LNP Senator Ian Macdonald appears to have added an opponent to the Australia Council to the Senate arts inquiry at the 11th hour, Crikey can reveal. Was it an attempt to stack the committee?

Crikey has obtained a screenshot of a Facebook message from Andrew Quah, a “music advocate” who was highly critical of the Australia Council in a Senate inquiry hearing on Wednesday. In the message, sent to an unnamed source, Quah reveals Macdonald had contacted him “at the last minute” to appear before the Senate inquiry.

“Senator Macdonald arranged it,” Quah wrote. “I met with him at 11am, I got a call at 1.30pm, and I was in front of the panel by 4.”

In the Facebook message, Quah says he will be “writing part of a dissenting report that gets presented at the same time as this Committee’s report”.

This could suggest that Macdonald also intends to write a negative dissenting report for the Senate inquiry, presumably to counter the views of Labor, Greens and independent senators on the committee. Submissions to the inquiry have been overwhelmingly supportive of the Australia Council and critical of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

In his hastily arranged appearance at the inquiry on Wednesday, Quah was highly critical of the Australia Council.

“Almost all of its funding is currently allocated to a closely knit community of politically aligned arts practitioners physically based in close proximity to each other within inner Sydney and inner Melbourne — to the detriment of a broad arts and culture sector in our suburbs and ­regional areas,” Quah said.

The comments bear a resemblance to criticisms made by Macdonald himself in 2014, about Townsville’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Macdonald told the Senate in October 2014: “I do not want to be paranoid about this, but do I suspect that the Australia Council is more interested in events from Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra than from way up there in regional Australia and North Queensland?”

Macdonald has been a vocal participant in the Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding. In hearings in Sydney on Wednesday his forceful questioning reduced a witness to tears, sparking calls from the gallery of “bullying.” The Senator from north Queensland also used Wednesday’s hearing to call for HECS-style arts grants, which would have to be repaid by artists earning above a certain income.

The revelation that Macdonald approached Quah to appear at the inquiry lends weight to the view expressed by arts industry figures that Macdonald went looking for someone — anyone — to present negative views about the Australia Council, after almost universal consensus from those appearing before the inquiry in favour of the arm’s-length arts funding body.

However, the choice of Quah to appear before the inquiry will raise eyebrows. He is a self-described “music advocate” but is best known as a former Family First candidate for the House of Representatives. The minor party expelled him before the 2007 federal election after it was revealed naked photos of his genitals had appeared on gay websites and social networks (he denied it was his penis but admitted he had once “drunkenly shared, in confidence, photos of [himself] in what appears to be an inappropriate position”).

Representatives from the arts sector met with new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield at a roundtable in Sydney this morning.

Fifield told the industry he expected to make a decision on the future of the Excellence Fund “within a fortnight”.

He also criticised his predecessor, George Brandis, for his lack of consultation before making the decision to create the Excellence Program. “You shouldn’t announce that [the Excellence Fund] out of the blue on budget night,” Fifield said.

“My view is that the annual budget should be a business-as-usual document, and if you want to do something significant, separate it from the budget and talk to your stakeholders.”

Update:

A spokesperson for Mitch Fifield told Crikey: “The characterisation of the minister’s comments as criticism of his predecessor is plain wrong. Senator Fifield was explaining how the closed nature of the budget process can sometimes make it difficult to provide context for decisions.”

Peter Fray

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