The Australian arts world is reacting with fury to the news that the arts have been demoted in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s restructuring of the public service announced yesterday. The Arts, already an addendum to the Department of Communications and the Arts, will be merged along with the rest of the department into a new one with the unwieldy title of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

Scott MorrisonPrime Minister Scott Morrison

The changes came as a surprise to department head Mike Mrdak. “I was told of the government’s decision to abolish the department late yesterday afternoon,” he said in a memo yesterday. “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 to changes to our structure and operations.”

In an industry beleaguered by cuts and uncertainty, the symbolic deprioritisation – with the Prime Minister, who said the changes will “drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges”, flagging more unspecified changes still to come – has sparked a backlash, with professionals from across the arts decrying the move on social media.

“I say all of us in the arts sector stop working for a year and see what happens to the economy,” said mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark – who is currently singing in Pinchgut Opera’s Farnace – on Twitter, referring to government figures that showed cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy in the 2016-17 financial year. “What an appalling, short-sighted move.”

“Let me add that 99 percent of artists I know, in every field, are struggling financially and are exhausted trying to maintain a career and make ends meet,” she said. “This most definitely includes me. Rates of mental illness are devastating. Nobody can afford to take a day, let alone a year, off.”

“Visibility means everything,” said composer and academic Cat Hope, who encouraged people to phone and write to their MPs. “The arts help us understand who we are and need to be foregrounded in policy and administrative structures.”

“Someone has made the choice to devalue a $111.7 billion industry,” the Executive Director of the National Association of the Visual Arts Esther Anatolitis told SBS News, describing the move as a “massive backwards step.”

“The arts industry over the past few years has been in absolute shock at industry disruption caused by unplanned, unannounced changes to arts policy and funding,” she said. “The federal government seems intent on the disruption and contraction of the arts industry instead of its flourishing and its growth.”

“Morrison is terrified of the power of the arts, like all of the worst ‘leaders’ in history,” said actor and playwright Kate Mulvany. “Keep making. Keep shaking. Tear up the road he’s forcing us down and pave it with your story. My dad built roads for a living and he’d be f*cking furious at this too.”

“Looking forward to the department of Roads and Renoir then,” said composer and Chair of the Australia Ensemble Paul Stanhope. “What more can these f*ckers do to us?”