Senator Mitch Fifield says the arts are the “soul of the nation” but doesn’t think slashed Federal subsidies should be criticised.

Responding to a question following a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, Minister for the Arts Senator Mitch Fifield said, “I don’t think an Arts Minister or a government should be judged just on the quantum of money that government puts in.” Considering the enduring repercussions of his predecessor’s funding reforms and the recent cuts to arts funding following the Summer’s MYEFO announcement, his sentiments have riled many in the arts community.

Senator Fifield took over the Arts portfolio following Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the Prime Ministership in 2015. The previous Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, had drawn the ire of the arts community when he cut $100 million from the Australia Council for the Arts to create his own, now defunct, National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) in the May budget that year.

The changes were condemned, having been made with no warning and no consultation with the arts sector. The NPEA drew criticism for its lack of transparency and the dearth of grants for individual artists. It was slammed by a Senate Inquiry, which called for all of the funding to be returned to Australia Council, although these recommendations are yet to be actioned by the current Arts Ministry. Senator Fifield has returned a portion of the reappropriated funding to the Australia Council but has retained a significant percentage. The vestige of the unpopular and decried NPEA remains – rebranded as the Catalyst Fund – and consequently the arts community has been left bruised and mistrustful by six months that will be remembered in infamy as one of the most turbulent in the history of the arts in Australia. Insult was added to injury in December of 2015, when another $52 million was slashed from arts funding by Treasurer Scott Morrison, as part of the Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report.

During Minister Fifield’s speech on Wednesday at the National Press Club, which focussed primarily on media law reform, the Senator described his dual portfolios of Communication and Arts in poetic terms: “As Minister for Communications and the Arts, I see myself as having responsibility for both the sinews and the soul of the nation. The sinews through Communications and the soul through the Arts. The sinews being that which is essential, connective and often unseen. And the soul, well the closest any minister comes to that in a secular, pluralistic democracy is the Arts Minister.”

When asked if an advocate for the Arts should be judged on how much funding that person could secure, Fifield responded: “I do consider myself to be a strong advocate for the arts. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as a luxury. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as an extra. The arts are core to who we are as a nation. They are core to how we express ourselves and how we interpret our past and how we look to the future. So the arts are core business for Government. But it’s not just something for Government. Yes, it’s appropriate that Government provides funding to support the arts across the genres, but it is also important that the Government money is used to leverage philanthropic, corporate and individual dollars into the sector.”

He also addressed a question about Queensland MP Ewen Jones’ recent suggestion that music – specifically referring to rock and pop music after a performance by Jimmy Barnes in a parliamentary courtyard in Canberra – should be moved out of the arts portfolio and into the innovation and small business portfolios. He said, “When it comes to Australian music, I’d love to keep it in my portfolio.”

After lamenting having missed the Barnsie concert he continued: “We’ve got to see the arts, we’ve got to see Australian culture not just as something that is of inherent value, which the arts are, they have value in and of themselves. But that’s not inconsistent with recognising that they are also an important part of the creative industries. So we need to look broadly to see what we can do to help them be competitive. I’m delighted to work with the Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer. And I’ll just make this point: when the Innovation statement was released some people said to me, why isn’t the arts mentioned there? And the answer to that is, well the Innovation Statement was the first word not the last word on innovation and to be a truly innovative society, you’ve got to recognise that the arts are at the heart of helping create a culture that is broad thinking. That supports and fosters creativity. That sort of creativity feeds into a culture of innovation.”

While Senator Fifield insisted that his performance shouldn’t be judged solely on the amount of funding the government provides for the arts, he qualified it with the assertion, “but we do put significant dollars into support for the arts.”