MELBOURNE — Australia’s prize-winning, but coin-challenged, documentary producers received an unexpected last-minute reprieve in a keynote address Saturday to the Screen Producers of Australia Assn. confab by federal communications and arts minister Sen. Richard Alston. Not surprisingly, the five-year reprieve garnered enthusiastic applause from the 700-strong audience.

The minister did not unveil any major new initiatives or gifts for filmmakers, but rather he revealed that the government, elected 18 months ago on a platform of economic austerity, would let producers keep what they already had.

Alston said that, contrary to recommendations in the government’s recent review of federal assistance to the showbiz industry, the government would not sell-off 50-year-old docu body Film Australia, producer of such acclaimed social interest docus as “Mabo — Life of an Island Man,” which won best docu at Friday’s AFI Awards, Oz’s Oscar equivalent.

As late as Thursday, indications were the government would proceed with the plan, but in a stunning turnaround, Alston said FA would retain its A$6.4 million ($4.7 million) annual budget until 2003, keep its Sydney studios and highly prized 80 years worth of archive footage (that was to be sold), continue its marketing and distribution functions (that were to be outsourced) and will open a Melbourne branch using $370,000 the body has been instructed to find from savings in administration.

But Alston’s one surprise announcement was good news for U.S. and U.K. producers shooting on location Down Under. As part of the union-busting agenda of his conservative government, Oz’s first in 13 years, Alston said that for a two-year trial period producers of overseas productions lensing here would no longer have to negotiate with actors’ union the MEAA about importing foreign thesps.

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