As the investigation into the NPEA draws to a close, has it been more about political theatre than protecting the arts?

The combination of politics and art can produce powerful and galvanising works that shine a fascinating light on the complexities of society past and present. However the combination of politicians and artists has proven to be a far less fruitful pairing during the Senate Arts Inquiry into the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, which reached the final stop of its national roadshow today. Concluding in Sydney’s CBD, it has travelled the length and breadth of the country, visiting Melbourne, Perth, Hobart, Brisbane, Darwin and Cairns, collecting evidence from the disenfranchised arts sector. A report of the inquiry’s findings is due to be tabled in the Senate on November 26.

The Senate mandated investigation into the effects of the NPEA on Australian arts was ordered in June. It was the result of lobbying by a bipartisan collective of Labor, Green and Independent MPs, led by Shadow Minster for the Arts Mark Dreyfus. These advocates provided a welcome political conduit for the overwhelming national outcry from the arts community to be heard. Its establishment was a major win for the #FreeTheArts movement – the umbrella activist group representing artists across every sphere of the creative industries. But the white-hot rage and itinerant energy that spurred this movement forward has dimmed in recent months, as the polarised clarity of the “us vs them” division, so easily discernible at the beginning of the arts funding crisis, has become harder to see.

Since the inquiry began in August a procession of frustrated, anxious and desperate artists have stood in front of the committee and offered a largely unanimous message against the establishment of the NPEA. In addition to the many in-person testimonies delivered over recent weeks, thousands of written submissions were also made by arts leaders, administrators, individual artists and representative associations and guilds, expressing in detail the various harmful effects of the former Arts Minister George Brandis’ one-man assault on the Australia Council.

However a lot has happened since the Inquiry began collating evidence, chiefly the ministerial reshuffle following the Liberal leadership spill which saw Senator Brandis lose the arts portfolio, passing this now poisoned chalice to Minister Mitch Fifield. In stark contrast to Senator Brandis, who seemingly wanted to control the $104.8 million syphoned from the Australia Council into the NPEA using his own “tastes” and a hand-picked cabal of Arts Ministry assessors, Fifield has shown an interest in consultation with the arts community. He has also acknowledged the level of unhappiness among the artists he now represents and that the draft guidelines for the NPEA, which confirmed many people’s fears about the damage it would cause to the small-to-medium sector and independent artists, should be rewritten.

Yet the arts community remain in limbo, as the redistributed funds sit gathering dust in the Arts Ministry’s coffers more than four months after the NPEA was originally scheduled to begin issuing dollars. While he has made some heartening pledges, Minister Fifield himself remains on the fence, as he is yet to show any clear strategy for who might be eligible for those funds, or when they might be accessed. One thing however does remain clear; a bright, immoveable constant at the heart of this argument. The arts matter, and for those who commit their lives to being artists they matter a lot. It’s this one sacrosanct truism that has made the political sideshow, which has often knocked the Senate Inquiry off kilter, even more unpalatable.

At the first hearing in Melbourne the process seemed encouragingly transparent, perhaps because, in the words of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, “no one from the coalition bothered to turn up.” However since the Perth hearing on September 1, Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald has locked horns with Tasmanian Labor Senator Catryna Bilyk, under the exasperated view of chairman, independent Senator Glenn Lazarus. These spats have diverted the course of these hearings with their displays of political theatrics and squabbling along party lines that have hijacked testimony of artists hoping to be heard.

Yesterday’s hearing in Sydney’s Parramatta, the penultimate of this inquiry, provided one of the most acrid examples of the expanding gulf that now exists between the arts community and the political representatives who are supposed to protect their interests. During her testimony, editor of literary magazine Peril, Eleanor Jackson, was so aggressively questioned by Senator Macdonald that she became visibly upset, with someone from the public gallery offering her a tissue.

This reaction was not a strategic move. These were not crocodile tears. This was the honest expression of the frustration and hopelessness that many within the arts community will recognise.

However, Senator Macdonald’s response to being branded a bully by those present for his combative attitude is even more unsettling. Declaring the inquiry rigged, apparently because the first seven hearings had failed to produce a single testimony in favour of the NPEA, Senator Macdonald said, “The whole thing was just a political exercise. This is the most interesting inquiry I’ve been to because it’s made up of people in the arts and they display those particular talents. If they want to do that on a stage that’s fine, but when someone from the public rushes up with a handkerchief …”

This condescending lack of empathy, not just on a human level but in terms of the very real emotion that exists among artists who face a bleak and uncertain future, is symptomatic of the corrosive mistrust that now exists between the arts community and the politicians who are in direct control of its longevity and vibrancy. An ember, dimly glowing but still alight, remains with the Arts Minister, who may yet show decisive leadership and insight when he finally unveils the new criteria for the NPEA. However until the currently nebulous parameters of the new programme can finally be firmed up, yet more of Senator Ludlam’s words from the initial Inquiry hearing in Melbourne will keep repeating in the minds of many Australian artists: “This is getting more depressing by the hour.”