An investigation into the Federal Budget’s controversial arts funding reforms is due by September.

After weeks of petitions, protests and public outcry, Labor, the Greens and Independents have successfully joined forces to lobby the Senate to begin an inquiry into the changes to arts funding instituted in the Federal Budget. It was announced yesterday that the Senate would refer the matter to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, who will deliver their report by September 15.

Shadow Minister for the Arts Mark Dreyfus has been calling for such an inquiry since Senator George Brandis revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing on May 27 that he sought no public or arts sector consultation before announcing the establishment of the new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). Senator Dreyfus declared an investigation was vital “to force Senator Brandis to have the public consultation he has so arrogantly sought to avoid.”

However during yesterday’s vote Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield argued that the questions answered by Senator Brandis and staff from the Arts Ministry and Attorney General’s office in the May 27 hearing rendered the new inquiry unnecessary, and that an investigation into the NPEA was “absurd” as the it had not yet been fully established.

Senator Scott Ludlam

In response Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who alongside Senator Dreyfus has been campaigning for an inquiry in recent weeks, said, “They weren’t actually able to provide evidence on this extraordinary rip-off that Senator Brandis has perpetrated on arts funding, and I and Senator Collins on behalf of the Labor Party would like to take more evidence than that provided by Senator Brandis.”

The motion was moved by Labor Senator Jacinta Collins and Senator Ludlam, and was passed by 34 votes to 24, bolstered by the support of all four Independent Senators.

The result is a major boost for the growing Free the Arts protest movement, who are sending a delegation of 50 representatives from the small to medium scale arts sector to Canberra tomorrow to meet with Senator Dreyfus and leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Australian Green Party Richard Di Natale ahead of the Federal Budget passing through the Lower House this week.

Since the Federal Budget announcement on May 12, organisations working under the Free the Arts banner have campaigned against the reforms to arts funding, including an ongoing petition and a series of protest rallies in State Capitals across the country on May 22. However a second planned protest is now threatening to split the movement.

The 28 major performing arts companies in Australia, who are represented collectively as Australia Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) have been shielded from any funding cuts under the new budget, but despite calls from the arts community for AMPAG to renounce the arts funding reforms, its member organisations have largely remained silent on the subject. Aside from a statement from Circus Oz, and the Artistic Directors of Black Swan Theatre Company, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Queensland Theatre Company, the remaining 24 major companies in AMPAG have refrained from issuing any on-the-record remarks criticising the reforms that threaten to impact hundreds of small to medium arts bodies and individual artists across Australia. Craig Hassall, the CEO of Opera Australia, the countries most heavily subsidised arts organisation, went as far as praising the budget, saying in an interview with Fairfax Media, “Speaking for Opera Australia, my first though is that I am relieved and delighted that major performing arts companies’ funding hasn’t been cut. I don’t really have a view on where the money comes from, as long as the government is spending money on the arts.”

Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall

AMPAG’s visible lack of support for the Free the Arts movement has prompted anger among many Australian artists, and a rally to protest against the 28 major’s apparent ambivalence to the plight of the rest of the arts community in Australia has now been organised. The protest is scheduled to take place on 24 June at the Sydney Opera House forecourt to tie in with the opening night of Opera Australia’s Turandot, in a back lash against OA CEO Hassall’s support of the new funding strategy. A statement from the protest’s organisers said, “There is a conspiracy of silence around Brandis’s ransacking of the Australia Council and we need to take action now. There is no way that Brandis could get away with the destructive and chaotic changes he is proposing without the silent consent of most of the major arts organisations in this country. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that many of these major orgs have actually been in Brandis’ ear encouraging these changes as they have much to gain.”

However sources within the Free the Arts movement have revealed that not all of its supporters believe this is an appropriate course of action, and they are attempting to have the planned demonstration called off. 

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