TRANSCRIPT - ABC Radio National Books and Arts > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

CONTACT SENATOR FIFIELD

Click here to email me

Electorate Office
42 Florence Street
MENTONE VIC 3194

Phone: 03 9584 2455
Phone Toll Free
(Vic only): 1300 797 110

Parliament House Office
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Phone: 02 6277 7480




Media Releases

Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

TRANSCRIPT - ABC Radio National Books and Arts

With Michael Cathcart

1 October 2015 10:00 am

E & EO

Subjects: Minister for the Arts, Arts funding, National Program for Excellence in the Arts, ABC, Parallel Book Import Restrictions, Opera Review

CATHCART:

First up the arts are entering the post-Brandis era. Let's meet the man who could shape that future and we’ll find out what this music means to him.

**Earth Wind and Fire's "September" plays**

Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield is the new Minister for the Arts. Under Tony Abbott, Senator Fifield was Assistant Minister for Social Services and he had the important role of Manager of Government Business in the Senate and now he steps up as the Minister for Arts and Communications. So what are the passions, enthusiasms and ambitions that our new Minister brings to the job. And can he undo the anxieties and distress of so many people in the arts following the recent changes to arts funding? Senator, welcome to books and arts.

FIFIELD:

Good to be with you Michael.

CATHCART:

Thank you for coming in. Why that music?

FIFIELD:

Well I love Earth, Wind and Fire. I love the song September because it is the single greatest and best mood alterer known to man. Doesn’t matter what mood I’m in. If I put Earth, Wind and Fire's "September" on, the mood only lifts.

CATHCART:

If you’ve had a crappy time in Question Time you just put that on?

2

FIFIELD:

Works a treat every time. And to start the day. I can’t tell you how I had to restrain myself from singing along as you were playing it at the start.

CATHCART:

So I gather you’re a fan of music of the 80s in particular?

FIFIELD:

Guilty. Guilty as charged.

CATHCART:

Ok here’s one, see if you can, we’re going to give you a little test since that’s your chosen field – who’s this?

*** Music plays***

You can buzz in as soon as you know the answer.

FIFIELD:

It's Nick Cave?

CATHCART:

No, it’s not right.

FIFIELD:

No?

CATHCART:

It is Nick Cave.

FIFIELD:

See, I’m not bad, am I?

CATHCART:

You are good. I played the wrong one. It’s Nick Cave with ‘Red Right Hand’.

FIFIELD:

Very, very good.

CATHCART:

Let’s try the other one, the one I was going to play before that.

*** Music plays***

3

FIFIELD:

Hoodoo Gurus?

CATHCART:

No, not bad sir but stand by.

*** Music plays***

FIFIELD:

The Clash, the Clash.

CATHCART:

It’s the Clash yes, yes you get the car you get the stove you get the trip to...

FIFIELD:

Hoodoo Gurus probably a little inspired by them in some parts. But any way, a great song ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. I think I’ll stay.

CATHCART:

I think if this doesn’t work out – the Arts Minister gig – you could become a disc jockey, you’ve got the voice for it.

FIFIELD:

I’d love to, I could say ‘Switch to Mitch’.

CATHCART:

That could really work. Let’s look at your other interests in the arts. I mean one reader, in fact the novelist Charlotte Woods, has asked me to ask you about your interests in fiction or reading, what kind of books do you read?

FIFIELD:

Mainly non-fiction. I’m typical of my generation and of my career, there are lots of political biographies. The fiction that I like are things like Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals. The Michael Dobb's trilogy - Final Cut, To Play The King, House of Cards. Love works like that of Don Watson, from a few years gone by about the death of public language. He really was ahead of his time in nailing how public language, particularly that of politicians, was decaying through the use of banal phrases, things like ‘a suite of policies’ and ‘moving forward’. I religiously try and not use those phrases and when I see them pop up in my correspondence from my department I always scribble them out very quickly.

CATHCART:

OK well in a future encounters I’m going to install the weasel word buzzer.

4

FIFIELD:

Make sure you do.

CATHCART:

Senator Fifield, if you engage in weasel words I’m going to press the buzzer and remind you. In fact I’m going to record this and have it on file and play it back to you if you find yourself slipping down.

Now let’s talk about why we fund the arts because I take it that you’re a free-trader. You’re in a free trade government, a free market government. It’s very easy for a free-trader to argue against government funding of the arts, I mean, you can see how that argument would go. How does a free trader argue for arts funding?

FIFIELD:

Well, I am a free trader but I do recognise that there are sectors where there is an important role for government. And in my previous portfolio that was clear. Disabilities. That's why people pay their taxes, is to provide support to people who face challenges for reasons beyond their control. It’s an area of obvious market failure.

The arts obviously have value and worth in and of themselves. And there is value to the community more broadly to have a vibrant creative culture. It’s also economically important. Particularly as a government, you will have heard [Prime Minister] Malcolm and a lot of my colleagues such as Wyatt Roy talk about innovation. And we want to have a mindset in our community and our society that is innovative, that is creative. Where people can use their talents to create something from nothing. Now they are skills and aptitudes in the artistic sector, but they also have application in the broader community. There is value, there is community benefit, in appropriate and targeted government support to the arts.

CATHCART:

So you see the artists in their creative endeavours as having kind of a knock-on effect? If creativity is valued in the arts that may flow over into other parts of our lives, is that what you’re saying?

FIFIELD:

Yeah, absolutely and you will have seen under Malcolm we’ve brought the communications portfolio and the arts portfolio together. Arts, a lot of it is about content. In the communications portfolio a lot of broadcasting, a lot of media is about content. So there are some natural fits there. And also some of the regulatory areas touch on both. Things like copyright and intellectual property. So it makes good sense to have those together. And again I come back to, yes, the arts they are an end in and of themselves. But the artistic and creative sector is an important part of the economy. Something north of $90 billion contribution to GDP. Close to 1 million people employed in the arts and creative industries. So it’s an important part of the economy. It’s not a bad thing. And that should be recognised.

5

CATHCART:

Minister, let’s talk about the big question that is on everybody’s mind and that is the future of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. What are you hearing are the main sources of dismay and frustration within the arts community over the way in which the NPA has been set up?

FIFIELD:

Well, I think there are a few things. Firstly, its announcement occurred in the context of a federal budget. And the way federal budgets are put together, it’s a closed process through the Expenditure Review Committee. And what that meant is that there wasn’t the capacity to till the soil about what the purpose of the change was. And it also occurred while the Australia Council were undertaking a funding round. So I can appreciate that that caused some issues for the sector. And I’ve heard, obviously, from the submissions that have been made to the Senate Committee and also through the consultations which the Ministry of Arts have undertaken, that there are concerns about what is the place of individual artists, what is the place of small and medium sized organisations. So they’re things that I’m taking into account as we look at the guidelines. The draft guidelines that were issued were never intended to be set in stone. We can always benefit from consultation and from hearing what people in the sector say. So I’m taking a close look at the program and those guidelines.

CATHCART:

Now you could say that the NPEA has been a false start. All this kerfuffle shows. Let's just undo it and put the money back at the Australia Council. Is that an option for you? Or are you determined to make the NPEA work in some form?

FIFIELD:

My starting point is to endeavour to make the scheme work. To take on board the feedback that we have received. But I’m a new minister and I bring a fresh set of eyes. So look, I’m not going to be simply issuing publicly that which is on my desk. I want to take a look at it myself. But I do also appreciate that the sector is keen for certainty. So I’ve got to balance taking a good look at it myself, but also providing certainty to the sector as soon as possible. So what I’m looking at really I guess is a matter of weeks rather than months.

CATHCART:

One of our listeners who calls himself ‘Personal Shoplifter’, so he’s obviously a very responsible citizen and we value his input, says would I ask the Minister this. He says:

“Individual artists are innovation incubators which is the sort of sentiment you’ve been expressing yourself. So why defund them and double the bureaucracy? You’re running two arts funding outfits instead of one, why not just cut the duplication and put it all back into the Australia Council?”.

FIFIELD:

Well, we’re not defunding anything. Because the pot of money for the arts portfolio remains unchanged.

6

CATHCART:

But there will be administrative costs in running the new outfit that wouldn’t have been there if you’d just kept it all in the Australia council presumably?

FIFIELD:

Well, the Ministry of the Arts is already there. Whatever is done, will be done within their existing resources. So we’re not creating a new bureaucracy. There are various programs that the Ministry of Arts has run previously. So I guess the important point, and the starting point, is that the quantum of money for the arts portfolio hasn’t changed. The Australia Council still has $185 million a year to deploy. There has been 26, or what will be 26 million dollars a year, redirected from the Australia Council to the Ministry of Arts. But look I’m someone who’s open. I’m someone who wants to consult. I’m someone who wants to listen. So my ears are open and I’m taking a fresh look at the arrangements.

CATHCART:

This is Books and Arts on RN I’m Michael Cathcart and we’re talking to the new Minister for the Arts and for Communications Senator Mitch Fifield. The second objection or maybe it’s the third objection to the NPEA is philosophical and that says that the arts and artists need to be off the leash, they need to be irreverent, sometimes they need to be confronting and government ministers are the last people who should be deciding which artists get funding. The famous arm’s length policy that ministers shouldn’t really have a say in what arts projects get government money. And the NPEA, because it’s in your ministry, means that you are able to micro-manage where the funds actually go.

FIFIELD:

I completely agree that the arts should be provocative and disruptive and even on occasion outrageous. They're sometimes gentle and affirming and embracing as well. So I take that as read and accept that. That’s part of the role of the arts is to push boundaries. But that is not inconsistent with having some programs which are administered by the Ministry of the Arts. There have been programs previously administered by the ministry. Before 2013 there were. And some of those programs have been returned to the Ministry of the Arts under these arrangements. But it’s interesting to look at the state jurisdictions. A number of state culture ministers have made comments not positive of what we’re proposing. But every dollar that state governments spend and state art ministers have within their portfolio is run by their departments. There is no equivalent of the Australia Council at state level. So I can only assume that some of the state jurisdictions must be looking at setting up their own equivalent of the Australia Council in light of some of their comments.

CATHCART:

Yes you could make that but yes I don’t know what we’re going to do with that point, I suppose.

FIFIELD:

It’s a debating point. That's the only thing I’m making here.

7

CATHCART:

I mean the Australia Council reaches all those artists who by definition live in states so why it’s coving both bases. Let’s move on.

The Book Council. Now Senator Brandis announced the formation of a book council to advocate for the Australia publishing industry and to promote Australian books overseas, and this was funded by cutting money from the Australia Council, several million actually. Does this have your support, do we need a book council?

FIFIELD:

Incoming Minister. Fresh set of eyes. As I’ve said before, I want to make sure that the purpose and intent of the Book Council is met through the proposed arrangements. I want to make sure that what’s outlined is fit for purpose. So that’s just the appropriate due diligence of a new Minister for the Arts.

CATHCART:

As we said at the start you’re a free-trader and in 2009 you came out in favour of parallel book importation. Is that still your position?

FIFIELD:

2009. I was a backbencher. There was at that time a Productivity Commission report looking into the issue of parallel book importation. I’ve got a bit of a lean, a tilt, to consumers and what’s good for them, but recognising obviously the importance of rights holders and them getting a decent return. But I thought things needed to be nudged a bit. And subsequently they were. I think, in 2012, there was a voluntary code that the industry put in place which has seen the situation where it is easier for overseas produced books to come in if there is a delay in local publishers releasing them onto the Australian market. So I think that was a good thing. And that was good industry leadership. We have had recently the Harper Review into competition policy. And that had some things to say about parallel book importation. Closely following on the heels of that is the Productivity Commission, again, who have commenced an enquiry into intellectual property, which will also look at the Harper Review recommendations. Now that PC enquiry is due to finish in August of next year. So my intention would be let that body of work be undertaken. And we’ll have a look at what it puts forward at that time.

CATHCART:

So that’s in train. Just two more things we should deal with briefly. The first is the Indigenous Art Code. Now we’ve had an Indigenous Art Code since 2008. And as I read it it’s a pretty much common sense code of conduct designed to ensure that Aboriginal artists are not ripped off by dealers and that customers are not ripped off by people selling fakes or works that are painted under duress. The people who advocate this code say that the only reason it hasn’t been made mandatory is that the current government says it’s into deregulation, especially deregulation of rules that apply to business. But surely some regulations do make good sense? Will you look at this issue, the issue of a mandatory Indigenous Art Code?

8

FIFIELD:

The code isn’t something that I’ve had an opportunity to take a look at, in the last week and a half, Michael. So I’ll do that. I am someone who prefers there to be industry self-regulation where that meets the outcome, where that meets the objective. But as I say, it’s not something that I’ve yet had a close look at. So I wouldn’t want to make any declaratory statements at this stage.

CATHCART:

Alright, now Screen Australia. How would you like to see the Australian film industry develop? And do you see a distinction between the film industry which is a backlot for Hollywood? And an industry that tells Australian stories in Australian voices?

FIFIELD:

Well there are two important things. Telling Australian stories, reflecting the nation to itself is something that’s important. Reflecting the nation to the world is an important part of the film industry as well, the screen industry. But we’ve got to recognise that we’ve also got people with tremendous talent and we shouldn’t shy away from that for a second.

CATHCART:

No we all get that, we all understand that employing people to work as special effects people and so on, on foreign films, is a good thing. But I’m really asking you is whether you see a government role in helping to support an Australian industry which is telling Australian stories in Australian voices?

FIFIELD:

Well there is certainly a role for government. One of the good things about bringing the arts and communications together is that it provides the opportunity to have a more holistic look at the health of broadcasters, the opportunities for Australian content through different mediums TV and film. We've got a much better opportunity, I think, bringing those two portfolios together to look at these issues comprehensively.

CATHCART:

The Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield is my guest here this morning on Books and Arts. Now let’s move to opera, which I gather from what you’ve told us is not an art form about which you know a lot. But I guess you’ll tell me that you’re open to learning about it as so many of us are. Helen Nugent has just handed down her report on Australian opera and in summary it says that there is too much old stuff, there are too many repeats and there is too little money to allow for risk taking and for new work. Have you had a chance to get across the Nugent report, and if so, what is your response to it?

FIFIELD:

Yes. I’ve had a look at it. At this stage it’s a discussion paper. Helen Nugent and her colleagues are seeking public input. So there are no formal recommendations to government as such at the moment. But it’s not all downside. There's upside. 700,000 tickets a year are sold in the opera.

9

600 people employed full time. That’s great. Also the per seat subsidy for opera is less than for orchestras or for dance. And the per seat subsidy is less than a lot of comparable overseas companies. So that’s all good. But this is an important piece of work, because Helen has brought together data in a consolidated format which really hasn’t been done before. So we have a much better appreciation of the challenges of the funded opera companies. One of the, I think, interesting points that Helen raises is there’s not really the same clarity that there once was as to what are the criteria to become a funded opera company. What are the criteria to remain a funded opera company. So how can new entrants tick the boxes to come on board. So that’s an interesting proposition that she’s put forward.

She does make the observations that there are too many repeat performances of popular operas. And that’s a disincentive to subscribers because they want variety. They want difference. They want to be exposed to a wide range of performances. So they’re a number of the issues that she’s brought forward. I don’t want to be pre-emptive in any way before Helen presents her final report.

CATHCART:

Now Minister I note many years ago you were advocating more music in schools. You had some very powerful things to say about the benefits of kids studying music in schools. Is that a passion you will be able to pursue as Minister?

FIFIELD:

It is a passion and I’ll be looking for opportunities to pursue it. You know something of the order of 65% of kids in primary school have no music education. It was a bit different when I was at primary school in Adelaide and Melbourne in the 70s. There was a lot of music around the place. I think there a few reasons why that’s a great pity. Music obviously is one of the best ways to connect directly to the soul. But music also has positive effects on literacy and numeracy. Also positive effects on behaviour. Which is why I was delighted a number of years ago when a not-for-profit organisation called The Song Room approached me and asked me to be an ambassador. And what The Song Room does is it goes into schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and shows them how to set up music education programs within their existing budget. It’s a great organisation and I want to see a lot more music in schools.

CATHCART:

You’re also Minister for Communications. Can you just tell us briefly what your stance is on the future of the ABC and of SBS? What role do you see for them over the next decade?

FIFIELD:

The Australian public have, I think, a settled view in relation to the ABC and the SBS. On the whole, they like them. I have described Australians’ experience of the ABC as a bit akin to being in a long term relationship. Sometimes they drive you to distraction, sometimes you can’t get enough of them, sometimes you want nothing to do with them. But ultimately, you keep coming back because you want more. So the Government will make sure that the public broadcasters do have the resources to do the job that the Australian public want them to do. But that is not inconsistent with expecting the public broadcasters to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and to be as efficient as they possibly can. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.

10

CATHCART:

Well I can assure you that my team are good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars. They were here until very late last night doing unpaid work. So you can tick that box when it comes to Books and Arts and all of us here at Radio National. I mean to be candid there has been this fractious relationship between the ABC and the Government. With the change of leadership do you see that as changing? Can we expect a more respectful relationship both ways, do you think, in the future?

FIFIELD:

Look I think it should be an open, respectful and robust relationship. You know one thing I’ve discovered since being the Minister in this portfolio is when I talk about the ABC in balanced terms, on the ABC, I find the twittersphere smashes me for being an ABC hater. When I go on Sky and I say similar balanced things about the ABC I’ll be smashed on the twittersphere for being an ABC lover. So I think what we’ve got to do is just have an open and robust relationship. And it’s entirely appropriate for a minister or the government of the day, if there’s something that they don’t agree with that the ABC is doing or saying, to call that. I think that’s appropriate. That doesn’t impinge on the ABC’s independence, because it has statutory independence, therefore, there should be no danger in ministers expressing their view. It’s part of freedom of speech. And I think we’re all in a better position when we know what each other thinks.

CATHCART:

Just as we wind up I wouldn’t mind asking a couple of more personal questions. You did a BA at Sydney University. What did you major in?

FIFIELD:

I majored in politics. I actually wanted to be a psychologist when I started at Sydney Uni, so that was my sub major. I was so keen to be a psychologist and also had an interest in things military, that I joined the Australian Army Psychology Corps as a reservist with the intention of becoming a military psychologist ultimately. But anyway, politics got the better of me and here I am.

CATHCART:

And were you in the Army Reserve while you were a student or did that follow uni?

FIFIELD:

While I was a student.

CATHCART:

And why did you decide not to pursue that?

11

FIFIELD:

Ah look, student politics, campus politics. You know I’ve always been interested in people. I’ve always been interested in policy. As a psychologist you’re dealing at the micro level, you’re dealing with people one on one. As a Member of Parliament you’ve got the opportunity to do things for people at the macro level. But rest assured it was a relatively safe tenure in the Psychology Corps. The closest we got to going tactical was the odd skirmish with the Dental Corps.

CATHCART:

That’s a good line. I bet you’ve practiced that one over the years.

FIFIELD:

Well I have, when introducing Peter Cosgrove at an event, used that. I spoke about how inadequate I felt, my military service compared to his. And yes I did use that line.

CATHCART:

And when you were playing the games of student politics there at Sydney University are you one of those student politicians who shopped around ideologically? Did you try various political positions or were you always of a Liberal inclination?

FIFIELD:

Look always of a Liberal inclination. I may have flirted with alternative perspectives in about Year 10. But my views were pretty settled by Year 12.

CATHCART:

And what was the settling issue for you? What made you realise that Liberal was the party for you?

FIFIELD:

Well I’m an individualist. I believe very strongly in the rights of the individual. That government should be involved in those things that it has to be involved in, but no more. If government is too big it limits the space for the community to operate in. And that’s a conclusion that I reached in my later high school years. And also governments don’t necessarily always know how best to spend money. And there are many, many, many things that government isn’t good at.

CATHCART:

This is going to be a challenging portfolio for you then, isn’t it because Arts is a spending portfolio? You’re dealing with clients who don’t make money, who can’t operate because what they do is make art. They don’t make a profit. None of the arts organisations exists to make a profit. All they want to do is break even, which is a source of immense frustration and bewilderment to businessmen who get put on their boards who sit down and try to work out how the Sydney Theatre Company could become hugely profitable. The Sydney Theatre Company says ‘we just want to break even, we’re trying to make brilliant art here’.

12

FIFIELD:

And as I said at the outset, I think the arts are of such significance to our cultural life, to how we express ourselves, how we see ourselves and, also to the economy, that there should be an appropriate government contribution.

CATHCART:

Senator Fifield thanks for joining us.

FIFIELD:

Great to chat Michael.

ENDS

Media contact:

Luisa Anderson | 0417 309 812 | Luisa.anderson@communications.gov.au