Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson defend COVID-19 spend as Judith Collins rips into 'dodgy Creative NZ funding decisions'

The Government's decision to use COVID-19 cash to help the arts sector recover has been criticised by National's Judith Collins, who described funding decisions as "dodgy". 

But Finance Minister Grant Robertson "totally rejects" her characterisation, explaining that industries like the arts need financial support to help them get through the pandemic. 

"Where we have provided support to our arts sector, it's been a recognition of the tremendous damage done by COVID to the ability to make income for artists and for performances to be put on," Robertson said on Friday. 

"We've added additional direct funding to the arts sector because it's an important part of our society and our economy."

Collins earlier this week in Parliament asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern what spending $26,000 on a novel about alpaca breeders had to do with COVID-19. 

It seemed Collins was referring to an Arts Continuity Grant given to writer Duncan Sarkies from national arts development agency Creative NZ, towards his novel "about the collapse of democracy in an association of alpaca breeders". 

Indeed, connecting it to COVID-19 is a stretch, but a spokesperson for Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said the grant was not paid for with cash from the Government's COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

Creative NZ received $25 million from the fund through Budget 2020. Of this, about $10 million was put towards Creative NZ's grants programme to ensure artists could cope with the impact of COVID-19 alert levels in the first half of 2020. 

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Getty Images

The money for Sarkies' novel was granted through an Arts Continuity Grant programme in May from Creative NZ's reserves and re-prioritised funding - not through Budget 2020 COVID-19 funds.

"The grant was to support research and development of an allegorical novel that explores larger themes by focusing on the collapse of democracy within a micro-society," the spokesperson told Newshub. 

Robertson said: "A number of the Creative New Zealand grants that some people have chosen to highlight actually weren't even funded out of the COVID grant."

Ardern reminded Collins in Parliament that Creative NZ is independent. 

"The member seems to be attacking the fact that we have funded Creative New Zealand. Creative New Zealand determines the projects they fund," Ardern said. 

"What we determined was - and rightly so - the creative sector was at the front line and continues to bear the brunt of COVID. When you shut down the ability for live performances and for people to gather, the events sector, the hospitality sector, and the creative sector are hit hard."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images

Collins' criticism is part of a growing interest in the Government's COVID-19 spending decisions after it was revealed in the May Budget that just $5.1 billion remained of the $50 billion fund announced last year. 

Due to the latest Delta outbreak, only about $2 billion was left in the fund as of last week. There was an additional $3 billion available from money previously allocated in the fund that hadn't been spent.

Robertson revealed on Friday that more than 500,000 applications for the wage subsidy have so far been approved totalling more than $2.5 billion, while the second round of the Resurgence Support Payment has paid out $256.8 million to over 87,000 applicants. 

The COVID fund has since been topped up with $7 billion after Robertson was granted authority by Parliament to spend up to $41 billion over and above Budget 2021 as a contingency for "unexpected expenditure". 

Robertson is being urged to spend the money on COVID-related issues. 

"It's pretty hard to believe the $710 million for Three Waters is a COVID response," said Collins. "The truth is that the COVID fund is nothing more than a slush fund for the Government's pet projects."