Notes from the 2015 Federal Senate Inquiry on the Arts, Brisbane

Looking at the table with the big muffins... Vivian Ziherl sits in on the Australian Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Budget decisions on the Arts and discovers why it is that artists and 'individuals' can and should make policy their business.

The Senate Inquiry date had been announced just in time to permit an affordable change of flight—a return one-day earlier to Brisbane, a sub-tropical city of roughly 2-million located half-way along the east coast. The Inquiry was the third in an Australia-wide tour of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, hearing testimonies on the impact on the arts of the 2014 and 2015 federal budget.

Having lodged one of an overwhelming 2200 submissions to the Inquiry1, I was keen to understand what was to become of the proposed $104million cut to the Australia Council for the Arts, and the establishment of a controversial new Arts Ministry discretionary fund titled the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA).

The announcement had come as a shock to the Australian Arts sector, who discovered the plan only upon its announcement on federal budget night May 12, 2015. Such an exceptional lack of communication between the Arts Minister Senator George Brandis and key members of the arts community—including the Chair of the Australia Council Rupert Meyer—in turn provided the legitimate basis for the Inquiry which was called by a cross-party alliance of Greens, Labour Party and Independents led most vocally by Senator Scott Ludlam who dubbed the move "an extraordinary rip-off".

Second among the concerns of the Inquiry is protection of artistic expression from political influence, a topic sensitive in Australia since the 2014 Biennale of Sydney boycott campaign. Under the new arrangement the Minister would exercise decision-making over NPEA funds, as opposed to the peer-review process long held by the Australia Council. For a nation that markets itself as an egalitarian and sun-loving tourist destination, the policy points to a starkly illiberal attitude among the federal government and on the part of Senator Brandis in particular who also holds the title of Attorney General2.

The session was held in a conference room of the Mercure Hotel, Brisbane. On one side of the room was a coffee and tea cauldron. On the other was a table with light refreshments and a small sign "Food for Senators Only". I resist an urge to add a second sign: "Warning: Don't Feed the Artists".

From the opening words it was clear that the hearing occupied a parliamentary space. Any efforts to articulate evidence would be filtered along partisan lines and attempts to seek further detail by one Senator would be abruptly countered by another. Periodically it would seem that the voices called to the Inquiry were less interesting to some Senators than their own.

In particular the Senator Ian MacDonald was doggedly obstructive, repeatedly insisting that the Australia Council was a flawed institution based upon a low percentage funding to the Queensland Ballet—a fact that was revealed during the proceedings to be beyond the discretion of the Council.

Order was maintained by the Inquiry Chair—the former celebrity Rugby League player now Independent Senator Glen Lazarus. The opportunity to point out that sponsors and members of the public would never be expected to decide a Rugby starting line-up was not lost upon those asked to defend the principle of "peer assessment".

As a former member of the conservative Palmer United Party, Lazarus might have been expected to be a defender of the Liberal Party's move. However, the Senator's recent newsletter (October 9) indicates that his experience over the hearings has led him to unequivocally favor a full return of funds to the Australia Council:

"Feedback to date from the "Arts Sector" overwhelmingly rejects the Federal Government's changes and cuts. Artists would like funding returned and the adopted funding system restored. The arts sector is vital for cultural development, community engagement and social cohesion.[...] WE NEED ARTS FUNDING RETURNED!"

Over the six hours of the hearing what dawned upon those assembled was the degree to which seemingly obvious matters from the point of view of the arts field required explanation to the Inquiry Committee.

For example, the need for the Northern Australian Regional Performing Arts Centres to explain that the productions of Major companies often physically can't be toured to smaller less-equipped regional venues, let alone the question of audience appropriateness. Or the need for Contemporary Arts Organizations Australia to explain that the budget would irreversibly damage gains made over a decade's work due to a loss of staff given the inadmissibility of administrative costs in the draft NPEA guidelines.

Concerningly, it appeared that the impact to individuals was little heard by the Inquiry in Brisbane. "Concerning" because the NPEA draft guidelines state clearly that the new fund will not be open to individuals, while the Australia Council for the Arts submission indicates a reduction of funds to individuals down to a level close to zero with the complete removal of the streams "ArtStart", "Australian Fellowships, New Work and Presentation" and "Artists in Residence" by 2016.

The representations of individuals appeared to be disadvantaged by the Inquiry on two accounts. First the Inquiry tended to favor corporatized voices, largely of organizations and of peak bodies representing organizations. Secondly, the three artists called forward tended to present their arguments in terms of moral appeals to the value of arts, with less stress placed on the dollar value that they invest into their practice and the returns per dollar of federal funding.

Perhaps individuals tended to be ill equipped to package their claims in terms that are recognizable to government, particularly with comparison to organizations that are rehearsed in presenting figures to boards and other quasi-governmental structures. Is this then to say that individuals—ie. artists—tend to be relatively unskilled in the art of being governed?

The resulting picture is grim by the benchmark of a prosperous social democracy such as Australia, and the question arises: what will the arts sector be without funding to artists?

The notion of an "arts ecology" stands as one of the most significant single outcomes of the Inquiry thus far. Raised as early as May 14 in a public letter by the outgoing Queensland Theater Company Director Wesley Enoch3, the concept of an "arts ecology" was repeatedly invoked throughout the Brisbane hearing. As a new policy concept it poses a profound challenge to government: what does it mean to produce policy that can bear an ecological intelligence? And moreover: how can politicians produce policy without intimate knowledge of the ecologies they would seek to govern?

As the dust had barely settled, on September 14 just three days after the Brisbane hearing, an internal ballot within the federal Liberal Party replaced Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a new Australian Prime Minister, the former Goldman Sachs executive and former leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull.

Within the ensuing shake-up the Arts portfolio was given to Senator Mitch Fifield in combination with the Communications portfolio. In an ABC Radio National interview on September 22, his first in office, Senator Fifield claimed that the NPEA had been established: "actually to support small and medium organizations."

How this is the case remains to be seen. In the meantime the Inquiry's findings have been postponed for the second time with a revised reporting date of November 26. New hearings have been announced for Cairns (October 27)—where local lobbyists demanded a hearing following the cancellation of eight programmes as well as the loss of two staff members to the Indigenous Art Center Alliance —as well as Darwin (October 29) and Sydney (November 4).

More information on these dates and submissions is available on the Australian Parliament webpage here.

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