Mitch Fifield
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield

There was more bad news for the arts buried in yesterday’s mid-year economic statement. Tucked away in the budget items for the Communications and Arts portfolio came the announcement that the government would once again be cutting funding to the Australia Council, the nation’s key cultural funding agency.

The announcement came in the form of a “continuation” in funding for Creative Partnerships Australia, a government agency charged with fostering sponsorship and philanthropy for culture. Arts Minister Mitch Fifield lauded Creative Partnerships’ achievements, writing in a media release that “the goal of Creative Partnerships Australia is to grow a more vibrant and robust cultural sector with strong connections to supporters and investors, for the benefit of all Australians.”

Most in the sector support Creative Partnerships, which has had some good outcomes supporting donations to smaller arts organisations and even matched support for crowd-funding.

But the catch is that some of the money to fund Creative Partnerships will now be taken from the Australia Council’s budget.

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$5.4 million over three years will be “re-prioritised” from the Australia Council and given to Creative Partnerships. It’s a familiar shell game in which funding for one aspect of the Arts portfolio is taken from another, even while overall funding levels decline.

The Coalition has raided the Australia Council’s coffers at regular intervals since taking office. There were budget cuts in 2014, followed by George Brandis’ devastating “excellence raid” in 2015, in which $105 million was taken from the Australia Council to pay for the outgoing Attorney-General’s ill-fated National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

The excellence raid plunged Australian arts funding into crisis, forcing the Australia Council to cancel several major funding rounds. It led to national protests and a highly critical Senate inquiry. After Brandis was replaced in the Turnbull reshuffle of September 2015, Fifield eventually got rid of the Excellence Program and returned some (but not all) of the money.

In 2015, the government also grabbed $6 million to set up a Books Council that it then abolished; the publishing industry body never met, but the money was not returned to the Australia Council. And in February this year, the government applied an extra efficiency dividend, forcing the Australia Council to dip into its own reserves.

The constant churn has been highly destabilising, as the Excellence farce exemplified. Funding levels have also declined in absolute terms. Yesterday’s cut leaves the Australia Council’s 2017-18 appropriation at $207.6 million. That’s 5% below the $218.8 million bequeathed by Labor back in 2013. Funding has declined by approximately 12% in real terms, and discretionary funding by even more.   

Arts Minister Fifield was silent about the funding cut yesterday, except to state that “in recognition of the value that Creative Partnerships Australia delivers to the arts sector the government will secure ongoing funding for the organisation by reprioritising” funding.

Representatives from the sector were less sanguine.

The National Association for the Visual Arts’ Esther Anatolitis told Crikey that she was “confused” by the decision.

“The Australia Council is not a slush fund, as the consequences of the Brandis raid demonstrated, but a strategic agency,” Anatolitis wrote in a message. “The arts industry and the Australian government set high expectations of the Australia Council and its independent board – expectations that are undermined by successive budget cuts made by stealth.”

Labor and the Greens both slammed the new funding cut.

Labor’s Tony Burke wrote in a statement that “the Turnbull government has resumed its attacks on arts funding for the Australia Council.” Pointing out that the Turnbull government had restored funding subtracted through the Excellence raid last year, only to cut it again, Burke observed that “whenever it’s election time they claim the money is locked in, and the moment an election is behind them, the cuts return.” 

The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young told Crikey that “This recent shuffling of money in the Australia Council’s budget directly undermines the Council’s independence and ability to make its own decisions.”

“The government first wanted final say on where money for the arts was spent under George Brandis’s own personal fund, and now it wants to dictate where the funding it restored six months ago goes,” Senator Hanson-Young added. “When will this government start backing Australia’s artists and give up on their petty penny pinching?”

Weary artists won’t be holding their breath. Funding chaos and line-item penny-pinching have been the dominant themes of arts policy since 2013.