'My heart breaks': Guy Sebastian pushes Scott Morrison for answers over delayed arts funding

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Australian singer Guy Sebastian has requested prime minister Scott Morrison explain the delay in delivering $250m worth of emergency funding to the arts and culture sectors facing financial crisis due to Covid-19.

At a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, the government admitted that only $49.5m of the rescue package had so far been allocated, and this was to underwrite the film industry which is facing an insurance crisis.

Effectively, not a single cent of the $250m had so far left government coffers, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

“Remember that fancy press conference Scott Morrison did with Guy Sebastian promising money to help artists during Covid?” she said on Twitter. “Well guess what? Still nothing has been spent.”

Related: Arts rescue package worth $250m still waiting to be allocated, Senate estimates told

In a statement after the tweet she said: “It’s like promising a struggling swimmer a lifebuoy and not throwing it out till they’re too weak to hold onto it.”

The singer and The Voice judge was widely criticised for standing beside Morrison at the June press conference announcing the rescue package, which was widely viewed within the industry as too little and too late.

Sebastian was also one of the artists who participated in a series of talks with the government in June over the looming crisis the industry was facing.

At the time, the singer defended his apparently close collaboration with the Morrison government, saying he was seeking to “provide perspective of the deep-seated economic hardship that has crippled the entertainment industry due to the Covid pandemic”.

The singer responded on Twitter to Hanson-Young’s criticism, saying he had requested an update from the prime minister about the belated delivery of the rescue package.

He also reiterated his political neutrality.

“I have requested an update from the PM’s office about the current and future spend with regards to the arts package,” he tweeted.

“Once I receive the most recent information, I will pass it on. I have no ties to anyone in politics on a personal or professional level.”

A spokesman for Morrison confirmed to Guardian Australia the singer had made contact with the PM’s office on Thursday, and that the PM would respond to Sebastian personally, the spokesman said.

After initially struggling to say how much of the $250m had so far been allocated, the department’s chief operating officer, Pip Spence, told the Senate it was expected the money would start being rolled out in November. An earlier $27m in emergency arts relief had been disbursed for Indigenous and regional visual arts bodies, and the music industry outreach program Support Act.

The Museum of Contemporary Art director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, is chairing a cultural taskforce set up by the arts minister, Paul Fletcher, to advise the government following Morrison’s funding announcement on 25 June.

MCA director Elizabeth Ann MacGregor.
MCA director Elizabeth Ann MacGregor, the chair of the cultural task force, says concerns over delays are ‘fair enough’. Photograph: Nikki Short/AAP

Macgregor told Guardian Australia the concern over delays in getting the funds out to organisations in financial distress was understandable.

Related: Jimmy Barnes: ‘I think it’s criminal the way the government has treated the arts’

“That’s fair enough,” she said. “I asked this question myself … and while I can’t speak for the department, everything they are doing has to be carefully scrutinised and completely transparent.”

Macgregor said the taskforce was only providing strategic advice on the $75m Rise (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) fund siting within the $250m package, and it would not be party to decisions made over where the money would go.

However, the department did not release the criteria organisations had to meet to qualify for funding until 31 August, she said, contributing to the delay.

The taskforce next meets on 29 October.