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Arts and the election: without the arts policies?

As the 2022 election enters its final days, the lack of arts policies on offer from either the Morrison government or the Labor Party is a huge cause for concern for the sector.

With COVID still raging around the country (despite governments of all stripes doing their best to never mention it), arts companies are struggling to make ends meet as lockdown-era stimulus is wound up but audiences remain reluctant to return to live performance in their pre -pandemic numbers.

With so many companies still on a knife’s edge, and so many independent and freelance artists still doing it incredibly tough, the near-total silence on the arts from both major parties is frankly pathetic for an industry that is worth $112 billion a year to the Australian economy and employs around 600,000 people.

lime light has approached the Coalition, Labor and the Greens and invited them to write about their arts policies: to date only Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has taken us up on the offer, with an op-ed spruiking the government’s support for the sector over the past two years but offering very little for the future. Indeed lime light‘s analysis of the 2022 Federal Budget reveals almost 25 percent of total funding has been cut from the Arts portfolio, with Dr Ben Eltham, a lecturer in Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, surmising that there is “grinding austerity baked into the next three or four years”.

On the Liberal Party’s website there are 28 policy areas listed; the Arts does not appear once.

Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cites and the Arts.

Labor has also offered no specific policies for the Arts in this election campaign. On their campaign website, which lists 29 specific policy areas, the Arts does not appear once – although a policy providing ABC and SBS with fixed five-year funding terms would presumably have positive flow-on effects for the creative sector.

The Greens, in contrast, have a detailed Arts policy, with “Rebuilding the Arts, Entertainment and Creative Sector” featured as one of their five headline policies, a ten-point bullet point list of specific policies for the sector, and a detailed six -page document outlining their policies in depth. The Greens policy that has received the most attention is a proposal for a pilot program called the Artists Wage, whereby up to 10,000 established or emerging artists would receive $772.60 per week for a full calendar year in guaranteed income. This program is modeled on a recent Irish government initiative.

The lack of Arts policy has forced the sector’s peak bodies to take matters into their own hands.

Sixteen Australian music industry bodies have come together to propose a three-point plan to revitalize the local industry, and implored both the Liberal-National coalition and Labor to work with industry to “build a better, more sustainable, innovative, and successful” cultural sector.

The 16 organizations – including ARIA, APRA AMCOS and Live Performance Australia – have a three-point plan for the revitalization of the local industry: one, to rebuild the industry with targeted programs that address skills shortages and the continuing problems caused by COVID; two, structural reform including local content quotas and tax offsets for promoters; and three, to ensure that a career in the arts is sustainable by strengthening intellectual property protections and support a Music Industry Review into sexual harm, sexual harassment and systemic discrimination.

The organizations argue that these reforms are vital to return to the “trajectory of extraordinary growth” that the Australian music industry was on before COVID, and will safeguard the future of a cultural sector worth $16 billion a year to the digital, entertainment, hospitality and tourism economies.

“The cultural, social and economic benefits of investing in Australia’s contemporary music industry are substantive and far-reaching,” said Dean Ormston, CEO of APRA AMCOS. “The challenge for government is to develop a smart whole-of-government approach across cultural diplomacy, trade, tourism, small business, education, health and arts to take full advantage of the music industry’s impact.”

“The opportunity for government is to see dividends in employment opportunities throughout the industries that rely heavily on music whether it be hospitality or the visitor economy, and delivering on the huge appetite for Australian music around the world.”

The three broad categories of reform and industry assistance each contain several specific measures that these organizations are championing. Many of these are specifically aimed at revitalizing pop and contemporary music, however several are important reforms that would greatly benefit the performing arts.

Under the “support rebuild” category are suggested policies including traineeships and skills retraining programs to address critical skills shortages in metropolitan and regional areas, additional funding to Support Act, a Commonwealth Fellowship Program, which amounts to a basic liveable wage for artists as proposed by the Greens, a national mentorship program to develop creative workers, and an expansion of programs to support First Nations and other diversity initiatives.

Under the heading “drive investment” are proposed policies including strengthening and increasing content quotas for all screen and audio platforms, a tax offset for live music presenters, and a Commonwealth-backed insurance scheme for live performance, something that industry bodies have been crying out for since the earliest days of the pandemic.

Finally, there are proposals for a strengthening of intellectual property and various policy reviews to “ensure sustainability” in the industry, from top level organizations down to individual creators. This includes legislating around streaming platforms to ensure a fairer financial return for artists, a Music Industry Review into sexual harm, sexual harassment and systemic discrimination, and a ‘Green Paper’ review of the policy settings supporting the creation, investment and pathways to market for Australian music.

The Australian film and television industry is frustrated by the lack of a coherent arts policy too, with Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner writing in lime light today that the removal of content quotas for broadcasters has harmed the local industry and led to a reduction in Australian stories being told on our screens, and there is a gaping hole where regulations governing the behavior of major international streaming services should be.

Screen Producers Australia CEO, Matthew Deaner.  Image supplied.

Screen Producers Australia CEO, Matthew Deaner. Image supplied.

Earlier this year the Morrison government proposed its Streaming Services Reporting and Investment Scheme, which would require streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ to report their expenditure on Australian content to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). If that expenditure fell below five percent of the revenue it made from Australian customers, the Federal Arts Minister would have the power to impose a formal investment requirement.

Screen Producers Australia was less than thrilled with this proposal, arguing that the “alarming” discretion given to the minister of the day would lead to Australian content being subject to the “uncertain preferences of future Ministers, who are subject to intense lobbying efforts of large commercial corporations”.

This scenario is all-too familiar to the performing arts, which has been seen the Australia Council’s funding reduced, diverted and siloed depending on the whims of the Federal Arts Minister, the most egregious example being George Brandis’s National Program for Excellence in the Arts, which saw the government seize more than $104 million dollars from the Australia Council which was then redistributed to favored organizations without following any official administrative or assessment process.

There were echoes of this episode recently, when Minister Fletcher himself revealed that he had written to the Australia Council expressing concerns about some of the projects that had recently received funding.

When contacted by lime light, Minister Fletcher would not answer specific questions, only providing a brief comment attributed to a department spokesman: “It is a well-established principle that arts funding decisions are made at arm’s length from ministers of the day. At the same time, the Australia Council needs to remember it is spending taxpayers’ money, and it needs to do that in a way that maintains community confidence in our system of arts funding.”

However, as arts consultant and academic Josephine Caust details in her new Platform Paper Arts, Culture and Countrypoliticians have for many years defied arms’ length principles and exploited arts funding as a means of patronage and vote buying.

Frustratingly, a mere six days out from the election, Australia’s creative industries are none the wiser about what awaits them in the next term of government, regardless of the results on 21 May.

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