Comedians, dancers, actors, choirs and orchestras have helped keep Australians sane during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown with a wealth of online artistry and diverting entertainment. For their efforts, the Morrison Government has thumbed its nose at Australia’s arts community in the 2020-2021 Federal Budget released on 6 October, after announcing a package of support in June that has yet to come to fruition for any arts organisation.
There was no mention in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Budget speech of the arts or the creative industries, the term both sides of politics increasingly use to describe the arts, perhaps for fear of deeper engagement in some electoral quarters suspicious of the arts.
Despite tens of thousands of creative people being denied JobKeeper because of the tenuous nature of their freelance and casual employment, the peak government funding body, the Australia Council, got a net boost of $1.4 million for its 2020-21 budget, which will “barely even cover the rise in basic office expenses,” tweeted The Age Arts Editor Nick Miller.
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Chief Executive Paul Murphy said the arts had been “relegated to the basket of expendable policy areas”. Arts advocate Esther Anatolitis pointed out Frydenberg’s favouring of instant asset write-offs as a “game changer” was dubious, given “there were no announcements on investment in sectors whose work directly supports employment and return to the workforce, such as childcare”.
Anatolitis believes the “entire Australian economy is looking towards the creative industries to drive and inspire our health, resilience, education, inspiration, towns, cities, tourism – our future”.
So why does the Morrison Government fail to understand the significance of the arts?
In June, the Morrison Government announced a $250 million “support package” for Australia’s arts and culture sectors, including $90 million in government-backed “Show Starter” concessional loans to “fund new productions that will create jobs”, leaving $160 million in true grant support, not a dollar of which has yet been spent.
Guidelines for the $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) were only released on 11 August. Chris Bendall, Director of Critical Stages Touring, says that given the first-round closing date was only last week, that funding is expected to flow in December at the earliest.
Perhaps the funding is so slow to flow because the Morrison Government fears the arts is some sort of electoral poison, or more deeply, because engagement with the humanities encourages the sort of critical thinking that might question an ideological Budget whose benefits flow to the big end of town. Witness the concurrent 113 percent rise in fees for arts degrees, taking a year of full-time study to $14,500, up from $6804.
When Morrison announced the JobMaker arts package at Rooty Hill’s new Sydney Coliseum Theatre, recall the rhetoric: “This package is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions.”
But nobody to date has been feeling much support and love, whether artisan or artist.
In “additional support”, Arts Minister Paul Fletcher announced $33 million had been allocated to Screen Australia and $20.2 million over two years to the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. But sub-quotas for new Australian drama and children’s TV on free-to-air commercial networks have been dumped in favour of a much easier to fulfil point system.
Hoodlum Entertainment Chief Content Officer and former Screen Queensland Chief Executive Officer Tracey Vieria warned last week we could end up with broadcasters making only one high-end drama per year. Indigenous actor and Wentworth star Shareena Clanton warned we will see less Indigenous content on screens, continuing “systems of erasure” of Indigenous people.
Certainly Fletcher caved into big business, commercial broadcasters and streaming services such as Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and AppleTV, with his soft-soap approach of requesting these services making use of our National Broadband Network and stealing conventional broadcasters’ market share need only report how much they are spending on Australian content – a pointless exercise given there is no minimum spending requirement.
In rebooting the #MakeItAustralian campaign in a Zoom conference last week, actor Rhys Muldoon rightly said of efforts to lobby politicians for a fairer deal: “The Coalition don’t tend to be big fans of our people.” He meant artists. Muldoon asked Kate Carnell, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, how the arts might do a better job of lobbying.
Carnell advised those arty types on the Zoom meeting to stop talking about “creativity” and instead speak the language the government is comfortable in speaking: “jobs” and “level-playing fields”. It was a lesson in Lobbying Philistines 101.
This sort of quest for a fairer deal of course is even harder with Playwriting Australia losing Australia Council funding last year, while in July this year The Australian Major Performing Arts Group announced it would cease to exist to clear the way for a new arts advocacy voice.
Meanwhile, creators find a way to create, even as some freelance artists drop out of the industry all together. More philanthropic and commercial support will probably be required to continue to make digital works for audiences at home.
Arts Centre Melbourne Claire Spencer told Limelight in this month’s cover story The Australian Turn? that art forms have been forced to compete with one another to survive: “We’ve not been able to demonstrate collectively as a sector the importance of creativity and innovation and learning, the importance of live performance and visual art in mental health and wellness, the importance of these things in bringing people together,” she said.
Part of the answer to lessen the arts funding struggle is of course a coming together.
But given the disregard the Morrison Government seems to have for the intrinsic worth of the arts and humanities, perhaps the only lobbying language is a repetitive, reductive rhetorical tic of jobs, jobs, jobs.