FactCheck: will the Arts Minister need to publicly disclose who he funds?

Senator Scott Ludlam said changes to arts funding will mean the minister will not need to publicly reveal funding recipients. True or false? AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

“George Brandis and his little hand-picked selection committees will be able to make funding decisions about touring schedules and arts funding in general. George Brandis won’t even need to disclose in public who he’s funding. It’s unbelievable.” – Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, press release, August 5, 2015.

On budget night in May this year, Arts Minister George Brandis announced a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts. The move was highly controversial within the arts industry. Funding for the new excellence program was moved from the Australia Council for the Arts, which resulted in significant funding cuts for that agency.

In the months since that announcement, the draft guidelines for the excellence program have been released. These changes will create a second stream of federal arts funding in parallel to the Australia Council.

According to Senator Brandis, this will create more “contestability” in arts funding, allowing some companies not currently funded by the Australia Council to apply for federal funding through a different scheme.

Following transfer of funding away from the Australia Council, that organisation cancelled its six-year organisational funding round midway through deliberations. A number of other programs and funding rounds were also postponed or cancelled, including ArtStart, artist-in-residencies and fellowships.

The controversy over the excellence program led the Senate to establish an inquiry into the funding changes, chaired by Queensland independent Glenn Lazarus. The first hearing of the Senate was held on August 5 in Melbourne.

Senator Ludlam attended most of the August 5 hearing, and his statement appears to be based on evidence given there by a number of prominent arts industry figures.

When asked for a response to Senator Ludlam’s comments, a spokesman for Mr Brandis said:

The National Program for Excellence in the Arts will be run in accordance with the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines and in a transparent manner with a wide range of projects able to apply … Recipients of grants from the National Program for Excellence in the Arts will be published on the Attorney-General’s department website within 14 working days after the grant takes effect, as required under Commonwealth grants legislation. Exemptions for public reporting of grants are very rare and require the approval of the Minister for Finance.

The main reason for an exemption is if publication is contrary to the Privacy Act 1988, such as where publication of details would identify a witness at a royal commission or divulge an organisation’s tax information, the spokesman said.

Independent assessors will be selected by the Ministry for the Arts, not the minister, the spokesman said, and they will assist with the process of assessing grant applications to the program.

When asked by The Conversation to substantiate his comments, a spokesperson for Senator Ludlam said:

The only public reporting requirement in the guideline is for successful applications (for which the minister does not have a reporting exemption) … Assessors are appointed by the department, over which the minister has oversight. Short of any evidence to the contrary, the minister would therefore have the capacity to accept or reject assessors of his choosing … There is no suggestion in the published draft guidelines that the appointment process will not be subject to the usual ministerial oversight exercised by departmental decisions. This comment also reflects Senator Ludlam’s personal opinion and characterisation of this policy, that the minister will be able to exert a wide range of control over the funding process, a view that has been expressed by the arts community and commentators.

You can read their full responses here.

Hand-picked?

Arts industry figures attending the August 5 Senate hearing expressed at the hearing about the excellence program’s draft guidelines, which do not allow individual artists to apply for funding, and which feature mechanisms for peer review that critics see as rudimentary.

Senator Ludlam said that the selection committees for the excellence fund could be “hand-picked”. Although it is possible that the minister himself may not personally hand-pick the assessors in practice, and Senator Brandis says he will not, there is nothing in the guidelines that would preclude a minister from imposing his own discretion.

The guidelines state that:

applications will be assessed and ranked by at least three assessors including a combination of Ministry for the Arts and independent assessors.

The draft guidelines state that the ministry will appoint the assessors from a register maintained by the ministry; the ministry can invite its own assessors on to the list. If only three assessors are making decisions, including at least one from the ministry itself, it would appear that decisions will be made by a relatively constrained group.

At the hearing on August 5, a number of arts leaders giving evidence expressed concern at the process.

The guidelines also state that:

the Ministry for the Arts may moderate assessments to ensure each assessment has properly considered the funding program objectives, Government policy objectives, and issues of overall funding balance.

This is not an arms-length process. Phrases like “government policy objectives” and “overall funding balance” give plenty of wriggle room for the minister to impose his own discretion.

Public disclosure of funding recipients?

It is also true that the minister can, in certain circumstances, withhold publication of successful grant awards. The guidelines state that:

successful applicants will be listed in the Department’s grants register, unless the minister has obtained an exemption in accordance with the Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines, paragraph 5.7.

That paragraph states that the minister may obtain an exemption from publication of grant information where it

could adversely affect the achievement of government policy outcomes.

The ministry says that exemptions for public reporting of grants are very rare.

Minister Brandis has awarded at least one arts grant in the portfolio without formal announcement before. In April 2014, record label Melba Recordings was given A$275,000, but no media release or departmental announcement was made. The funding was eventually publicly disclosed – while it was not included in the May 2014 budget papers, it was disclosed in an obscure Attorney-General’s Department spreadsheet in August.

However, Senator Ludlam is not correct to say the arts minister can dictate touring schedules.

A spokesman for Senator Ludlam said:

This comment draws on testimony from Wednesday’s Senate Inquiry to deliver a specific example of the level of control the minister will be able to exercise under this new funding model … The minister has the final decision on whether to accept or reject their department’s advice. As a result, applications from organisations seeking funding to tour projects would be subject to Ministerial approval, as would all other funding applications.

It would appear this statement was mostly speculation. There is no evidence to suggest that this level of micromanagement is at play.

Verdict

Senator Ludlam has stated that the selection committees for the excellence fund can be “hand-picked”. Although the minister himself may not personally hand-pick the assessors in practice, there is nothing in the guidelines that would preclude that from happening. It is true that the minister can withhold publication of successful grant awards under certain circumstances. However, Senator Ludlam is not correct to say the arts minister can dictate touring schedules.


Review

This article is a fair analysis. Where I would disagree with the verdict is the suggestion that Senator Ludlam is overreaching when he says that the minister can “make funding decisions about touring schedules”. Grant applications for touring exhibitions and performances need to indicate a schedule, so funding decisions can have an indirect impact on touring schedules. The decisions of the minister and his immediate advisers could potentially impact on which venues have access to the arts. While there is some assurance from Senator Brandis, his response does not take into account the widespread disquiet caused by these changing policies and the way they were announced. – Joanna Mendelssohn


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