What’s happening to the National Cultural Policy? Sadly, the answer appears to be: nothing.

Keen readers of this column will know that the Gillard government’s National Cultural Policy was slated for release on or before this Tuesday’s budget. This has been the firm guidance from Arts Minister Simon Crean’s office since mid-2011. Indeed, Crikey was told about a month ago that there would be an announcement for the weekend before the budget, and perhaps even a “mini-lock up” for arts journalists seeking to cover the announcement.

Picture the excitement with which Crikey greeted such a promise! Finally, a policy of our own! After three years of consultation, and no less than five years after Peter Garrett, Labor’s arts spokesman in opposition, foreshadowed a new cultural policy, finally the National Cultural Policy would land.

But when we emailed Crean’s office on Monday to signal our enthusiasm, we received a rather rude shock. Instead of helpful ministrations from the friendly staffers in the office of Regional Australia and the Arts, we instead received an auto-reply. The Arts Minister’s key media adviser, it transpires, has gone on holidays, and he won’t be back until Tuesday. This coming Tuesday. That’s the Tuesday when the budget is being handed down.

Something was up … or rather, not up.

Crikey was not the only one to notice. Fairfax’s Jacqueline Maley was also trying to find out whether to keep her weekend open, and when she couldn’t get a confirmation, she started cold-calling members of the 22-member National Cultural Policy steering committee. They hadn’t heard anything either.

Maley decided to write it up. “The Gillard government’s long-awaited national cultural policy has been postponed because of a lack of funds, a casualty of the tight fiscal environment before the budget,” she reported yesterday. By yesterday afternoon, a silence had descended in cultural policy-land, and it was rather difficult to get anything other than “we can’t confirm or deny” from spokespeople for Crean.

And so it appears that, despite all the assurances, the National Cultural Policy has fallen victim to Wayne Swan’s maniacal surplus fetish. At the very least, it appears to have been postponed until some new money can be found, or until the policy can be rejigged in such a way as to be released without any new money attached. We may still be surprised on Tuesday night, of course. But given the Herculean efforts currently going on in Penny Wong’s Finance department to find every extra dollar and cent, it seems that arts and culture is simply too far down the list of priorities to get a guernsey.

And yet, while the National Cultural Policy itself remains locked up on somebody’s hard drive, cultural policy is still going on. On March 30, for instance, the arts ministers of the states and territories met with Crean as part of their semi-regular Cultural Ministers Council roundtable.

A number of announcements were made. For instance: “Ministers agreed to the development of an ‘Arts Accord’ between the Australian, state, territory and local governments over the next 12 months and that this commitment will be reflected in the National Cultural Policy.” Also: “Ministers agreed to establish the Excellence Pool to be funded by the Australian government and a combined contribution from other jurisdictions. Ministers committed to seeking funding for the Excellence Pool through their budget processes for commencement in 201314.”

What the hell is this “excellence pool”? Apparently, it’s a special new funding pool that will be set up and funded jointly by the states and Canberra.

“Excellence”, as we know, is a rather loaded term when it comes to the arts. In the language of Australian cultural policymakers, “excellence” has largely become a code word for the “major performing arts sector”.

So it’s no surprise that the so-called excellence pool will be expressly quarantined for the major performing arts sector — a group of 28 organisations that includes some of the nation’s most prestigious cultural institutions, such as Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, the capital city orchestras and the state theatre companies. According to the communique: “The [major performing arts] Excellence Pool will provide both governments and companies with additional capacity to leverage performance outcomes and financial capacity to fund innovation in the performing arts.” The pool will be peer-reviewed, but it will be accessible by invitation only.

The status of the excellence pool is still uncertain, but some states are already moving ahead. Victoria announced $3.26 million in funding for it in Tuesday’s budget, to “support innovation in the performing arts sector and leverage additional Commonwealth government support for major Victorian companies”. The office of Western Australian Minister for Culture and the Arts, John Day, told us that “the Excellence Pool should provide opportunities for the major performing arts companies to extend their creativity as well as engagement and relevance to the community and is therefore a concept we support”.

Queensland, on the other hand, was still in election caretaker mode when the March meeting was held. When Crikey contacted the office of Arts Minister Ros Bates, we were told that the incoming government had not even attended the meeting, and that the minister was still waiting on a briefing from Arts Queensland on what had been signed up to.

So while the National Cultural Policy is on the back-burner, funding for the major performing arts sector continues to move forward. It’s a development that has angered some of the more vocal critics of the current policy priorities, such as New South Wales agitator John Wardle. Wardle argues that the excellence pool amounts to a brand-new funding stream that has been created outside the National Cultural Policy framework. He also questions the influence of Crean’s key policy adviser, Helen O’Neil, who is a former lobbyist for the major performing arts sector.

“Where’s the excellence fund for small to medium sector arts, or for contemporary music?” he told Crikey. “We’ve got the wrong people making the policy. It’s been a great tragedy for the cultural life of Australia that the last generation of music policy makers’ interpretation of excellence was limited to opera and orchestra. The submissions from the NCP and Australia Council reviews called them on it, and the message from the arts community was that the arts funding culture that had evolved as demonstrated by the Melba Recordings grant was unacceptable.”

Crikey asked Crean’s office to explain the relationship of the new Excellence Pool to the incipient National Cultural Policy. A spokeswoman for the Minister referred us back to the official communique.

When it comes to the National Cultural Policy, no news is bad news. All will be revealed — or not — on Tuesday.