Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) : I rise to note my concern in this debate on the appropriations bills at the plans of the coalition government and the Minister for Arts, Senator Brandis, to strip the Australian Council of half of its funding, moving it to a new program, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, NPEA. This is to run within the Ministry of the Arts, with the ultimate authority for funding decisions resting with Senator Brandis. As Barry Humphries, now Director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, said through his alter ego Sir Les Patterson: ‘Sir Les has got a good idea. He said, “Why can’t we say that the Australia Council is a sporting body?” If we pretended that it was there for the promotion of football and cricket, the government would give it even more money.’

Since its inception, the Australia Council has supported Australian arts and arts organisations with two guiding principles: the pursuit of artistic excellence based on peer assessment and that funding decisions be made at arm’s length from the government. All previous governments have long been committed to these principles, and we will continue to be in the next government. Senator Brandis is a cultured man, but neither Sir Les Patterson nor Lorenzo Medici are appropriate models for arts funding in Australia in the current era.

In 2013 the then Labor government legislated to deliver key recommendations of a 2012 review of the Australia Council. Importantly—and I would wish my colleagues across the aisle to hear this—the reforms that Labor enacted took place after extensive dialogue and in conjunction with the arts sector. In contrast, at Senate estimates last week Senator Brandis admitted he had not consulted anyone in the arts community before making the announcement. The Chair of the Australia Council, Rupert Myer, was only told of the impending cuts—that half of his funds would be cut—late in the afternoon of budget day. For a budget that was supposed to be about no surprises, perhaps Mr Myer and Chief Executive Officer of the Australia Council, Tony Grybowski, found this something of a surprise.

Labor has long had a dedication to the arts. One of the greatest achievements of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was on Australia Day 1973, in founding the interim Arts Council, which later became the Australia Council and incorporated and streamlined the roles of many other arts bodies. Within the council, there were seven specialist boards representing literature, music, theatre, crafts, Aboriginal arts, film and television, and visual arts. During the Gillard Government, I had the honour of being Parliamentary Secretary for the Arts. Indeed, I moved the second reading for a major piece of legislation remodelling the Australia Council so that its organisation would not be siloed and so that interaction would occur more easily.

As a result, I fear, of the minister’s consolidation of power, the Australia Council suspended the grants process for the six-year funding program for many arts organisations before any money was awarded. There is a real sting in this cut to the Australia Council. Funding arrangements between the Australia Council and state and federal government bodies mean that funds to the 29 major art companies are quarantined. This means that the cuts to the Australia Council budget will disproportionately affect hundreds of small to medium arts companies. It is these companies that will be most dramatically affected by the stripping away of the $100 million of arts council funds. They are, in particular, the grassroots of the arts community from which grow all of the future creativity of arts activity around Australia.

Amid all of the ambiguities over the council’s functions, Senator Brandis has revealed he will award projects that have already received or been promised private funding. While the bigger companies will find it easy to attract philanthropic investment, the smaller ones will struggle to do so. They will be more likely to go to the wall because of these changes. Ironically, it is the helping hand that the Australia Council provides that enables some of these small companies to be noticed and to obtain private funding. Therefore, whether it is intended or unintended, Senator Brandis is cutting this process off at the knees.

The ministry for the arts will now be scrambling to set up a bureaucratic infrastructure to handle the applications for funding that will be pouring in. Beyond establishing the NPEA, the ongoing maintenance and assessment of applications will add a considerable burden to a public service already cut to the bone. For a government so obsessed with the efficiency of the public service, it is ironic that the Minister for the Arts will be pushing what is effectively a doubling up of work, because the Australia Council already does that work.

The true danger of this move is that there will be ministerial discretion over what arts in Australia is funded. As I said before, this may have been appropriate in centuries past with Lorenzo de Medici or in the imagination of Barry Humphries with Sir Les Patterson—but the whole idea of non-interference in the arts was to have arms-length funding and assessment by one’s peers. Some in the media have questioned Senator Brandis’s role as an arbiter of excellence in the arts. They have a good point, but I think the problem is deeper. To ensure that political interference does not affect the arts in Australia, the Australia Council supports art based on peer assessment, as I said, at arm’s length from government. The council determines a pool of peers who measure an application for funds against eligibility criteria before coming together to discuss proposals. It is confidential, it shuts out political interference and, to date, including during the 11 long years of the Howard government, it has worked. What is to stop Senator Brandis deciding that arts projects to be funded just happen to be in marginal seats or just happen to be connected to people connected with the Liberal Party? It is the old song—’I dance with the man who danced with the Prince of Wales.’ Who will keep the senator accountable?

I observed an interesting anecdote in The Guardian last week. Its columnist wrote:

One of my sources directed me to examine the Twitter feeds of the arts companies to determine reactions to the changes. “The most you’ll get is a ‘wow’, or an expression of shock,” the source said. “Amidst this kind of uncertainty, no company can afford the risk of making criticism public.”

It is a sad fact that the Minister for the Arts, who is also this country’s Attorney-General and a fierce defender of free speech, has caused the arts sector to be so afraid of their own voices that they are not saying anything for fear of losing more funding. That is quite a legacy! I commend the Australia Council for its courage in at least issuing a press release saying to arts organisations across this country that the six-year funding round will be abandoned and that it is totally affected by both this cut and the split and double bureaucracy that has been created.

Add your voice to tell George Brandis to abandon his attack on the Australia Council and restore independence to arts funding. Sign Labor’s petition here.

Labor will move to establish a Senate inquiry into the Abbott government’s new arts slush fund. Read Labor’s Spokesperson for the Arts Mark Dreyfus’s statement here.