On Tuesday I got the chance to brush shoulders and watch Senator Mitch Fifield, the federal Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts, at the 2016 Election Arts Debate in Melbourne.
After witnessing the event, I can’t help but admire the guy.
Here is a man who represents a sector in the federal ministry that employs more people than mining subsidised only with the smell of an oily rag, a man who I must assume wants to have announcements that make him look good, a man who wants to be able to trumpet the value of a sector to give him more power in his cabinet, a man who took over from a disastrously disconnected Ministry and has been in the job long enough now to have consulted and have some ideas.
This is a man who is aware that The Arts has become an election issue that has influence on a percentage of swinging voters and who is aware that the other major parties have announced policies with a vision for the arts (Greens here, Labor here and hell, even the Pirate Party here).
This is a man who must be aware that the amount of small (in the national scheme of things) but incredibly significant funding taken from the Australia Council for the Arts also looks very similar to the new amount shovelled into the (as far as I can see, widely derided) School Chaplaincy program. Not to mention the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts… I mean the National Programme To Fund Less Excellence In The Arts Than Originally Planned, otherwise known as “Catalyst”.
This is a man who must have been aware coming into the debate that it was a lion’s den and who must have been quite aware of the major concerns and how easy it would have been to nullify many at the event with a mea culpa (coded or not) and a few ideas based on the consultation he has surely had enough time for since taking up the Ministry post.
And get this, knowing all of this he still turned up. More impressively, he turned up without a policy or without any indication that he was going to announce anything before the election or anything much after it. Still, he turned up to the Arts Debate in a way Malcolm Turnbull didn’t to the leaders debate in Brisbane in the same week.
And what did we get?
He turned up to announce he is wary of governments dictating the vision to the sector from up high and that the Australia Council should be the main source for arts length funding while having presided over initiatives that do the complete opposite.
He turned up to state the arts sector should take a leaf out of the disability sector and come to him with ideas to drive the vision. This, after more than a year-long mobilised onslaught from the sector providing quite a number of ideas, not all of which involved him doing things that are physically impossible.
Mitch Fifield, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts still turned up and copped it from anyone and everyone armed only with a smile and, umm, that’s about it. That takes guts, or maybe something else that my spell checker won’t let me get away with in polite company.
The only thing that he could have done to get more of my admiration would have been to present some kind of policy or idea that would give me any reason to believe his party has a vision for the sector, whether I agree with it or not. Alas, he did none of this, and exited the arts policy debate the same way he entered: stage left, pursued by a bear that he could so easily and relatively cheaply have appeased.