It was a chilly day outside in Melbourne for the election arts debate, but it was an even cooler reception inside for the current Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield.

It was a packed house of people from a variety of areas of the arts at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne’s CBD on Wednesday to hear Fifield debate his Labor counterpart in the arts portfolio, Mark Dreyfus, and Greens arts spokesperson Adam Bandt. So packed that the centre was live streaming the event online and broadcasting it to the poor souls who braved the actual cold out in Federation Square.

Fifield inherited the arts portfolio as part of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first cabinet shuffle. He also inherited the mess made by his predecessor, Attorney-General George Brandis.

As Crikey has previously reported, Brandis gutted funding across the sector, cutting close to $300 million since 2013. A total of $123.3 million was taken from the Australia Council, with Brandis establishing a $105 million “National Program for Excellence in the Arts”, a scheme for the minister himself to decide what does and doesn’t get funding. Labor refers to this as a ministerial slush fund.

When Fifield took over last year, $32 million was returned to the Australia Council, and the ministerial fund was renamed the Catalyst program, but it remained a fund where the minister had final say over what did and did not get funding. Before Brandis wielded the axe the Australia Council had been planning six-year funding for organisations, but this had to be moved to a four-year funding model in light of the cuts.

Just before the election was called and caretaker conventions kicked in, Fifield announced a flurry of funding for arts programs that appeared to overspend the funding for Catalyst.

It had been widely expected Fifield would announce new policy or funding at the event, with the minister himself adding fuel to the fire by telling the ABC earlier in the week to “watch this space” on arts funding. But no announcement was forthcoming at the debate at the Wheeler Centre. Fifield spoke more about being open to having his policy shaped by the industry.

Fifield said if the Coalition government were returned, he wanted to work with the sector to “bring the arts and creative industries to the centre of our innovation agenda”. But there was very little in terms of what tangible policy the government had for the sector. “I am a minister who is open to being shaped by the people in this room, and the people beyond this room,” he said.

When the second question was put to Fifield about direct support for independent artists, Fifield’s response hailing back to the Coalition’s core economic agenda elicited disagreeing murmurs in the crowd:

“I think one of the really important things government can do is make sure that we have an economy that is strong and growing, because an economy that is strong and growing means that there will be individuals and corporates and philanthropists who are in a better position to purchase artworks, to support individual artists. The stronger the economy is, the better it is not just for the arts but also individual artists.”

Dreyfus said that Fifield’s response was incoherent:

“We’ve been getting a lot of trickle-down economics from Mr Turnbull, but that was trickle-down to the arts. It’s symptomatic of a government that doesn’t have a policy. They went to the last election without an arts policy [and] they are still there … I find that extraordinary.”

Dreyfus said he didn’t understand why Catalyst excluded funding for individual artists. Fifield was undeterred, and later backed his stance that a strong economy would lead to a strong arts sector:

“I know Mark thinks it is a quaint idea, but I don’t accept that a good economic policy and a good arts policy are alternatives or that they’re in competition. In order to sustain a good arts policy, you need a good economic policy … You can scoff at it, but it’s a fact.”

Dreyfus shot back:

“The answer of the current Arts Minister to specific questions about what is the arts policy of this government is to start talking in vague generalities about economic growth. It’s not adequate … we’ve had fine words from the Arts Minister, but those fine words … have not been matched by actions from this government over the last two years and nine months.”

He rejected the notion that somehow any political party would advocate against jobs and growth:

“I invite all of you to contemplate: when was the last time you heard a political party that advocated unemployment and recession? It’s not going to happen.”

Fifield defended his changes to Catalyst, stating he aimed to rebalance the program, and had not going against recommendations made about which grants to dish out:

“I don’t claim we’ve achieved affection in arts administration. I am open to adjusting, refining the program and arrangements …”

The room was much more welcoming of Dreyfus and Bandt. Labor’s newly announced policy of axing Catalyst and returning unspent funds to the Australia Council, along with providing an extra $80 million in funding over the forward estimates and $60 million to the ABC to fund local TV drama went down well with the crowd, as did Bandt’s announcement of $270 million in new funding, including $219 for the Arts Council, $1 million for a national advocacy body, and $5 million to replace the Book Council, as well as a policy Bandt admitted was pinched from the Arts Party, to hold a National Arts Week.

The final question went to Kate Atkinson, currently appearing on our screens playing Governor Vera Bennett in Foxtel’s hit drama Wentworth. She asked about funding for the screen and games industry. The latter had its $20 million fund axed for an unknown reason by the Abbott government in its first budget, despite evidence that the program was paying for itself.

Bandt backed re-introducing the fund and introducing tax offsets.

“I think it’s important to realise a lot of the skills people have … are interchangeable. And [games] are increasingly how people are making a living, both individuals and businesses.”

Fifield wouldn’t say whether he backed reintroducing the fund, stating he wanted to “look at” innovation in the sector.

Dreyfus said the $60 million for the ABC to fund local drama would be the start of improving locally made drama in Australia, but he flagged more policy would be announced in the area of film before the election. He also backed the somewhat controversial government decision to put funding into filming the next Thor and Alien films in Australia, but said it shouldn’t come at the cost of the local industry. Dreyfus said:

“What we do oppose is funding bringing blockbusters to Australia by making cuts elsewhere, including cruelly of giving the proceeds of the sale of the Screen Australia studio in Lane Cove in funding one of those blockbusters to come to Australia.”

At the end, Fifield was asked about whether there would be anything substantial to be announced before July 2. He said the sector had come together as a result of the cuts imposed by his own government before he was the minister, but he reverted back to being open to hearing from the sector:

“There have been some positive things in terms of how the sector has come together out of that. The sector has spoken with a more common voice than it has in the past. It has built bridges amongst itself in ways that previously hadn’t been the case. I think that’s unequivocally a good thing.”