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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8642


Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (16:15): This afternoon's debate hinges on just two points. Firstly, is there an alternative way to be funding Australian arts? I absolutely agree there is an alternative way, and we should not be shy from having those sorts of discussions. Secondly, should we be broadening the base for Australians to go and witness those cultural and artistic pursuits and, indeed, broadening the opportunity for small- and medium-sized cultural and arts organisations to get funding? Clearly, the answer is 'yes' to both of those questions.

Fulminations and faux outrage from Labor senators this afternoon—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator SMITH: It must be the beginning of another sitting week here in the Australian Senate. But I have to confess that I am very surprised that in a week where security issues and concerns would be top of mind for most Australians, even those with artistic interests, it is the question of arts funding that the Labor Party wishes to focus its efforts upon. But, of course, that is their prerogative today.

There is no argument that Australians currently enjoy the full range of artistic and cultural pursuits. What the government has decided to do is to deepen and broaden the opportunities that are available to them and to arts organisations. What has occurred here, as the minister has already noted, is precisely what was always intended to occur. The government said it would consult with the Australian artistic community about these changes and what the government announced last Friday stems directly from those conversations and consultations that Minister Fifield has been engaged in.

The government announced a proposal earlier in the year and said we would consult with the arts sector. The Labor Party complained. Now that those consultations have concluded, a decision has been reached which has been welcomed by significant figures across the arts community—and I will come to that in a moment. Again, the Labor Party is still complaining. Yet what we have not heard from those opposite is their concrete alternative plan. It is all very well to sit in the cheap seats and throw popcorn at the screen, which is what the Labor Party has been doing on this—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator SMITH: and on many other budget measures, but where is your alternative plan, Senator Bilyk? The government clearly has a plan.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator SMITH: We are contemplating the already substantial levels of public investment in the arts in Australia by establishing a new $12 million annual arts funding program called Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund, which is designed to complement existing arts funding initiatives. I note that the chief complaint in this MPI from the opposition today is that the government is launching an attack on arms-length funding. That is just utter nonsense.

Senator Bilyk: You were there this morning!

Senator SMITH: I was there this morning. It was utter nonsense this morning and it is utter nonsense this afternoon! Applications to receive funding support from Catalyst will be made by independent assessors and staff in the Ministry for the Arts. These funding decisions are not being made by the minister. I think it is important to highlight that point—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Order! Senator Bilyk!

Senator SMITH: because either the opposition do not understand it, or they are wilfully misrepresenting the facts. The minister or his delegate—in this case, his delegate; in the future, perhaps her delegate—will approve funding based on those independent recommendations. That is entirely consistent, and this is an important point, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, with existing programs administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts. Indeed, it is also consistent with arrangements for funding in every state and territory government.

What is especially exciting about Catalyst is that it is consistent with this government's core policy objective of promoting innovation. This fund will provide financial resources to support projects conceived by galleries, by libraries and by the museum sector. Many of these are not usually eligible for grants from the Australia Council, so we are diversifying their funding sources. As the guidelines make clear, funding is only made available to organisations, not to individuals, and it is only for specific projects. It cannot be used by organisations for operational funding.

But, as I was saying earlier, these proposals have been developed following consultation with a wide range of people active in our arts and creative industries. Catalyst will recognise the important contribution made to the vitality of Australia's arts scene by small and medium-sized organisations, most particularly those active in regional communities around the nation—indeed, regional communities across my home state of Western Australia. Funds can also be used to attract further private sector investments for arts projects, including infrastructure. I think that is an important and valuable point. All too often in Australia we have overlooked the significant cultural investments made by businesses in the private sector, but they too play a crucial role.

Grants made will be capped at a maximum level of $500,000 a year, which will help to make certain that more projects from more regions can be funded. The program will have $12 million available to it each year. Of course, there is still significant financial support available to individual artists, as well, through the Australia Council. And as a result of the government's decision last week, $32 million will now be made available to the Australia Council over the period of the forward estimates, bringing a total of $783 million over the four years across the forward estimates so that the Australia Council can continue its work.

But what we did not hear today, what we did not hear this afternoon—or certainly not yet—in contrast to the belly-aching attitude adopted by those opposite, was that this measure has been welcomed by the Australia Council's chief executive, who said in a statement that these decisions would allow the council:

… to increase investment in the two core grant rounds for 2015-16, …

This is news that I am sure will be welcomed by individual artists who need support for their new works. Likewise, Nicole Beyer of ArtsPeak, a major representative body in the arts sector, said on ABC Radio last week, 'It's great. You know we're really pleased this is happening.'

I know these sorts of comments are intensely irritating to those opposite, because the Labor Party like to think that they are the party for the arts community. In Australian political mythology, which is stoked at every opportunity by those opposite, the nation was covered in darkness before December 1972. It was only when Gough Whitlam moved into the Lodge that the nation suddenly discovered its creative side. That is what Labor senators would have you believe . In actual fact it was the Liberal government under John Gorton that first provided prominent public funding support for the arts in Australia and really breathed life into the Australia Council that we know— (Time expired).