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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 9712

Senator LUDLAM (Western AustraliaCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (18:08): I would be delighted to speak to this report. It has been months in the making. I would also like to add my thanks to Senator Lazarus and his staff. I have only chaired a handful of committees in my time here and it can be hard work, particularly with the kinds of extraordinary displays of petulance that we saw which actually did go some way towards spoiling some of the hearings. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable experience and unlike any committee work that I have done before.

This report has been months in the works. It is a really rare event—and we saw it again today, not that long ago with Senator Whish-Wilson's motion for an inquiry into the procurement of the joint strike fighter—that unites the opposition, the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens and all eight of the crossbenchers, in all of their glorious diversity. This was one of those things that united everybody against an extraordinary decision, announced to the head of the Australia Council during the afternoon on budget day by mobile phone call from Senator George Brandis, who effectively threw himself and the entire arts community under a bus. He was rewarded for that extraordinary intervention by losing the portfolio, one of the lesser heralded but, I would say, more important portfolio reshuffle decisions that incoming Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made.

When the coalition can only be bothered to send Senator Macdonald in to defend an utterly debacular policy, then you know that something is really seriously amiss. And he did them proud. If anybody outside this building listening in is wondering what this debate is all about and how the government could possibly have got arts policy so desperately wrong, do yourselves a favour and download the video or check the Hansard for what Senator Ian Macdonald just put on the record about 20 minutes ago. This is an individual who uniquely combines aggression with total cluelessness, unlike anybody else in this chamber that I am aware of.

If you want to know just how badly the government got it wrong, watch Senator Macdonald's humiliating rant. Senator Lazarus was too polite to name him, but Senator Macdonald behaved like an unhinged and tantrum-prone five-year-old, in a way that reduced one witness to tears and forced the chair's hand on a number of occasions. I do not use words as strongly as this against individuals very often in this place. I do not know what the Queensland LNP have on their minds.

The entire arts community of this country were insulted, but they did put in a spirited defence of themselves and the institutions that they have helped create, over decades of establishing an arms-length, peer-reviewed Commonwealth funding body for arts body. It is not like there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of funds washing around for the arts community. The Free the Arts campaign and those from Feral Arts and others who played an informal convening role absolutely did the arts community proud.

Let's talk briefly about the report that was handed down. It is not a unanimous report. People who have been following this issue would not be surprised to know that the coalition has provided a half-hearted, rearguard defence of Senator Brandis's policy. But, actually, I do not think there is a single person in this building—maybe Senator Macdonald aside—who really believes that this was a good idea. It was not a good idea. Ripping a hundred million bucks out of a cash-strapped entity that has developed painstaking ways of dispersing that money to where the peers in the artistic community believe it should go, just rocking up without any warning or any consultation at all and ripping such a huge amount of money out of there and throwing it into a government slush fund was never going to be received particularly well.

The essence of the recommendations by the opposition, the Australian Greens and crossbenchers who participated effectively go to the fact that, by all means, if you want this new entity, knock yourselves out. We do not understand it. We think the guidelines should be dramatically improved if you keep it. But if you insist on keeping this new thing that we are now apparently having to call Catalyst, fund it from somewhere else. Find the money from somewhere else. Maybe you could just cancel out of the joint strike fight procurement, which is on our minds here in the chamber today. We do not mind where you get the money, but find the money from somewhere else.

The closest that I think we got to unanimity among the witnesses who presented was that we do not need this thing at all. Is it set up to compete with the Australia Council, this new Catalyst entity, or is it set up to complement it? If it is set up to compete, we just do not need it. If it is set up to complement it, why are the guidelines so muddy? And who asked for this thing? I think most of the witnesses and most of the arts community from one side of this country to the other would rather that we pretended this thing had never happened. Just stand it down and return the funds to the Australia Council. That is really the essence of the recommendations that we are presenting the parliament with today.

If the finance minister cannot find the money to fund this bizarre experiment then just stand it down and we will forget that it ever happened. I suspect Senator Fifield was thrown a hospital pass by the outgoing minister and by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. To his credit, Senator Fifield, who got to step in after the key decision had already been made to establish it and, I guess, for face-saving points of view maybe felt that he could not cash out entirely.

But what that means is that we are left with this rather awkward position of an entity that has, I think, about a third of its funding stripped away from it. That third of the money has been quietly passed back to the Australia Council so that it can get on with its work. But, of course, as the forthcoming budget rolls around and as the expenditure review committee cranks into gear, the arts community and those of us on this of the chamber—the crossbench and the opposition parties in this place—know that Senator Fifield blinked. He could actually have fixed this and he chose not t Either find the money from somewhere else or stand this entity down and put the money back into the Australia Council.

This is not over. Senator Bilyk put it, I thought, quite adeptly a short time ago—this is indeed a catalyst. It is a catalyst for further action, further advocacy, until we get this fixed. The money needs to back to the Australia Council so that it can get on with its work.

I think the main benefit—and I spoke on this briefly, I think, last week—of going through a process such as this is that it has shown the arts community who they are. They probably could have done without it. They would probably rather have been out there making art, getting grant applications in and getting on with the kind of work that they love to do. Nonetheless, people really stepped up. The community and the sector stepped up and now we have, I think, a much better idea of the shape of the community, of the way that it regards the Australia Council.

It is worth noting on the way through that the Australia Council was not completely immune from criticism but it received warm accolades everywhere we went. Everywhere we asked the question: how do you think Oz Co is doing? It does not have unlimited money. It cannot fund everything, but what do you think of its processes for dispersal of scarce Commonwealth funds? People came to the party and acknowledged that the former government should be given their due: they got it right. The guidelines that were just passed, the new proposals for six-year funding rounds, the way the peer review process is structured and the kind of stuff that gets funded—mostly, they got it right. It is rare to hear that degree of applause and accolade for a Commonwealth government entity. That was a valuable insight.

We know, as the budget cycle rolls towards next May, this is still an open question; this is unfinished business. I think Senator Fifield is up to it. He is not an arrogant individual and, as he starts to come to grips with the portfolio, he is going to realise that the path of least resistance but of greatest policy integrity—and certainly the politically smartest path—is going to be to restore the money to the Australia Council and maybe make some kind of little sculpture. We could probably get the arts community to throw in for some little token, a sculptural reminder, of this ridiculous experiment imposed by Senator George Brandis on the arts community. We can put it up—gift that to the minister as a reminder to future Australian governments that, if something is not broken, do not attempt to fix it.