JUDITH WHITE. Funding, local content and the future of Australian culture

Apr 30, 2020

There can be no question that the arts have taken an enormous hit in the pandemic. Token support from governments is not the answer. The crisis requires not only a bailout, but a re-examination of cultural policies in the digital age.

Arts and entertainment are worth $111.7 billion to the Australian economy and employ more than 600,000 people, three quarters of whom are now out of work. But the majority, including many of the most creative, are ineligible to access JobKeeper.

It took an outpouring of appeals from advocacy bodies and leading figures in the sector to prompt any action at all from the Federal Government. Live Performance Australia asked for $850 million in support, out of the $189 billion the Government has announced in crisis relief.

On 8 April Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, announced a $27 million package: $7 million for indigenous visual arts, $10 million for regional arts and $10 million for the music industry charity Support Act. “It is so important to support the arts community to get through this,” he said, “and to ensure the arts play their rightful part in the reopening of our society.”

Nice sentiments, but at 0.14% of total crisis support the action doesn’t match up. Arts Minister Fletcher went on to suggest that those in the sector not eligible for JobKeeper should be grateful for six months of JobSeeker “at a rate which is around double the national median per person income for arts-related activity”.

This is scarcely a plan for a vigorous cultural sector. On 24 April a coalition of 100 arts groups weighed in with a further open letter to Minister Fletcher, pointing out that artists who receive any income at all for cultural practice lose their JobSeeker entitlements, and that public engagement with the arts during the crisis surely merits more support.

“Social media movements #DontCancelCreativity and #CreateAustraliasFuture have seen millions of engagements all over the country,” they wrote. “Australians are having a lot of trouble understanding why the cultural life of the nation is not being considered as strategically as the tourism, hospitality, accommodation and aviation industries, which rely on our success to drive theirs.”

On the question of strategy, Minister Fletcher has been much praised for bringing in a mandatory code, due to be finalised in July, to oblige Google, Facebook and other digital giants to pay for Australian-generated news content.

But the hand that giveth also taketh away. At a time when Australian content obligations should be extended to protect the arts, Fletcher, Liberal MP for Bradfield on Sydney’s North Shore, is going in the opposite direction. On 15 April, in announcing a $54 million package for media, he suspended local content obligations for the broadcasting of drama, children’s programs and documentaries.

Back in September 2017 actors Marta Dusseldorp and Hugo Weaving and film director Gillian Armstrong fronted a Make it Australian campaign, supported by the Australian Directors’ Guild, the Australian Writers’ Guild, Screen Producers Australia and the union MEAA. They called for the introduction of local content requirements for the digital streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon and Stan that are fast revolutionising the way film and television are delivered.

The issue is now more urgent than ever. In a thoughtful article in the Sydney Morning Herald Kim Williams, chair of the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), pointed to “a breakdown in the traditional ‘Australian content’ policy model”, combined with a level of underfunding of the arts that has left us at 26th of 33 OECD countries. The two aspects of the crisis are closely related: “If we want Australian content, in a small population in a distant English-speaking country, then we also need to nurture and sustain it through public investment.”

There is another related issue: how can the rights and income of creative individuals be protected in the world of digital media? Kim Williams discussed this with journalist Quentin Dempster and economist Richard Denniss on 22 April in one of the Australia Institute’s current series of webinars. (Webinar: now I didn’t even know that was a word before the pandemic.)

CAL, he said, is currently making representations to the ACCC for a collecting society, similar to its own model, that could distribute revenue to the creative originators of content. The ACCC, he admitted, “doesn’t like copyright as a concept”.

But the concept, together with a new approach to Australian content, has to be part of an urgent, complete review of cultural policy.

Once upon a time the Coalition would have been up for a discussion on the future of Australian culture. In a recent article for the website The Conversation, Griffith University Professor of Creative Arts Julian Meyrick argued the need for partisan cooperation on matters of national interest, “and the fate of Australian culture is surely one of these – is not a matter of pat verbal agreement.”

Detailing the contribution to cultural policy made by conservative governments from Deakin onwards, Professor Meyrick asked: “Why has a deep-rooted and persuasive cultural policy vision by and large vanished from Coalition beliefs and values?”

Why indeed? It’s an alarming measure of the debasement of political discourse in recent years.

For all Paul Fletcher’s platitudes, there’s no sign of Pastor Morrison’s government taking up the cudgels for the nation’s arts. But the issues are clear, and the investment required will be essential to emerging from the coronavirus with the vibrant culture Australian society needs and wants.

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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