Cessnock Performing Arts Centre snubbed for funding despite high ranking

MISSED OUT: Cessnock Performing Arts Centre wanted funding for a new lighting system.
MISSED OUT: Cessnock Performing Arts Centre wanted funding for a new lighting system.

A new lighting system for Cessnock Performing Arts Centre was one of the top projects snubbed when NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and the then-Minister for Arts Don Harwin ignored expert recommendations when handing out $47 million in regional infrastructure grants to arts and cultural organisations.

In what Member for Cessnock Clayton Barr today described as "pork-barrelling at its absolute political worst", only $3 million of that money went to non Coalitioin electorates, and $4000 to Labor electorates.

Cessnock Performing Arts Centre had sought $118,700 to convert its lighting to a more energy efficient LED system - a plan independent assessors rated highly according to documents, sitting 13th out of a possible 159 applications. But it received no funding.

"In the lead up to the election we've got the Government using almost $50 million of taxpayer funds, it's not the Government's money, it doesn't belong to Liberal or National Party, it belongs to the community, " said Mr Barr.

"What was the point of putting a process in place when they simply ignore the rules? It's laughable quite frankly."

In all, a total of 56 projects were funded in 23 electorates, 20 of which were held by the coalition.

As part of the process, a six person expert team was founded - Regional Cultural Fund assessors - to assess and rank the more than 150 applications received. The panel was made up of four independent members were from the state's arts sector, one executive from the State Government agency Create NSW and one representative from the Department of Premier.

Documents obtained under freedom of information laws revealed the advice of the expert team was largely ignored and instead all but $3 million was spent on projects in Coalitions seats.

"Cessnock Performing Arts Centre was a fairly modest application, LED lighting drives down costs, it's better for our climate and councils are operating on pretty thin budgets," Mr Barr said.

"This project would have been of great benefit for the local community as many local organisations and groups use the Performing Arts Centre and it has become a cultural hub for the entire community."

In defence of the selection process, Mr Barilaro said "projects were all funded based on merit and the [grants] are designed where the discretion is left with the Minister".

Mr Barr is unconvinced.

"How Mr Barilaro could say this with a straight face is unbelievable as at least eight of the projects approved were not even recommended for funding or did not even meet the criteria."

Former Arts Minister, Mr Harwin has referred all questions to Premier Gladys Berejiklian who assumed the role of Arts Minister after he resigned as a result of being caught out breaking his own governments COVID-19 public health orders.

This story Cessnock arts hub missed on funding despite high ranking first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.