Politics is a messy game, but even seasoned observers must be scratching their heads about what to make of new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield’s announcement today.

The “National Program for Excellence in the Arts” was a policy so unpopular that it resulted in an open rebellion from the industry.

The NPEA took $105 million from the Australia Council for the Arts to create a slush fund for the arts minster to distribute funding to projects he liked. The consequences for the Australia Council and the smaller arts organisations it supports have already been dire.

And yet Fifield is keeping the NPEA in everything but name with his confusingly titled “Catalyst” program. Wags have already pointed out that the producers at the excellent ABC science program of the same name must have been momentarily very excited.

But what’s new in this announcement? Not much, actually.

Instead of $105 million being taken from the Australia Council, “only” $70 million will now be taken.

Instead of a program funding “excellence”, there will be a program funding “innovation”.

But this is still a major funding cut for the Australia Council, and it is still a new ministerial funding program that will not operate at arm’s length in the way the Australia Council does.

The new program poses as many questions as it answers. For instance, Fifield appears to have widened the scope of Catalyst from merely arts and culture to a much broader ambit.

“Catalyst aims to support innovative ideas from arts and cultural organisations that may find it difficult to access funding for such projects from other sources and could include library, archive, museum, arts education and infrastructure projects,” the minister’s press release states.

Hang on a sec … “infrastructure projects”? $70 million won’t build a lot of those.

Similarly, the broadening of the program to include libraries, museums and arts education programs will be welcomed by those sectors, but would also appear to allow cultural institutions like the National Library and Australian Museum to apply for Catalyst funding.

Reading through the new guidelines, the influence of the museums and galleries sector is obvious. In much the same way the “Excellence” guidelines were tailor-made for the major performing arts sector, the Catalyst guidelines seem constructed with the interests of government-funded galleries and museums in mind.

Individuals, however, are still not eligible to apply. This is despite a strong consensus emerging during the recent Senate inquiry into arts funding that individual artists represented much of the true “excellence” in the sector.

While we’re talking definitions, what does “innovation” actually mean? The guidelines are just as nebulous on this point as the previous document was on the definition of “excellence”. About the closest we get is the phrase “high-quality projects irrespective of scale”, which could mean just about anything at all.

Fifield claims in today’s media release that by giving the Australia Council $8 million a year back will cover off on any damage to the small-to-medium sector. “This will take the total Australia Council funding to $783 million over the four years,” the release claims. But this ignores the fact that approximately $440 million of that figure is already promised to the major performing arts companies.

In fact, once all the government policies the Australia Council is tasked with delivering are taken into account, the agency’s discretionary budget is only around $60 million a year. In this context, the Catalyst program still represents a major funding cut. The Australia Council has already slashed several funding programs and adjusted others, throwing the sector into chaos.

Industry reaction has been mixed.

The National Association for the Visual Arts’ Tamara Winikoff called it a “bittersweet moment”.

“We are relieved that the minister is prepared to go some way towards alleviating the havoc being caused by the original decision of his predecessor,” she wrote in an email. “However, the renamed Catalyst program is still being created at the expense of ensuring the survival of organisations that are the engine room for developing and presenting new Australian work.”

Small-to-medium arts companies, which have been the ones to suffer the most from the uncertainty, are far from mollified.

Prominent cross-media artist and director David Pledger, who gave evidence at the Senate Inquiry, told Crikey that “today’s announcement is really disappointing”.

“Whilst the return of $8 million a year is welcome news for independent artists, the small-medium sector has been left utterly exposed,” he wrote. “As for dumping the NPEA for Catalyst,  it should be seen for what it is — a poorly disguised re-branding exercise.”

Queensland’s Feral Arts, who have been amongst the most active campaigners against the Excellence Program, were similarly unimpressed.

“On balance this looks to be a very disappointing outcome for the arts sector in Australia,” Feral Arts’ Norm Horton and Sarah Moynihan wrote in an email.

“The government’s decision to proceed with cuts to the Australia Council of more than $70m over four years will have extremely damaging effects in the sector.”

Arts industry figures point out that it does nothing to address the widespread panic in the sector over the forthcoming four-year program grants. Applications for this program were originally for six-year organisational funding. But the whole six-year round was abandoned in the chaos in the wake of Brandis’ Excellence announcement. The new program was changed to four-year funding and applications are due on December 1. The Australia Council has made it clear in industry briefings that many organisations will miss out — effectively defunding many smaller companies.

As Feral Arts’ Horton and Moynihan explain, “small-to-medium companies across the country are currently racing to meet the 1 December Australia Council funding deadline for a dramatically reduced four year funding pool”.

“The funding pool for this vital operational funding program has likely been halved from $30m per year down to just $15m as a result of the cuts to the Australia Council. The assessment process is set to be a bloodbath.”

The Catalyst fund does nothing to avert this looming train wreck.

In one of the more poignant ironies, organisations applying to the December round have to come up with a detailed five-year strategic plan — despite funding being only available for four years. Meanwhile, the Australia Council itself is going through a new round of restructuring in response to the policy summersaults of Brandis and now Fifield.

Some in the sector were cautiously welcoming this morning’s announcement. ArtsHub’s Deborah Stone, for instance, painted the decision as a win for the arts sector. “The demise of the NPEA is a partial win and certainly a symbolic acknowledgement of the dissatisfaction in the sector,” Stone wrote.

But if Catalyst is a win, it’s a very partial victory indeed.

In the words of one senior arts figure Crikey spoke to this morning, “this makes the Brandis effort look like a softening-up exercise”.