Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:42): I am pleased to be able to provide a reality check to this debate, which has so far been highlighted by deliberate misinformation and deliberate distortion of the facts of the matter. So I am delighted to be able to enter the debate, in the same way that I am pleased that Senator Brandis was able to initiate a reality check of arts funding in Australia—after all, the hundred million dollars plus that goes to arts funding is taxpayers' money. Taxpayers elect governments to look after their money. They do not elect governments to hand the money over to non-elected, non-accountable groups like the Australia Council.
I hasten to add that I have the highest regard for Mr Rupert Myer, the chair of the Australia Council. I think, generally speaking, the Australia Council do a good job, and I am a fan of Mr Tony Grybowski, the CEO of the Australia Council. But what is so wrong about a government elected by the people, accountable to the voters, having just a little tiny bit of a say in which Australian artist or art groups and which region of Australia should actually get some benefit from the taxpayers largesse in the arts funding arena?
The totally political basis of this inquiry, set up by the Greens, the Labor Party and Independent senator, Senator Lazarus, was very obvious from the speeches today. It appears that, when state Labor governments in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland distribute their funds in a certain way, that is okay—and there is not one word of complaint from the Greens and Labor—but, when the Commonwealth government does it exactly the same way, all hell breaks loose and the world is coming to an end! That just shows the hypocrisy and the downright political nature of this inquiry.
At today's hearing public servants said in answer to a question, 'We looked at what all the states did. This is how the states do it, and that is how we thought we would arrange this new direction of the Commonwealth program.'
I emphasise that more than 80 per cent of the funding for the arts is still going through the Australia Council. The representatives of the people, of the taxpayers, who are accountable to the taxpayers only deal with a small amount of funding. And I might say that some of that funding has already been with the government over many years under the Labor government, under the current government and under previous governments. So it was okay when the Labor government was doing it that way, but suddenly, because a coalition government wants to do it, it is the worst thing in the world. It shows the hypocrisy of the arguments raised.
I congratulate Senator Brandis for bringing this program forward and for issuing draft guidelines so that he could consult with people. People could have a look at them. If they did not like them or if they had suggestions they could get back to him, and that is exactly what has happened. I congratulate Senator Fifield on taking notice of the consultation. I know Senator Fifield involves himself in consultations with the arts community and he has listened to them and come to a conclusion—a conclusion which was actually suggested by the group of Australian artists who would have benefitted most from the NPEA that Senator Brandis proposed. They said, 'Let's have it. Let's introduce it incrementally, though. Not $20 million this year. A smaller bit this year and perhaps we can look at other things into the future.' That is what Senator Fifield has done.
You have heard others say that, 'Every witness came along and they all were as one in supporting the opposition to this.' Of course, again I should tell you that the witnesses are selected by the committee. The committee consists of Labor, Greens and a Green independent chairman. Usually, the meetings in the early stage were held on the days when neither of the two only government senators were available. So the people who were selected to come forward were those that the Greens and the Labor Party knew had a certain view on the issue. As it happened, a couple of others did come forward but—lo and behold!—their submissions had not been published. It was only when they contacted a committee member that the submissions were actually made public and belatedly the committee agreed to hear just one of them. But to assume that the total arts community were against this is just as fatuous and false as the rest of the arguments.
During the many hearings we had into this I also raised the issue of the principle—the philosophy—behind funding the arts. We in Australia have a wonderful arts community. We have some very talented people across the range and across the spectrum. We also have talented scientists. We have talented sportsmen. We have talented people in many fields. But you have to ask the question: why is it in the arts community that these talented people say, 'Taxpayers, I have a passion for this art. I am desperately interested in this. I am good, but I want you to pay me for my passion. I want you to pay me for doing what I love doing.'?
During one of the hearings I raised the position of the chairman of this committee, Senator Lazarus. He was not a bad footballer, but I am sure he did not go out in his early days and say, 'Hey, government, I have a passion for football. Can you look after me for five or six years until I make the big time and start earning the big bucks as a national rugby league player?' You have to keep it in perspective.
There are many that say—not necessarily me—that the arts community is a little closed group. The same assessors look after the same people; they are all in the Sydney-Melbourne sort of group. Those of us who do not live in Sydney or Melbourne sometimes have a slightly different view on who should be getting arts funding and who should not be. I do not make this as a criticism of the board or the CEO of the Australia Council, but it is interesting that the same people pop up all the time.
We heard today that if you happen to get the job as an independent assessor for the Australia Council you get 400 bucks a day for the job plus travelling allowance—the same as parliamentarians get—and I am sure they work for it. But there is this little group of assessors—there is this little group in Sydney and Melbourne—who know each other, and some of us who live outside of those circles sometimes think that perhaps a government, and perhaps a minister who is accountable to all Australians and to all taxpayers, should have a little bit of a say in where the taxpayers' money goes.
As I said, it works in the Labor states of Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. It seems to work well there but suddenly it does not work in the Commonwealth. To hear Senator Singh, who I understand was once a minister in the last long-forgotten—thank goodness—Labor government in Tasmania, would have been part of the government that actually handed out the arts money in Tasmania all those years ago when she was a minister. But that was okay then because she comes from the Labor party and she is supported by the Greens—so that is okay. But if you have independently minded people, very competent ministers like Senator Brandis and Senator Fifield do it, suddenly it becomes a real problem, even although time after time the Greens and the Labor Party were told by public servants that most of the work done in these programs that the Commonwealth do are run by public servants with independent assessors. That is exactly the same, in many instances, as the Australian Council does and certainly exactly the same as happens with the state Labor governments that currently have the same sort of system.
This whole inquiry was a political farce organised by the Labor Party, the Greens and the Green independent in this chamber to try to build up a groundswell of support against the coalition government. It will not work. Australian taxpayers want their money spent well and I am sure all sensible people in the arts community understand why these changes have been made.