The Senate’s report on Attorney-General George Brandis’ Excellence fund fiasco was released late yesterday. It’s a corker.
Officially titled Report of the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts, the report is a strongly worded excoriation of the mess the Coalition has made in arts policy this year.
If Brandis bothers to read it, he will find it deeply humiliating. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield might want to peruse it, too. The inquiry completely repudiates Brandis and Fifield’s signature policies. It is scathing about the policy fiasco of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. It also recommends that Fifield’s “Catalyst” program, a quick fix that is essentially Excellence-lite, be abandoned.
The background to the Senate inquiry is, of course, the overweening hubris of Brandis as arts minister under the Abbott government. Crikey readers will know that this all began on budget night, when Brandis abruptly moved $104.7 million out of the Australia Council to set up his own ministerial fund, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. The funding cut threw the entire sector, and it has yet to recover.
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The Senate report doesn’t mince words when it discusses the way the Excellence fund was set up.
“It was noted that the Budget changes were made without any warning, consultation or transition arrangements: one witness observed that ‘[f]rom a public administration perspective, it has been exceptionally poorly managed’.”
“The establishment of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) was the single subject of most commentary in the inquiry, and the overwhelming majority of that commentary was highly critical of the proposed program.”
In excruciating detail, the report uncovers the poor design and disastrous consequences of the Excellence policy: the lack of peer review, the skew in favour of larger organisations, the exclusion of individual applicants, and the clear duplication with existing Australia Council programs.
Brandis’ mysterious Book Council of Australia also came in for heavy criticism, with the report noting that it was “difficult for the committee to obtain evidence on stakeholders’ views about the newly-announced Book Council of Australia, chiefly because of the lack of information available about the Book Council for many months after it was announced”.
The report was clear about who would suffer: artists and small companies:
“The combination of cuts to the Australia Council, and perceived limits and biases within the draft guidelines for the NPEA, led to the overwhelming emphasis of evidence on the disproportionate disadvantage posed to small and medium sized organisations, and individual artists.
“The committee heard many accounts from small and medium organisations who were already cutting staff, abandoning or downsizing projects in the pipeline, and reducing the ambition of their future plans, following the 2014 and 2015 Budget decisions.”
Nor did Fifield’s Catalyst replacement find any favour, with the report arguing it was too little, too late, and still included many of the flaws of the Excellence fund.
The report ends with a series of recommendations, beginning with a call for a coherent, evidence-based national cultural policy that recognises the importance of the Australia Council, of peer review and of the value of the inter-connected arts ecology, developed in consultation with the sector.
Other recommendations include:
- the Commonwealth government restore to the Australia Council the full amount of funds diverted from it in the 2014 MYEFO and 2015 budget;
- if the government can’t find new money to fund Catalyst, it should be abandoned, “and the funds presently allocated to it be returned to the Australia Council”;
- should the Catalyst fund proceed, the government should make sure that it doesn’t duplicate the role of the Australia Council, prioritises smaller companies, and fixes the first-in, first-served basis of the current guidelines;
- should Catalyst proceed, it should use the Australia Council’s peer-reviewers;
- the government provide emergency transition funds in 2016 to assist small-to-medium organisations and individual artists who have been immediately impacted by these changes;
- the government should bring back ArtStart, its axed program to support emerging artists;
- reverse the funding cuts to Screen Australia imposed in the 2014 budget; and
- reinstate the Australian Interactive Games Fund.
All in all, it’s a devastating indictment of cultural policy under the Coalition.
Arts lobby groups welcomed the report yesterday and this morning. As well they might: it clearly echoes the vast bulk of their testimony given at the inquiry and expounded throughout 2015. Even if none of its recommendations are implemented, the inquiry will be a key milestone in the history of Australian cultural policy. It gathered a massive 2600 submissions from around the country, demonstrating just how complex and valuable the sector is. It also created a surprising sense of unity among disparate artists and arts companies, perhaps for the first time in a generation.
Labor’s Mark Dreyfus issued a media release yesterday calling on the government to abandon Catalyst and restore the Australia Council’s funding:
“Today’s report makes it absolutely clear that the creation of Senator Brandis’s ministerial slush fund, paid for with money ripped out of the independent Australia Council for the Arts, was disastrous policy. As I have for many months, I call on the government to reverse their ill-considered Arts policies and to restore funding to the Australia Council.”
The Greens’ Adam Bandt agreed, writing in an email:
“Catalyst is just a slightly less bad NPEA. New Arts Minister Mitch Fifield must listen to the Senate Committee and the entire arts community by disbanding ‘Catalyst’ immediately and restoring the remaining money back to the Australia Council.”
Fifield himself has been silent on the report. There is no sign so far that he will reverse his own policy, which is just days old.