The singer-songwriter’s questions on the Government’s arts funding track record were dodged by the PM.

The Australian arts community has mobilised in the run-up to the Federal Election in two weeks, with nation-wide campaigns underway to bring a radical overhaul to current arts funding policies. Cuts and unpopular restructuring have battered the creative industries during the Abbott-Turnbull administrations while in contrast, the Labor Party and the Greens have made significant pledges to invest in the arts should either be elected.

Many high-profile artists have lent their voices to the cause, but few have had the opportunity to directly challenge the Prime Minister in person. Singer-songwriter and incoming director of the Queensland Music Festival Katie Noonan had the chance on the ABC’s political panel discussion Q&A yesterday evening, and she didn’t shy away from grilling the PM on his position on arts funding. “I truly believe the arts have the power to heal and unify our nation like nothing else can,” Noonan said in her opening statement to the Prime Minister, before asking him, “Do you believe that?”

Noonan also challenged Turnbull on his understanding of the economics of the arts, asking, “The arts are the heart of the creative industries and in Australia the music industry alone employs 65 thousand people. In the last three years, the coalition has cut an estimated $3 million from artists and arts organisations. With your government stating that creative is key to innovation and that jobs and growth are critical to the future of this country, will you as our leader commit to funding a strong, completely independent Australian Council for the Arts?”

Turnbull, who looked visibly uncomfortable, began his reply by unusually mocking his predecessor Tony Abbott’s Arts Minister, despite the fact that Noonan had not mentioned him in any way. “Well, George Brandis, who I thought you’d all be fans of, because he was a senator from Queensland,” he said, to which Noonan vigorously shook her head. The Prime Minister continued, “George Brandis is no longer the minister for the arts, so that’s something to remember.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on last night’s Q&A

The remainder of the Prime Minister’s response involved several inaccurate assertions about the state of arts funding and the attitudes of Australian artists to the Arts Ministry administered Catalyst Fund. Firstly the Prime Minister mistakenly referenced the former Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, as the architect of the Catalyst Fund. In reality, Senator Brandis founded the unpopular and now defunct Programme for Excellence in the Arts, which became the focus of protests, petitions, and a Senate ordered enquiry which eventually recommended the NPEA be dissolved and its reappropriated funds be returned to the Australia Council. Brandis was removed from the arts portfolio and replaced by Senator Mitch Fifield after the Liberal Party leadership spill which saw Turnbull oust Tony Abbott as the country’s leader, and the Catalyst Fund was launched to replace the NPEA.

“The [Arts] Minister (Senator Mitch Fifield) has not intervened or changed any of the recommendations from the panel that advises his department,” Prime Minister Turnbull claimed, adding that the Catalyst Fund mostly supported regional companies who had been “missing out” on funding from the Australia Council. In particular, he cited Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre Company who were awarded $800,000 in May to support four years of international touring, the second largest award ever given by the Catalyst Fund. In reality, just over a third of the Catalyst Fund’s awards so far, 37%, have gone to regional projects. Far from being ignored by the Australia Council, Back to Back Theatre were recognised with an Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre in 2015.

When asked by Q&A host Tony Jones if he would consider shifting the funding back to the Australia Council, the Prime Minister said, “the issue hasn’t arisen,” before shirking responsibility for the current funding crisis, saying, “It’s something that I inherited from my predecessor’s administration, and Mitch inherited it from George.” The Prime Minister was consummate in dodging Noonan’s questions, failing to supply an answer to either. However, many in the arts community felt that his apparent ignorance of the level of national activism currently attempting to tackle an issue he claims “hasn’t arisen,” reflects the low priority the Liberal Party has given to the creative industries in Australia.

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