why they do it. So let us let them get back to it with as much money as this parliament, in its budget processes, can put to it, rather than establishing these vanity projects—a massive waste of people's time.

The only good thing that has come out of this process is that I think the arts community found its voice and found its strength. I thank all of those people from right across the country who took the time out from their work—and people working in this community do not earn huge amounts of money. This is a sector that runs on love not money—although the money is obviously appreciated. But they came out in numbers, and we discovered along the way that the arts sector is well represented. It is well informed. It is well and truly disgusted with the establishment of this fund but it is an extremely vibrant, lively community that spoke for itself very, very well.

The only good thing that has come from this process is that the sector got to link arms, see who it was and speak out. In all my time chasing Senate inquiries around the country, two things are very rare—one is rare and one is unique. The thing that was rare was that the public galleries were full. This is a community that supported its witnesses, advocates and people who came forward to give evidence. That was lovely, because we knew as senators—government senators certainly knew—that what we were doing was being watched, recorded and documented. That is good, because the last thing you want is for these processes to be happening in isolation. The second thing that happened, which is not merely rare but unique, was a warm round of applause after each of the witnesses had given their testimony for the heartfelt way in which they had put their point of view to the government: 'Wrong way. Go back. This is not what we need. We don't need more bureaucracy. We don't need disguised funding cuts; we just need a simple peer reviewed six-year funding cycle that can fund all comers—the big companies, the majors, the small to medium enterprises that are the backbone of creative endeavour in this country and the individual artists working on unique pieces of work that are not going to see the light of day any other way'. That is what these people want to be doing. Let's let them get on with it.

This story, unfortunately, is not finished. I thank and congratulate the opposition for bringing this motion forward. It is important that we address this today at the first opportunity, but this story is not done yet because Senator Fifield blinked. He could have fixed this as Senator Brandis would certainly not have been able to do. Senator Fifield could have fixed this and he did not, so there is more to tell. But, in the short term, I want to thank all of those who have added their voices and the strength of their creative work to this debate while we restore a little bit of sanity to arts funding in this country.