Australia’s needs to stand up for the arts

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Coalition Government has been widely criticised for its failure to support the arts in the COVID-19 crisis. The PM has responded with a handful of PR announcements. But what’s needed is a complete change of policy direction.

Credit – Unsplash

Since the Federal Coalition came to office in 2013 the arts have been under enormous pressure from spending cuts and corporatisation.

For almost 40 years, from the end of World War Two to the 1980s, there was a degree of consensus in politics that governments should invest in public broadcasting, universities, the arts and cultural institutions.

Decades of neoliberalism, which has infested both major political parties, have undermined that concept. Now, writes literary critic James Ley, “the Morrison government has decided to use the cover of the pandemic to further its project of decimating those public institutions and sections of society it regards with contempt”. (Australian Book Review, August 2020).

After Scott Morrison became PM in August 2018, the stand-alone Arts Department was abolished and swallowed up by a mega-ministry, while the Australia Council lost key funding.

During the COVID-19 crisis, arts workers are being denied JobKeeper payments because they are part of the great pool of casualised labour on which the Australian economy has come to depend, while arts degrees have been made unaffordable for all but the well-heeled.

Targeted support for the cultural sector came only after a strenuous campaign by arts organisations, and even then it was too little, too late.

On 25 June PM Morrison announced a $250 million for screen and live performance, which he promoted as “supporting the tradies”; only about $35 million of it was to be in direct financial assistance, the rest being future loans and concessions. (Live Performance Australia alone had asked for $850 million.) A month later he travelled to the Gold Coast to promise $400 million to attract overseas film production companies. (Australian creatives need not apply.)

Late August saw another little burst of government PR from the office of Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Security – oh, and the Arts.

A “Creative Economy Taskforce” has been established to “assist in the implementation of the Government’s $250 million JobMaker plan for the creative economy and provide strategic guidance to build the sector”. In other words, it will be kept busy overseeing the scramble for the crumbs from the Federal Government’s table.

The Task Force will be chaired by Liz Ann Macgregor, director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and a friend of former NSW Premier Mike Baird, for whom she was Western Sydney advisor when he had the disastrous thought bubble of “relocating” the Powerhouse Museum. She is joined by a distinguished list of arts figures including Adrian Collette, CEO of the Australia Council, Greta Bradman of ABC Classic and Chris Saines, director of the Queensland state gallery QAGOMA. It’s to be hoped they will find time for the second, crucial part of their brief, which is to provide strategic guidance.

Another announcement by Minister Fletcher gives the rest of us a chance to have our say. On 26 August he asked the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts to make a new inquiry into Australia’s “creative and cultural industries and institutions”. It will be chaired by Dr David Gillespie MP (National Party, Lyon) with Ed Husic MP (Labor, Chifley) as deputy. Public submissions are welcome.

The first consideration in the inquiry’s terms of reference concerns “the direct and indirect economic benefits and employment opportunities of creative and cultural industries and how to recognise, measure and grow them”.

Jobs, jobs, jobs, in other words. Those of us who have seen the jobs of thousands of highly-valued professionals lost as a result of spending cuts to the arts and cultural institutions (except for the Australian War Memorial, of course) may be forgiven for greeting this announcement with a certain cynicism.

But any chance to have a direct voice to parliamentary institutions is an opportunity to shift the public discourse. The second consideration in the inquiry’s terms of reference gives plenty of scope for this. It refers to “the non-economic benefits that enhance community, social wellbeing and promoting Australia’s national identity, and how to recognise, measure and grow them”.

Under neoliberalism, narrow commercial criteria have increasingly been applied to the arts, and boards have been stacked with bankers and corporate high-flyers who have little or no relevant cultural experience.

The late Richard Hoggart, one of 20th century Britain’s leading authorities on cultural matters, warned years ago: “If you put the most important cultural elements in society into the hands of commercial people who want to make a profit they will bring it down to the lowest common denominator.”

Hoggart was a working-class Yorkshire boy from an impoverished family. By means of public education he made it to university in the depths of the Depression, and went on to become a professor, write the seminal book The Uses of Literacy, give key evidence for Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial, and chair numerous British and UN public bodies.

We like to think of Australia as the country of the “fair go”. But in Morrison’s Australia a young person with a background like Hoggart’s would find it hard to get a foot on the first rung of such a ladder.

For the sake of generations to come, it’s essential that people with an understanding of arts and culture weigh in to the public debate. At the very least that will lay down criteria by which future policy of all parties can be judged.

The full terms of reference for the parliamentary inquiry can be found here, and submissions can be made online from the same page up until 22 October.

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Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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