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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
Attorney-General's Department

Attorney-General's Department

CHAIR: I will call back to order this meeting of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee dealing with the 2015-16 budget estimates. We are dealing with outcome 2, still at group 1. I am about to refer to Senator Collins, but before doing that I should just note and welcome to the Senate and to Parliament House Senator Jo Lindgren, who has been selected by the LNP in Queensland to replace the Hon. Brett Mason, who has left us. It is great to have Joanne here, and I am told by the secretariat that although she has not been sworn in, as of 1 July she is a senator.

Senator Brandis: No, not 1 July.

CHAIR: Sorry, as of the Queensland parliament's decision last Thursday, she is a member of the Senate. So I expect I shall have to set aside some time for some penetrating questions from Senator Lindgren as well! In this committee, Senator Lindgren, you only get 15 minutes at a time, but we can come back to you. We may excuse you at this time, but if there is anything you want to raise please feel free as a Senator of the parliament.

Senator LINDGREN: Thank you.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Thank you, Chair. Minister, in your policy speech, the Western Sydney one, you remind us that the basis of the old Australia Council Act and the new Australia Council Act for arm's length funding in section 12(2) of the current act—it has a different number but the words are unchanged. It says:

The Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case—

I stress 'in a particular case'—

relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee).

Can I ask why the government has chosen, in establishing the new fund, to go down that path rather than for the minister to provide direction to the Arts Council about what its priorities or its approach should be—in general, rather than in a particular case.

Senator Brandis: I am sorry, Senator Collins, I do not understand the question. You are talking about directions to the Australia Council and the prohibition on directions to the Australia Council in a particular case.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: As opposed to policy direction.

Senator Brandis: Quite. This is not the Australia Council. The Australia Council is an arm's length body at arm's length from government in which bids are assessed on a peer reviewed basis. Obviously, the program administered through the ministry of the arts is not an arm's length from government, given that the ministry of the arts is part of government.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: So it is a clear and conscious decision to establish separate funding arrangements which will no longer be arm's length and which will not involve peer review in the same way in which the arts council has.

Senator Brandis: Senator, as to the latter, certainly not in the same way in which the Australia Council does. Although, Ms Basser earlier on did talk about the way in which these decisions may be approached, including consultation of external experts. As for arm's length, that is not a term of art, but I have always understood the reference to Australia Council funding being at arm's length from government meaning that it was not a department of the government but an agency with certain statutory independence of government as defined by its act. Obviously, the ministry, being a department of government ex hypothesi cannot be at arm's length from government.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Then, Minister, is it not surprising that one of the journalists—whom I think you characterised as a supporter of your approach, Martin McKenzie-Murray—headlined his story, 'Inside George Brandis’s Australia Council arts heist.' I do not read his story as an affirmation of your approach, frankly, and certainly his headline does not indicate that.

Senator Brandis: I do not have a copy of the story. I thought it was a very interesting piece of work. I obviously did not agree with all of it. I doubt that he wrote the headline, because journalists do not write the headlines, subeditors do. It was by no means hostile towards the government's policy at all, Senator, the way I read it. In fact, I thought he had some quite illuminating things to say about the philosophical basis of my approach to arts policy, particularly in the second half of the story. The Saturday Paper is a paper deliberately written from a left-wing point of view but it is articulately written. Everybody should read The Saturday Paper, either on my side of politics to know what the enemy is thinking or on your side of politics to have their prejudices reinforced. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting piece of journalism.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I would suggest to you, Minister, your characterisation of the level of support for these measures is inaccurate. It is certainly inaccurate from my experience. Even your reporting of some level of indications of support is cherry picking at best.

CHAIR: Minister, that is not a question.

Senator Brandis: It is not, really.

CHAIR: I understand both you and Senator Collins would love to engage in a lengthy debate on these things, but it is not the role of the minister.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Alright, I will move on.

Senator Brandis: Let me refer you to the other article—

CHAIR: No! Please, Senator Collins, do you have a question on estimates, please?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Sure, I do. What will be the increase in staffing in the ministry to administer the new fund?

Ms Basser : Eight full-time equivalent.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Will the new fund be exempt from the efficiency dividend?

Ms Basser : It will be; it is an administered fund, so it is exempt from the efficiency dividend.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: We were talking earlier about the movement of Visions of Australia and the Festivals of Australia. Can you tell me what staff movements are occurring along with that?

Ms Basser : The eight full-time equivalent staff are the total additional positions we are getting to administer all of it. The new program, and visions and festivals.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Okay, so it encompasses all of them? All right. I might need the Australia Council to come forward at this stage.