Originally published in Canberra Times on May 15, 2021

It is not that the Treasurer did nothing for arts and culture in his budget that is so disappointing. It is that we expected nothing.

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

It has been nearly 50 years since Gough Whitlam put art and creativity at the centre of government decision-making, and over 25 years since Paul Keating’s famous Creative Nation push. We seem to have forgotten that governments can champion the power of arts and culture as drivers of prosperity, innovation and a successful society.

A colleague recently told me that his grandmother used to say that when she arrived in Australia in the ’50s, culture was what you found in the back of the fridge in a yoghurt jar. At least it was safe there. Fast forward to 2021 and it is more likely that culture is being sneered at by a shock jock or derided by a politician in a high-vis vest.

Over the years, the government’s consistent refusal to recognise the value of the arts has resulted in systemic neglect that has done genuine harm to the sector. That neglect, combined with the ongoing impact of COVID-19, has driven many Australian artists and entertainers to the economic brink.

The arts, culture and entertainment are more than industries. They sit at the centre of our national sense of community and help to build the very fabric of our society. They are how we tell our stories, define ourselves and construct our collective cultural identities.

Here in Canberra the big cultural institutions – from the National Library, Museum, Art Gallery and Portrait Gallery, to the Archives and Old Parliament House – not only anchor the city but serve as focal points and conservers of our shared national culture. The additional funding that these “national collecting institutions” received in the budget is a small, but welcome, recognition of their significant value.

Few other artistic organisations and cultural institutions were as lucky. Despite many in the music, entertainment and creative industries sounding the alarm throughout the Covid crisis, they received little in this week’s federal budget. At just an additional $304.7 million, the entire arts and entertainment sector received well under what the government is spending to increase Australia’s onshore detention capacity, including the use of Christmas Island.

You would not know it from listening to many of our politicians, but Australians attend more arts events than large sports events. More Australians create arts than play organised sport.

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Some MPs’ desperate attempts to be associated with the footie, or the Sharkies, blind us to these facts.

A better understanding of how we benefit from arts and culture is important. As a nation it gives us social cohesion, togetherness, understanding of others and understanding of the world around us. Happiness.

However, even if political leaders will not speak of such things in relation to art, we should at least be able to agree on some arts industry economic facts.

Despite contributing $14.7 billion to GDP annually, the economic importance of the arts plays 10th fiddle to industries like construction or resource extraction.

The arts and entertainment sector employs 193,000 Australians – more than the entire finance sector and four times as many as coal mining. Research conducted during the height of the pandemic shows only 7 per cent of Australians correctly identified that the arts and entertainment sector employed significantly more Australians than coal mining. Employment in the arts sector is also comprised of an even mix of men and women, which sets it apart from the male-dominated industries of mining and construction.

Australia Institute budget analysis found that if the government had chosen to invest $2 billion into the creative arts and entertainment industry it would have created three to four times more jobs than were created by the $2 billion HomeBuilder construction scheme. When it came to jobs for women, arts and entertainment would deliver 10 times as many jobs compared to the building industry.

An arts-led economic recovery from COVID-19 would provide more bang for the government’s buck than construction, and produce more equitable employment outcomes for men and women. Indeed, it would also have been better than the supposed ”gas-led” recovery – the gas industry has actually delivered a cut in jobs.

Of course, for the sector to thrive, money alone is not enough. The Australian government must champion Australian arts and entertainment and regulate for it properly.

While the Morrison government might have failed to recognise the importance of the arts during the pandemic, the Australian public certainly did not. Australians turned to their storytellers in record numbers, for everything from solace to laughter.

Research showed that three in four Australians said the arts had improved their mood and quality of life during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Australians consumed a lot more television and movies during lockdown. Imagine if they were all repeats.

To support the domestic screen industry and encourage local stories to be told, free-to-air commercial television channels have long been required to create and broadcast minimum amounts of local content every year. Streaming services face no such regulation. As Australians increasingly turn to these “on demand” services, that reliable pipeline of work and content created from those local content rules is coming under threat.

To remedy that situation, Screen Producers Australia and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance have suggested a quota be introduced that would require streaming services to invest 20 per cent of their Australian revenue into local content. This is in line with what is being sought in other countries such as France and Canada.

This would be a welcome boost for the struggling arts and entertainment sector, and it would help to ensure that Australian audiences would be able to see and hear Australian stories, told by Australian artists and entertainers, long into the future. It would also ensure Australian stories are seen around the world.

The one thing that can be said about Frydenberg’s budget is that it was not frugal. There was cash splashed in many places, and much-needed deficits will stretch as far as the eye can see. Clearly it was not an overall lack of money that caused the arts to miss out.

When facing criticism from those who see hypocrisy in the Coalition’s newfound love for spending and deficits, the Treasurer is fond of quoting former prime minister John Howard’s assertion that there are “no ideological constraints in a crisis”.

But when it comes to the government’s attitude to the arts, ideology has trumped sensible economics and policy again.

We are all the poorer, and sadder, for it.

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