The Arts Minister is unable to match Greens and Labor’s commitment to improve support for Australian artists.

In recent days, both Labor and the Greens have offered outstanding commitments to support the arts community if elected in July, answering the huge outcry from an Australian arts community that has suffered devastating cuts and financial mismanagement under the Abbott-Turnbull administration. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the current Government’s Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, was subject to a trouncing at this afternoon’s ArtsPeak National Arts debate. However, it wasn’t his opposing candidates, Shadow Arts Minister Mark Dreyfus and Greens Arts Spokesperson Adam Bandt, nor the packed-house audience who left Fifield with political egg on his face, but rather the Arts Minister himself.  

Proceedings were relatively convivial, with very little mud slinging required, thanks to the coalition’s lack of strategy for the future of Australian arts. Fifield’s attempts to defend the Government’s bleak track record with the creative sectors held little sway with the artists and arts-minded who attend the sold out event today in Melbourne. On a number of occasions during the debate, the Arts Minister promised to “consult with the sector” – a lack thereof being one of the most widely criticised aspects of his predecessor, Attorney General George Brandis’s tenure in charge of the arts portfolio. However, despite offering words of contrition, assuring attendees that the Liberal party believed in “the inherent virtue of the creative process and creativity,” he was unable to offer any actual policy promises or commitments to increase investment in the arts, in stark contrast to his opposition.

In lieu of any concrete policies, Senator Fifield suggested a more hands-off approach to cultural leadership. The Australian economy, for example, would eventually set the mistakes of the Arts Ministry right without the need for direct intervention, with Fifield suggesting that strong economic growth would result in higher disposable incomes, which would eventually trickle down to arts organisations as increased tickets sales and philanthropy. Another extraordinary spin was offered by Senator Fifield, suggesting that the level of activism, lobbying and campaigning against damaging cuts across the country had allowed the arts industry to “speak with a more common voice than in the past. The sector built bridges amongst itself.” The Arts Minister also suggested that it wasn’t his responsibility to deliver legislation that might influence the arts, saying “I’m a little wary of the government dictating from on high where the arts should go,” and “The best ideas come from the sector itself, rather than from government.”

Of the various blows to the arts sector during the Abbott-Turnbull administration, the formation of the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, which became the Catalyst Fund after the Liberal leadership spill, and the consequent damage it caused to the Australia Council’s budgets, is unquestionably the most unanimously decried. Despite the widespread opposition to Catalyst, Senator Fifield remained steadfast in his commitment to the initiative, although the admission that “none of us should be immune from learning how things work in practice,” may hint at a change of tack from the Arts Ministry in the future although no specifics were offered.

Both Labor and the Greens have pledged to dissolve the Catalyst Fund if elected and restore the redirected funds back to the Australia Council, but in addition to this, both parties have made significant promises of increased funding across the sector. The Green Party, who announced a generous policy platform for the arts two weeks ago, added yet more proposed perks for artists today. 

Greens spokesperson Adam Bandt said that artists should be eligible for Centrelink payments to support them while they are in casual or unpaid work, allowing them to develop artistic practices that benefit the community. “Creative work with a public benefit should count towards Centrelink’s “mutual obligation” requirements,” a statement issued by the Green Party today said. Among the benefits promised by the Greens will be a new low-income artist superannuation supplement, the establishment of an arts sector-led taskforce to ensure opportunities for local artists are protected, and a fund to support the commissioning and maintenance of public artworks, art loaned to a non-selling exhibition or art publicly shared by other means.