Morrison and Sebastian, exemplars of Australian art

I have nothing against pop singers, Some of them are very nice people, generous, tolerant, kind to children and dogs. And they give pleasure to many Australians.

But for all his undoubted talents, the crooner Guy Sebastian can hardly be considered of the same calibre of, say, Anthony Warlow.  So for Scott Morrison to parade him proudly as an exemplar of the Australian arts was somewhat disconcerting.

Obviously he could not be expected to pose with a concert cellist, a futurist sculptor or an indigenous ballet dancer –far too limp wristed, girly man, as his close friend and valuable colleague Matthias Corman might put it. And he would much rather have been carousing with a couple of footy mates in a Cronulla Sharks scarf and beanie.

But he might have thought that the arts entailed rather more than the top 40. And the belated handouts —  in many cases clearly too little too late – show a  basic misunderstanding about how the industry works. Offering $90 million to struggling companies might appear a useful gesture, but the money is not for grants, but for loans – precisely the kind of loans those in desperate need cannot possibly afford to take.

So much for the arts. But on a wider assault on Australian culture, the war on the hapless ABC continues unabated – revenue which the national broadcaster needs to keep going in anything like its present form has been slashed. And, rather than attempting to justify this vandalism as a necessary measure to help a dwindling economy,  ScoMo shamelessly and deceitfully continues to pretend that it has just not happened.

For Morrison and our brick-thick communications minister to insist that there have been no cuts to the ABC is more than mean and tricky – it is simply untrue. As the 2018 budget pointed out in brutal detail, the money promised to the national broadcaster has been drastically reduced – by some $84 million over the next three years. Those were the promises on which the ABC relied to survive after a hit over $10 million in 2021-22 than it did in 2013.

And as a result, some 250 staff members have been sacked and a number of programs axed or curtailed, among them, Foreign Correspondent, Australian Story, Gruen, Mad as Hell and other much loved and watched offerings that are simply irreplaceable. The commercials, whether free to air or cable have neither the resources nor the will to do anything remotely similar.

Then there is the 7.45 radio news, the most comprehensive and reliable of the daily bulletins. ABC Life has also been killed off and what was the comedy channel will be bundled up to include arts, science and religion, all of which will be downgraded along with just about everything else.

And of course, the prospect of new creative offerings in drama and documentary is out of the question for the foreseeable future. The ABC will not have the capacity to make new programs itself, and there will be no money for independent producers to fill the gap.

ABC CEO David Anderson has unveiled what he calls a five-year plan, and remains determinedly optimistic – he can hardly do anything else. But Morrison’s carefully chosen chairman, Ita Buttrose, has finally broken her uneasy alliance with the prime minister to denounce the cuts and refute the mendacious rhetoric that sustains them.

And more surprisingly, and perhaps more damaging politically, the New South Wales Nationals leader and deputy premier John Barilaro called the feds’ approach to the ABC devastating and incomprehensible. He revealed that the ABC had offered tens of millions of dollars to expand regional and rural services in exchange for restoring the funds taken away.

But according to Barilaro, the government did not respond and the Nationals were never informed. This was not smart politics – as scores of regional newspapers have been shut down, the ABC has become even more crucial in the bush, and has garnered much support for its exemplary coverage over the bushfires and other rural crises. The Nats used to complain about the ABC as our enemies talking to our friends, but in these troubled times, they need Aunty as never before.

And now the Saturday paper informs us that just as the five-point plan was set to be released, the government has finalized negotiations for yet another inquiry, this one a secret one to evaluate media around the world –. specifically the impact and interaction between publicly-funded and commercial entities. This is precisely what the propagandists of the Murdoch monopolists wanted, a chance to gain an advantage for their struggling FoxTel, over what they see as competition from the ABC. And naturally, the government will deny them nothing.

The dumbing down of Australia is proceeding apace, and it is hard to believe that it is not deliberate – part of the ongoing culture wars that aim to our society into an economy, and a fairly narrow one at that. If there was any doubt, the assault on the universities has confirmed it. The humanities, the bedrock upon which culture in its wider sense depends, are to be chipped away to make room for a single-minded pursuit of boosting the economy, under the guise of jobs and growth at all costs.  And even if it works – and all the evidence is that it won’t – the cost will be that the inclusive, broad-minded and, dare we say it, intelligent aspects of our society will be sacrificed. The Australia many of us knew and loved will simply cease to exist.

The great god Mammon, the cult of the Philistines, will triumph – and no-one will know who Mammon and Philistines are anyway, so no-one will even care.

The Morrison government is clearly on what the great historian Manning Clarke called the punishers and straighteners, and has rejected the enlargers who once made Australia an international model as superfluous to its political ends. But if our prime minister is determined to ignore history, along with the other humanities, he must surely be familiar with the gospel inculcated by his Pentecostalist mentors. And there, right in Matthew 16:26, or if he prefers it Mark 8:36, he will find the words of his Messiah: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

At least he has a ready-made reply: Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the notice paper.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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