How much extra money does the Australia Council really have?


Written by: Richard Letts

The Minister has returned more Catalyst funds to the Australia Council. But after subtracting funds whose use he has “suggested” and funds precommitted, how much is left for artists and small companies?

In a statement announcing the return of Catalyst funds to the Australia Council, Arts Minister Mitch Fifield says that it ‘provides scope for the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from the National Opera Review’. The Review recommended specific additional funding for Opera Queensland ($761,000) to help it ‘repair its balance sheet’ and the initiation of funding for the Victorian Opera ($1,020,000) over three years. (The Opera Review did not propose any particular amount,  but simply that the Victorian Opera should receive funding as a Major Performing Arts organisation. Someone somehow has come up with that number.)

Mitch Fifield

The Act prohibits the Minister from instructing the Council on funding of any particular organisation, so ‘provides scope’ might be an instruction posing as an observation. The Council could refuse to fund these major organisations from funds taken initially from independent artist and small arts organisations, but that entails various sorts of risk that could end badly.

Then, in addition, there is an extra $960,000 to the Queensland Ballet and $750,000 for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, both for three years. Nothing to do with the Opera Review, both Major Performing Arts companies.

That all adds to $3.5 million. But that’s not all. Add the Australian World Orchestra, funded by Brandis for $600,000 but not an MPA company, fourth year funding for three of the above MPAs and funds forward-committed from Catalyst and therefore already spent. Goodness knows how much extra funding the Australia Council will have left.  All these funds were taken from funds originally provided to the small organisations and individual artists. All but the Catalyst balance are apparently left with MPAs and the AWO.

This sets a dangerous precedent: the diversion of Australia Council ‘uncommitted’ funds to solve the problems of MPAs in financial difficulties.

In nominating the use of the funds in support of opera companies, the Minister is implementing  recommendations of the National Opera Review. It is normal for a review of this sort to see opportunities for development and recommend some additional funding. But this Review explicitly states that any additional funding should be new money and not drawn off funds already provided to other purposes. The Minister is trying to slip this through without considering the overall needs of his portfolio – a talent his Brandis predecessor also exercised.

David Pledger suggests that the MPAs should have ‘refused this offer and been advised by the Australia Council to do so’. High moral ground but back on Earth what Pledger is asking is that at least one of these organisations, the most in need of rescue, should refuse it and essentially commit suicide. This demands a nobility of purpose exceeding that of most of us, even possibly his own. Even a lack of belief in their own legitimacy.

Even curiouser if the Australia Council demanded it of them. ‘The Minister is proposing that you should receive these funds so we will make the offer – but we suggest you should refuse them.’

In present circumstances, if the Minister wants to increase funding to the MPAs, he should persuade the government to provide it along with more funds for the small clients most damaged by government actions over the last few years..


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