Alison Croggon thinks it’s time we faced up to the fact that everything is going according to plan
Over the past month, a lot of people have been asking me about what I think about arts funding and COVID-19. They ask because I have spent years reporting on it. This week, I received yet another email forwarded from someone who had been asked by a journalist for “your thoughts on the crisis in arts funding”. They wondered if I had anything to add.
An immense weariness swept over me. “Basically,” I replied, “it’s hard to get past ‘we’re fucked’.”
After the thousands of words I’ve written on this topic, I feel that I don’t have anything new to say. Right now, in the shadow of COVID-19, it feels both too early and too late. In a profession that has always been characterised by uncertainty, I have never felt less certain about anything.
All the same, maybe it’s worth remembering some of those thousands of words, tracing a line through a particular history. I’ve been reporting the inexorable destruction of Australian culture as we know it since the Liberal National Party was elected to government in 2013.
Looking at all these articles together, they coalesce into a dire coherence.
In 2013, foreseeing the oncoming disaster of the election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, I wrote a piece for Overland Journal called Why Art? Among other things, the essay surveyed the economies of Australian culture as they stood at that time (things have changed considerably for the worse since then).
Back then, cultural funding totalled $6.6 billion a year across federal, state and local governments, a figure that covered everything from the ABC and “heritage” funding (museums, libraries, zoos, the environment, and so on) to the relatively small sums given to the arts.
Swallowing all my previous objections to thinking about cultural activity as an industry, I made direct comparisons between cultural industries and others, such as mining or agriculture. What I discovered, as I beavered through various industry documents and Australian Bureau of Statistic reports, surprised even me.
In 2011, cultural industries directly employed 531,000 people, and indirectly generated a further 3.7 million jobs. Copyright industries were worth $93.2 billion to the Australian economy in 2007, with exports worth more than $500 million… Mining employs significantly fewer people than the cultural sector: 187,400 directly, and a further 599,680 in support industries. The industry receives government assistance – to the tune of $700 million in the last financial year. In 2011–12, Australian industry as a whole – including agriculture, food manufacturing and service industries – was given an estimated $17.3 billion in combined assistance (a mixture of direct subsidies, tax breaks, tariffs and regulatory assistance). This doesn’t count a further $9.4 billion invested in research and development by the Australian government in the same financial year
In contrast, it’s probably safe to say that, when discussing arts funding, we’re talking about around $500 million annually, out of a total tax revenue in 2011–12 of $390 billion – that is, about 0.1 per cent of total government expenditure. (Assistance to industry, including research and development, is around 7 per cent.) The Australia Council, the major arts funding body, has a budget this year of $220 million.
In this particular essay I also attempted to define, in the broadest possible way, what art actually is. Even in the midst of this crisis, I want to remember that the reasons art exists – the reasons why it’s made and why people need and want it – have nothing to do with the economy.
[Art] is a network of interdependent relationships: firstly of the artists with themselves and the world in which they live, and then with the artwork they create; next, with those who encounter the art and who then create relationships between the art, the world and themselves. Art is made and received in a dynamic structure of exchange in which order and disorder are in constant tension and flux. Its potential excess of sensory and emotional stimuli makes art particularly subject – just as the body is – to forces of control. Art both expresses modes of control and exceeds them, and art always, for better or worse, overflows its intentions…
An artist makes an object of his or her subjective experience that permits another subject to recognise the contradiction that is the condition of consciousness. In a time when the subject is suffocatingly redefined as the neoliberalised consumerist self, art in all its forms, even the crudest, expresses a profound longing: the desire of the subject to be returned to itself.
Art is an invitation, which like all invitations may be accepted or refused. Every artistic act contains within its genesis a wager: that we exist as subjects, not as objects. Art is a technology for consciousness that comes with no guarantees, but that always contains within itself a seed of revolt – the possibility that we are agents in our own lives, that we can perceive and feel and be.
When I think about art, I mean freedom.
I still think art is freedom.
In 2016, I wrote a couple of pieces about the Brandis raid of the Australia Council coffers for The Monthly – one after Black Friday, the first round of funding after the raids, and another that looked more widely at the ideological attack on Australia’s knowledge institutions, which include libraries, science, universities and so on. “The past three years,” I wrote, as I laid out stories of major institutions cut to the core, companies vanishing, possibilities betrayed, ‘have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory.”
Late last year I wrote another piece for The Monthly, The Desertification of Australian Culture, in which I outlined again the ongoing devastation taking place in our arts and culture sector. Here I pointed out that the Australia Council’s budget is, even in cash terms, less than it was in 2013. In real terms, given that it’s not indexed against inflation, it has dropped precipitously. I pointed out, again, that culture is a major Australian industry:
According to the Department of Communications and the Arts, cultural and creative activity contributed $111 billion to the economy in 2016–17, with the arts alone furnishing $4.6 billion (2015 Australia Council figures). By the gross value added metric – a different measure from the gross domestic product – the contribution of cultural and creative industries to the economy in 2016–17 was $86 billion, or 5.2 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics). That’s almost twice the contribution of agriculture, fishing and forestry ($48 billion), and more than half that of the mining industry ($148 billion in 2017–18). Yet, cultural spending represents just 0.5 per cent of the federal Budget – approximately $2.6 billion, which includes funding for the ABC, SBS, galleries, archives, films, museums and libraries, as well as the beleaguered Australia Council.
For comparison, according to a study by the International Monetary Fund released in May this year, subsidies to the Australian fossil-fuel industry alone amount to $29 billion a year.
Three months later, the pandemic hit.
In late March, in the immediate aftermath of the cancellations, I wrote a news article for the Saturday Paper that foreshadowed the devastation COVID-19 is now wreaking across Australia’s culture industries, especially in the performing arts:
After years of cumulative funding cuts, which have accelerated since 2013, the cultural sector was already struggling. Most industry insiders are now saying that, without assistance, even our major companies are facing an existential threat. …There are real fears many companies will close their doors during this crisis and never open them again.
On April 7, the ABC published a graphic from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that showed Arts and Recreation services were hardest hit by far, with only 47 per cent of its business operating. Accommodation and food services only had 69 per cent trading. Retail trade was travelling at 79 per cent while financial and insurance were trading at 96 per cent.
Since the first cancellations in mid-March, arts leaders have been campaigning for a federal stimulus package that would target culture industries. As various billion-dollar packages rolled out over the following month, it became increasingly clear that nothing was going to happen. The Morrison government made some previously unimaginable decisions in the face of the crisis – for example, temporarily doubling the derisory Newstart payment and rebranding it as Job Seeker payment. Shortly afterwards Morrison announced $130 billion of wage subsides, which included assistance for casual workers and sole traders. It seemed at first that total catastrophe was averted.
There have been a number of emergency packages for the arts, few of them from the Federal Government. Early this month the Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher, actually voted against measures in the wage subsidy package that were designed to help the arts and entertainment industries. Shortly afterwards he announced $27m in targeted relief for regional and Indigenous arts, and music industry workers. (Live Performance Australia asked for $850m to help it through an emergency that it estimates will costs billions). The Australia Council scrambled together all its uncommitted funds to find $5m in emergency grants and varied the terms of those already given for artists and companies whose work was suddenly impossible to complete. The South Australian government swiftly offered quick response grants to help artists and organisations through COVID-19, as did a number of others, such as the City of Melbourne.
When the $130b stimulus package was passed in Parliament on April 7, it became very clear that it was going to exclude many workers. Casual workers who have been attached to the employer for less than 12 months, temporary visa workers, and employees of local councils are not eligible for the payments. Neither are the international students stranded in Australia, although they prop up the budgets of our tertiary sector.
This is catastrophic for many people, including many arts workers. For example, actors and other itinerants, who are paid as casuals rather than sole traders, almost never work for any employer for 12 months. Because of their unpredictable incomes, many arts workers who operate as sole traders will have difficulty establishing their COVID-19 losses in order to qualify for the Job Keeper.
“The line,” as the Prime Minister said, “has to be drawn somewhere.”
Shortly before Tony Abbott was elected in 2013, the Institute for Public Affairs, Australia’s most prominent rightwing propaganda machine, put out a kind of wishlist: Be Like Gough: 75 Radical Ideas To Transform Australia.
It’s kind of interesting to trawl through this wishlist in 2020. The successive LNP governments since Abbott have in fact ticked many of them off. Some have happened just as the IPA ordered; the first two points – abolishing the carbon price and Department of Climate Change – happened in Abbott’s first year. Others – such as the proposed breaking up and privatising of the ABC – have been going on in the background, with continual funding decreases and public attacks.
Number 17 is “End local content requirements for Australian television stations”. Which literally happened this month – temporarily, according to Arts Minister Fletcher – as part of a package to assist Australian media companies. As the Guardian reported on April 15:
The Greens communication spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the government had failed “to offer any real relief” to the arts and entertainment industry, and relaxation of local content quotas “will in fact make things worse for many thousands of artists and entertainers who have already lost their jobs”.
Scroll down further and Number 62 reads: “End all public subsidies to sport and the arts.”
“Insanity,” goes the popular saw, “is doing the same thing over and over and over again, but expecting different results.”
The first real national campaigning to alert the Federal Government to the crises in the arts industries began in 2015, during the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts. This was prompted by then Arts Minister Senator Brandis’ creation of the National Programme (sic) for Excellence in the Arts, which raided the Australia Council’s discretionary funding to create a rival, non-peer-reviewed, funding body under the direct control of the Arts Ministry itself.
The Inquiry attracted 2719 public submissions – a record number. Together, they provide a snapshot of Australian culture in 2015. Individuals and corporations, audience members, readers and philanthropists, indies and major companies, came together in unprecedented numbers to let the government know how the culture really works, how productive it is, how valuable it is socially and economically. The unanimity of response reportedly took Brandis aback.
The Inquiry found that the arts were grievously underfunded and recommended the return of the NPEA funds to the Australia Council. Some money was indeed returned, although the NPEA was rebranded as Catalyst and continued on a smaller scale. Finally it became embarrassingly evident that it was reproducing a service the Australia Council did better, and it was quietly abolished in 2017.
That was a small victory in a larger war that has otherwise been a long, inexorable defeat.
Since 2015 there have been several similar national campaigns – mostly recently after the post-pandemic announcement of four-year funding from the Australia Council, which saw a third of Australia’s cultural institutions defunded. They included significant institutions such as La Mama and the Art Gallery of South Australia, almost every literary magazine and almost all youth-centred performing arts companies. These decisions are still ripples from the 2016 Brandis raid, and are nothing to do with the pandemic. But together with the effects of COVID-19, March 2020 felt like a turning point. Suddenly it became clear that nothing was going to the same.
So we campaign, yet again. Article after article, submission after submission, round table after round table, hashtag after hashtag, arguing the same things that everyone has been arguing for years. They are all good points. They all have solid evidence behind them, solid research, solid achievement.
Like everyone else, I’ve been making these arguments for years. And yes, I’m tired. I’m wondering how I personally, and how Australian culture generally, are going to survive the next few months. How we’ll survive the next few years. But principally, I find myself thinking that we need to face up to the bad faith that has always characterised this pattern of engagement.
The LNP’s record betrays neither ignorance nor inadvertent neglect: it reflects a conscious policy of hostility against the arts. This is why careful evidence-based arguments don’t work: it’s not that the people making these decisions don’t know what they’ve been told, over and over again, over the past few years. Of course they know. That’s not the point.
I’m not saying these campaigns and arguments and histories are a waste of time. We need to know where we’ve been in order to think about where we go next. We need to inform each other of where we are. We have to keep fighting the smaller battles within the the institutions we have. Even tiny wins help people to survive: and right now for most of us that means literally feeding families, keeping roofs over heads.
But maybe collectively it’s time to consider the active governmental ill will towards Australian culture as proven. Australians might want culture – every survey shows that they do – but the government doesn’t want us to make it. This chaos and destruction in our culture is a desirable outcome. It’s hard not to think that as far as the government is concerned, everything is going according to plan.
The federal funding systems for our culture have been systematically undermined over the past decade because the Federal Government has an ideological agenda to destroy anything in Australian culture that is worth a hill of beans. In its place the government is busy erecting a monument that it calls “western civilisation”, even though what it’s proposing – a huge war museum that no one wants or a stunt on circumnavigating Australia to commemorate a voyage that literally never happened – has nothing do with either of these terms. Instead of culture, we’ll have an endless parade of vacuous nationalistic propaganda.
The cultural industries are not special, even if they are different from other industries. Nevertheless, it seems the Federal Government considers them exceptional because, unlike every other industry, they don’t need money. As I pointed out on Twitter on March 20, the aviation industry is worth, according to ABS figures, $18b per annum, 2 per cent of the GDP. Culture is worth $111b, or 5 per cent of the GDP. But while the Federal Government rushed $715m of assistance to just one aviation company – Qantas – in the early part of the COVID-19 emergency, the equally battered cultural industry is left to twist in the wind.
The Federal Government doesn’t consider cultural workers to be of value. We’re placed as expendable with many others – insecure casual workers, from the academies to the hospitality industries; disabled people; migrants and international students. I think that ought to be very clear by now. Even our bigger institutions, many of whom welcomed the changes that insulated them from the storms that were ravaging their smaller colleagues, are beginning to feel the chill.
Some companies – Sydney’s Griffin Theatre being one example – are doing their best with scarce resources to look after their colleagues in an impossible situation. Others, like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, have stood down their artists because they’re considered “non-essential workers” which, for an arts organisation, has a certain black comedy. But it also throws into relief what some of the more corporate arts institutions think about the artists whose work they allegedly exist to display.
I don’t have any answers. As I said, it feels both too early and too late. But before anything else, it seems to me to be crucial to undo, bit by bit, act by act, the damage done to Australian culture by right wing propaganda, to unpick the lies that paint the arts as elitist, as not for “ordinary people”, and the policies that turn that lie into a truth by making them unaffordable for anyone who isn’t rich.
Let’s move outside the suffocating binaries imposed by the powerful and think about about who else is excluded from the present social contract. Our possible allies are everywhere. They include those who need and use the work we make, but who so often fail to understand how it is made, and at what cost. They are those who desire meaning, who want a better world, who want to combat the dishonesties and corruption and destruction that characterise so much of what we know of contemporary national politics. Our allies are those who want more than the authoritarian dystopia that is currently darkening our timelines.
Like everyone else (unless you’re a billion dollar international corporation like BHP or News Corp), cultural workers pay taxes. We vote. We live and work in communities. And right now, a lot of us have time to think.
It’s abundantly clear that what we’ve been doing so far isn’t working. The bulk of our achievement since 2013 has been to meticulously record our endless defeat. But our whole lives are about thinking in new and interesting ways. So let’s rethink the whole shebang. From the ground up.