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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8646


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (16:32): I rise today to contribute and support this motion via the opposition and to discuss the future of Australian creativity, and the uncertain fate of many thousands of jobs, careers and community contributions in our community. Because, when we discuss this government taking $104 million from the Australia Council and returning only $32 million—or less than a third—as part of Minister Fifield's partial arts funding backflip, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and contributions that are at stake.

When we discuss this government taking arts funding decisions out of the hands of qualified independent experts—a process that has worked very well for many, many years in this country—and, instead, making final decisions by ministerial decree, with all the political interference and favouritism that invites, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and creative contributions that are at stake. Again, when we discuss this government's callous exclusion of individual artists from accessing its newly rebadged funding pool, it is those many thousands of jobs, careers and those individuals' contributions to our creative industries that are at stake.

The small to medium arts sector in Australia is currently on its knees. A huge swathe of the arts sector's federal funding through the Australia Council has been removed and instead placed in a separate fund, known as of last week as Catalyst, under the arts minister's ultimate control. While independent assessors will make recommendations—I think it is three independent assessors from a pool of 300 on that program—the guidelines for that program explicitly state 'the Minister for the Arts or delegate in the Department will make the final decision regarding any funding awarded'.

Thanks to these changes, small to medium arts groups are now racked with uncertainty and unable to plan ahead. Despite the so-called change from the NPEA process under the previous minister to this new program called Catalyst, there is still the minister's discretion to make the final decision on what arts programs and group funding will be provided. It deeply lacks any kind of accountability and transparency. It gives the minister an incredible amount of power to make decisions about funding to the arts in this country at whim.

On top of that not only are small to medium arts groups in an incredible space of uncertainty and lacking stability but they have also been pitted against each other, competing for significantly reduced Australia Council funding. When it comes to recovering that lost funding via the minister's new discretionary fund, they are faced with a restrictive and politicised new system they know little about and which seems unfairly stacked against them. These challenges are most severe in my home state of Tasmania, where virtually the entire arts sector is classified as small to medium. It is no exaggeration to say the entire health and wellbeing of the Tasmanian arts community is threatened by these funding changes.

The new arts minister will now bear almost sole responsibility for the imminent collapse of any small to medium arts groups, following revelations in a Senate committee hearing with the Ministry for the Arts. We learnt this morning that Minister Fifield had one last chance to do the right thing by Australia's small to medium arts community and, inexplicably, failed to do so. The executive director of the Ministry for the Arts, Sally Basser, appeared today before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee's inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth budget decisions on the arts. Ms Basser informed senators about the new system imposed on her department by this government.

In considering how to unscramble the mess created by first the former minister and now the current minister, Minister Fifield, Ms Basser confirmed that Minister Fifield was presented with a range of bureaucratic options. He was presented with a range of options, and one of those options was to return the funding to the Australia Council. We know that that is the option that some 300 or more submissions from the arts sector in this country put to this government and were calling for—that is, returning the full $104 million to the Australia Council; not having this separate administrated fund out of the ministry of the arts; and having the transparent and accountable process that the Australia Council provides by having independent experts evaluate each submission.

But, no, that was not the choice that the minister made. He decided to kind of tweak the former minister's NPEA and create his new program and give it a new name, Catalyst. And there we have it; we are pretty much in a similar position to that we were in under the previous minister. There may be some slight reprieve. Yes, the Australia Council has been given $8 million a year back to its bottom line, but that is in no way near the $104 million that it has lost and that it has been able to provide some to 148 small to medium Australian arts companies as well as 28 major organisations that have been funded by the Australia Council.

Despite evidence showing that, between 2010 and 2012, those 148 small to medium companies produced 2,897 new Australian works, which equates to 88 per cent of the body of work, while the majors produced 299 new works, which equates to 12 per cent, Basser again confirmed there are no guarantees that small to medium groups will receive the majority of the Catalyst funding. And despite being pressured to nominate a token budget restoration of $8 million, the Australia Council for the Arts still faces an incredible funding shortfall that will hit individuals and small applicants hard—particularly individuals because they have been left out of being able to apply for the Catalyst funding themselves. Australia's small to medium arts sector has made it very clear that funding decisions should be made by independent experts, not by a political slush fund at the minister's whim. Decisions that are made by independent experts is what is currently provided by the Australia Council through a very transparent process.

I do give some credit to Minister Fifield's for his partial backflip, but he has not gone far enough. It was a step in the right direction, Minister, but you need to take it a little bit further. It is not enough to restore certainty and stability to the small to medium arts sector. It is only returning to the Australia Council a third of the funding removed from the Australia Council, which will have a detrimental impact on individuals and on small to medium arts companies and groups, which are the backbone and the majority of contributors to our arts sector in this country. And, of course, the majority of that funding is still going to be allocated through the minister's final political whim, his own fund, known as Catalyst, instead of by independent experts and having a transparent process.

I agree that the arts community has found its voice and its strength through this process. But it should not have had to have gone through this. An incredible vibrant community came together with vigour, colour, love and passion for what they create and what they provide to Australia—a creative voice; our creative voice; our creativity—which makes Australia such a beautiful place to live. I do not want to see that creativity put in jeopardy. I am urging the minister to take this a step further and restore funding to the Australia Council for the Arts.