Features December 9, 2019

Industry prepares for war over axing of arts department

Industry prepares for war over axing of arts department

For the second time in four years, the music and arts sectors are mobilising against the Federal Government.

The last time was in May 2015 when arts minister George Brandis set up an alternate funding system called Catalyst with $100 million pulled from the Arts Council.

The sectors saw this as a way of a minister setting up funding for court favourites at the expensive of small to medium art groups.

The resulting unified campaign from various sectors was loud and remarkable.

Brandis was moved on, Catalyst was discarded, (some of) the money was meekly returned to the Council and the new minister Mitch Fifield built bridges with the fuming sectors.

This time the tribes are arming themselves in the wake of last Thursday’s (December 5) announcement that from February 1, the Department of Communications and the Arts was to be folded into a new super-department.

It is to be called the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Development.

“It doesn’t even have the word ‘arts’ in its name,” the head of a government-funded association relayed to TMN on condition of anonymity.

“What does that tell you about our priority?

“What discussions can you have about arts, culture and music when they’re busy talking to powerful lobby groups from those other industries.”

Another lamented, “At a time when the creative sectors need assurance of confidence and support to the creative sector, what we get is more anxiety and confusion.”

Without A Top National Presence

“It’s a very very disappointing move, and reflects how little Australia thinks of arts and culture,” Monash University academic Dr. Xin Gu told TMN.

The timing couldn’t be worse, adds Gu, who is director of the Master of Culture and Creative Industries and lecturer in communications and media studies.

Australia’s cultural trade has declined by 7% in the last decade (to an estimated cost of $7 billion) and “this has been due to the fact there’s no representation at the national level for the Australian culture and creative economy.”

According to UNCTAD’s 2018 Creative Economy Outlook report,  the value of global trade for creative goods increased from US$208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015.

Australia’s creative goods export declined between 2011 and 2014.

The sector produces A$4 billion o the Australian GDP, according to the report. (According to the government’s own figures, cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy in a single year).

Gu warns that the federal government’s apparent downgrade of its federal arts priority will also a problem for Australia’s obligations to the United Nations’ declaration of 2021 as the year of creative economy for sustainable development.

“To do that we need a national level is dialogue and communication,” she explained.

“Without having that representation at the national level it will be really difficult for Australia to develop conversations internationally with other countries on this particular issue.”

A lack of a dedicated national arts presence at the very top means not only will the local artists and associations not be able to convey its needs, but those overseas “will not have the coordination to articulate their identities.”

Central To Policy Making, Investment

Live Performance Australia reminded the Federal Government that creative industries should remain central to its policy-making and investment.

Chief executive Evelyn Richardson stated, “The creative industries are a key driver of jobs and economic activity in an increasingly service-focused economy.

“They also enrich the lives of all Australians in every city and regional area across the nation. Australia has world-class talent and skills across a multitude of creative areas.”

Richardson pointed out what the creative industries anticipated from the government.

“We expect that post the departmental restructure, the government will continue to focus on the economic, cultural and artistic contribution of our industry.

“We are pleased that the minister for the arts remains as cabinet minister.

“We have also been advised that the arts function remains in the new structure and that there has been no reduction to funding and resources.

“The lack of overt acknowledgement of either ‘arts’ or ‘culture’ in the new departmental title is an unfortunate oversight for an industry which provides considerable economic value to the nation and definition to the lives of everyday Australians.

“We look forward to working with government to ensure our industry remains front and centre in government policymaking and investment in the future”.

Dean Ormston, chief executive of AMCOS, had a slightly different angle to the current debate.

Yes, it was disappointing that ‘arts’ was not included in the new department’s name, and yes, the arts portfolio is critical to arts policy.

But, he added, “A whole-of-government approach to the music industry is the only way that we will fully reflect its cultural, economic and social capacity and turn Australia from a music nation to a music powerhouse.

“It is vital our sector set an ambition and policy agenda with all government departments including education, foreign affairs, tourism and trade, small business, regional development, health, industry and innovation.”

He added, “Our current conversations with the Australian government, particularly with the Department Foreign Affairs and Trade around the future of service exports and the role of the cultural industries is deeply encouraging.”

Ormston pointed out that before the 2019 election, the Morrison government announced $30.9 million investment in Australian music to support more live music venues and provide critical investment for First Nations music, mentorship programs and exports.

More Funding Cuts?

The lack of the word “arts” or “culture in the new department’s name was also noted by Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief executive Paul Murphy.

“This government’s disdain for the arts has reached a new low, he says.

He asserts that it’s setting up for further arts funding cuts.

“Artists and arts organisations and of all sizes are struggling in the wake of the 2015 Australia Council cuts, and there is widespread concern that this decision will foreshadow further cuts to arts funding next year.”

However, there are more sinister possibilities. Tony Burke, the shadow arts minister, told ABC RN that super-ministries stifle Cabinet debate.

In other words, when talking of road works and population demographics, past promises about inquiries into content quotas, tax incentives for music and digital communications could play second fiddle or swept under the carpet.

The State Experience

On state government levels, the arts portfolio is usually shared with other industries.

In NSW, Don Harwin is also minister for state, public service & employee relations and aboriginal affairs. In Victoria Martin Foley’s portfolio covers creative industries, mental health and equality.

South Australia’s premier Steven Marshall additionally overlooks the arts, Aboriginal affairs & reconciliation, defence & space industries, veteran affairs and multicultural affairs

WA combined culture and the arts with local government. In the ACT, Arts ACT is part of the chief minister, treasury and economic development direct duties.

Arts shares the same minister with building & construction, corrections, justice and racing in Tasmania.

In Queensland, it is in the same folder as science and environment and the Great Barrier Reef.

Northern Territory ‘s relevant minister combines culture, tourism and sport.

Further Responses

Among the many tweets and social media postings since the government’s super-department announcement, these three stood out.

Composer, performer and academic Cat Hope: “Visibility means everything.

“The arts help us understand who we are and need to be foregrounded in policy and administrative structures.

“Don’t just share this news here; band together, write and phone your MP, activism works.”

Mezzo-soprano Jacqui Dark: “I say all of us in the arts sector stop working for a year and see what happens to the economy.

“Our industry contributed $112 billion last year in revenue alone – add employment and proven benefits of arts exposure.

“What an appalling, short sighted move.”

Paul Stanhope, composer and chair of the Australia Ensemble: “What more can these fuckers do to us?”

The Prime Minister expects to make more announcements this week, so we’ll find out.

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