The budget statement in relation to the arts begins:
Once again, the interests of Australia’s cultural sector have been protected and advanced by the 2015-16 Budget (author’s italics).
This statement seems somewhat ironic in view of the recommendations that follow.
The 2015 Budget will take ministerial intervention in arts decision making to a whole new level. Who is being protected and how will the arts be advanced?
The Budget contains a new fund called a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, which it is going to support with funding of A$104.8 million over four years. The implications of this recommendation need to be explored.
If we recall in the 2014 Budget the government cut A$87.1 million over four years from funding to arts programs across several portfolios.
To create this new Fund the Minister is “…redirecting $110.0m over four years from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the Attorney-General’s Department.”
In addition the Australia Council is being asked to find efficiency savings of $7.3m over the next four years so that their overall income will reduce further. This is a significant cut for the Australia Council especially after the 2012 review recommended a dramatic increase of funding for the Council. So what is underpinning this recommendation?
First, this 2015 funding programme suggests that “excellence” at present is not funded – or alternatively that the government is creating a new definition of it.
The Australia Council has had “excellence” in its funding criteria from the beginning but the notion of what is meant by excellence is always contested.
There has been a view that “excellence” is a code word for large and important rather than excellent in terms of the quality of the work. Major organisations by their nature are seen as excellent whereas medium and smaller organisations are not.
As larger organisations under the Australia Council budget already get the majority of its overall funding, this new fund would seem to be rewarding the richer and bigger organisations once more.
Second, the establishment of a new large arts funding program in Canberra immediately suggests that at best the Minister is second-guessing the Australia Council’s process and policies and at worst planning a new regime in which the Australia Council’s raison d’être is rapidly eroded.
Separating arts funding decisions from the whims of the minster of the day is a principle that has been in place in Australia since the formal establishment of the Australia Council in 1975.
While there have always been challenges to this process, this principle of “arms-length funding” has been seen as important for the protection of the arts and free speech in a broader context.
For whatever reason, politicians often think they are better informed about what should be funded in the arts than arts peers. George Brandis and the Abbott government may be taking this to another level.
The aim of the new fund is:
to support endowments, international touring and strategic projects, with an emphasis on attracting private sector support […] it will allow for a truly national approach to arts funding.
So the government is showing a desire to again increase private-sector support for the arts (they had already given an increase of A$5.3 million to the Creative Partnerships Program in 2014).
The use of the term “strategic” would suggest they wish to fund their own preferences and be more “directional” about what is funded. But the use of the term “national” suggests that in their view the Australia Council is not playing a “national” role.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the comment that “Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council”.
This suggests that there is a whole realm of other arts activity that is presently ignored by the Australia Council which this government is now going to fund. At the same time the government is taking back the Visions of Australia Program and the Festivals Program from the Australia Council to Canberra.
Whatever else might be said about this budget in relation to the arts, this government is saying clearly that it does not trust the Australia Council to do its bidding and is therefore going to pursue its own funding agenda for the arts.