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Education merger and arts demotion draw angry reactions

Arts ‘cease to exist’ and education is undervalued in government’s public service shake-up, critics say

Australian Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi has called the merger of the federal education and employment departments “a huge mistake” that reflects a narrow policy view.

“Education is a public good essential to building a socially and economically just society, not just an avenue to employment or profit—it demands a standalone focus,” she said in a public statement.

Faruqi also questioned whether the merger would result in more funds being spent on consultants and machinery of government changes such as new stationery, rather than education policy initiatives.

Her comments follow prime minister Scott Morrison’s shock announcement of radical changes to the Australian public service, which will cut the number of government departments from 18 to 14. The shake-up involves four departmental mergers to create ‘super-departments’ and the sacking of five departmental secretaries.

Morrison said the changes would drive greater collaboration and “break down silos” in the public service.

Those sacked include Mike Mrdak, head of the department of communications and the arts, a career public servant who was named federal government leader of the year in 2013.

His department will be merged to become part of a Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

In a memo sent to staff, Mrdak said he was not told of the government’s decision to abolish the department until Wednesday afternoon.

“We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the machinery of government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the department or changes to our structure and operations,” he wrote.

Arts has been dropped from the title of the merged department, causing a furious reaction on social media from leading arts figures. Terry Moran, chair of the Melbourne Theatre Company, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the arts would be “even further buried within the Canberra bureaucracy”.

Virginia Trioli, the ABC’s popular morning radio presenter in Melbourne, posted her reaction to the merger on Twitter. “Arts ceases to exist. Name, portfolio, federal govt focus—gone. That stuff your kids do and love? The music, the television, the theatre, the performance, the books, the films? That $111 BILLION dollar industry and all those jobs,” she wrote.

Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said the arts contributed billions to the economy and thousands of jobs.

“This government’s disdain for the arts has reached a new low. It did not release an arts policy at this year’s federal election, and its attitude has been cut, cut, cut,” he said in a public statement.

“The only explanation we have been given for the abolition of the arts department is a wishy-washy statement about reducing government waste. If there are efficiencies to be gained, then there is now no better opportunity than to redirect those savings directly into arts communities and reverse the years of neglect and erosion of funding.”