I rise to speak on the Creative Australia Bill 2023, which is cognate with the Creative Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023. The purpose of the Creative Australia Bill is to put in place legislation, as set out in the explanatory memorandum, to provide for Creative Australia as a modern entity with expanded functions, responsibilities and new governance structure.
Creative Australia will oversee support for contemporary music and safe and respectful workplaces for artists and arts workers, as set out in Revive: a place for every story, a story for every place, Australia’s national cultural policy. As the EM goes on to explain:
The Bill continues the body corporate previously in existence under the Australia Council Act 2013 (old Act) but under the new name, Creative Australia. The Creative Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023 (Transitional Bill) accompanying this Bill will repeal the old Act, in addition to providing for various transitional matters.The Bill establishes the new Board, and the Board is the governing and accountable authority for Creative Australia.
Very confusingly, I have to say, it says:
The Board will retain the name “Australia Council Board” to maintain its connection to the creation of the Australia Council by the Whitlam Government in 1975.
This gives rise to the question: why not just keep calling the entire body the Australia Council? We now have a situation where Creative Australia has been formed, creating a new entity, but is very confusingly maintaining the name of the old agency by calling the board the Australia Council Board. This is, frankly, less than desirable and extremely confusing, to say the least. We are advised that the new Australia Council board will oversee support for contemporary music and safe and respectful workplaces for artists and arts workers. This bill also outlines responsibilities for Music Australia and creative workplace entities, which would be subject to the internal procedures and rules of Creative Australia. The Creative Australia board may give directions to entities.
Several aspects of these new arrangements are quite troubling. The first is that we are seeing a reweighting of spending towards the proliferation of Commonwealth arts officials at the expense of real frontline arts activities. According to the budget, the average number of staff of the Australia Council will increase by 32 per cent, from an estimated 108 in 2022-23 to 143 in 2023-24. The government has announced $199 million of funding for the new body over these four years. It is, as I said, concerning as to how the government has even structured these arrangements.
But what is particularly concerning is the reallocation of so much funding from frontline artists, from performers—from those who bring the arts to all Australians—to more bureaucrats. That is a very regrettable decision. This funding that I reference, the $199 million, has been redirected from a number of places, with the government having cancelled several programs funded under the previous coalition government, including the temporary support fund and the balance of the Location Incentive Program. Every dollar which goes to fund more bureaucrats is a dollar which cannot go to artists, performers and people in the arts sector who provide real ascetic experiences for Australian. This kind of inexplicable tinkering with arts budgets is an increasingly familiar feature of Minister Burke’s administration of the arts portfolio.
Consider, for instance, the perplexing appearance and disappearing of Minister Burke’s Live Performance Support Fund. This was announced in the 22 October budget as part of a $38.6 million Supporting the Arts program. It was supposedly going to deliver funding for plays, concerts and festivals from November 2022 through to February 2023. But after that announcement absolutely nothing more was heard of it, and the May budget confirmed the demise of the program—extraordinarily, without a dollar being spent.
There is a very clear difference between the Albanese Labor government and the coalition when it comes to how we fund the arts. The coalition’s focus was on stimulating as many new events, shows, festivals and productions as possible and making sure that as many Australians as possible could enjoy what the arts sector put on offer, no matter where it was—in the big cities, in regional cities, in small towns or in remote communities. In fact, very proudly, under our $200 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand Fund, known as the RISE fund, 540 shows and events all around Australia were funded. The coalition even allocated a further $20 million towards this program in the March 2022 budget, but the new minister cancelled it. He didn’t just cancel it; he actually killed it dead. This was $20 million which could have been put to work as early as May or June of last year towards stimulating more arts activities. So, it’s very, very disappointing that this further investment announced by the coalition was cut by the now Albanese government It now appears that the Albanese government is more interested in supporting bureaucrats in the arts industry than the frontline performers and artists who desperately need this support.
Allocating arts funding is not easy. We understand that. Whatever the government does, we appreciate that some people will be disappointed. But certainly those Australians who felt our nation was suffering from a dire shortage of Commonwealth arts officials are few and far between. In my travels, wherever I go—and I’m sure this experience is shared by my coalition colleagues—I don’t have too many people coming up to me and saying, ‘Please, can we have more funding for Commonwealth arts bureaucrats.’ So this decision is very, very disappointing. During the coalition’s time in government, I can confidently say that when Minister Fletcher was the minister for the arts he was never once approached by an Australian saying: ‘Minister, do you know what we need? We need more Commonwealth arts officials.’
Another very concerning aspect of this government’s approach to this new entity is what we are likely to see when it comes to the continuity of members of the Australia Council. Of the current 12 members, quite a few have only recently been appointed and have only served a very short term. We are very concerned that we will see at least some of those members, particularly those perceived as being ideologically tainted by any hint of an association with the coalition, being dumped by this minister. We are very, very concerned that the government will seek to highly politicise this new body and not pay due respect to those members who have been appointed to the Australia Council.
I say this because, on coming to government, the Albanese government and the Prime Minister in particular made a commitment to Australians that the government would not play politics, that the government would continue its promise to Australians to be transparent and to conduct its government with appropriate integrity. But through a series of terrible broken promises and very bad decisions over more than 12 months we have seen the government fail that transparency test over and over again.
Frankly, we believe that Australia is already rich with arts bureaucrats. We do not believe that this country needs any more. We believe that, in terms of the funding that is available, this country needs more support for our artists, our frontline performers. That would help support a new wave of artists in an industry which is tough at the best of times. It’s really tough as an artist. No matter what sort of artist you are, there is a lot of time when you are not on stage, when you are not performing and when you’re not exhibiting. So we think that every single dollar matters. That’s particularly so during Labor’s cost-of-living crisis. While we see the government prioritising a name change and a larger board, we see so many Australians struggling with skyrocketing costs of living, skyrocketing bills, dramatic increases in mortgage repayments, dramatic increases in rents and dramatic increases in their HECS debt.
The coalition, despite all the rhetoric from the current minister, has a very, very strong record of support for the arts. In the 2021-22 financial year, when it was so tough during COVID and the arts industry was hit so hard, our Liberal-National government delivered record arts funding of over $1 billion. No Labor government has ever matched this level of funding for the arts. While the coalition government’s focus was on stimulating more arts activity, the present government has a very different focus. More arts officials is their solution to all the so-called needs. So the two bills before the Senate are reflective of the very different philosophy and very different focus of the current government compared to the previous government. While we are supporting these bills, we remain profoundly disappointed in the government’s focus and lack of focus on the arts funding that is desperately required in this country.