At the start of the final week of the federal election campaign, Labor luminaries mingled with the arts community at Melbourne’s fabled Espy Hotel to witness the launch of a detailed cultural policy that promises to reinstate artists as central to Australia’s cultural life.
Among a list of pledges, the 24-page policy document Renewing Creative Australia promises fair pay for artists and better copyright recognition.
On its cover? An uncredited stock image by German illustrator MoinMoin, the use of which can be obtained from an international picture agency for $10, royalty-free.
A spokeswoman for the Opposition told the ABC: “We approached the national body to see if images and permissions were available, but in the tight timeframe they were not able to provide them.”
A thoroughly researched document was undermined by a last-minute scramble to make it presentable, but at least one major party released an arts policy.
For 20 years now, the Coalition has not released specific pre-election arts policies.
In response to a query about its vision, a Coalition spokeswoman directed the ABC to six culture-related components of the 2019 and 2018 budgets.
And while the cover arguably undercuts the integrity of some of the promises in Labor’s document, peak visual arts body National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) welcomed its intent.
NAVA executive director Esther Anatolitis said: “Obviously we would love to have seen an Australian artist credited on the cover, but we were pleased so many globally renowned Australian contemporary artists and collectives [were] referenced in Tony Burke’s launch speech including Patricia Piccinini, Michael Zavros, Aphids and Field Theory.”
Creative Australia policy: redux
Renewing Creative Australia is a reboot of Labor’s long-awaited and ill-fated Creative Australia policy, which was released just months before the party was pushed out of office in 2013.
Signalling Labor’s priorities, the new policy reads: “The first area we will look at in regard to industry development [being] visual arts”.
NAVA claims artists’ incomes have declined by 19 per cent since 2012.
Labor has pledged to recognise and reverse the neglect artists have experienced, although there is no actual financial amount allocated to do this.
First Nations first
Among the big tickets in the policy is $8 million for a new Indigenous theatre company plus a further $5 million a year ongoing.
This is one of numerous commitments to augment Indigenous creativity.
Labor also promised to match a Coalition funding pledge for an $85 million Aboriginal art gallery in Adelaide. Both major parties promised $25 million to develop — with the NSW State Government — a $50 million memorial of the point of early contact at the mouth of Botany Bay, which has been endorsed by the local Indigenous land council.
Contemporary music a big winner
The Gershwin Room at St Kilda’s fabled Espy Hotel is the birthplace of some legendary Australian rock and roll, it’s also a home for comedy.
As the location shoot for SBS’s now-retired Rockwiz series for 14 years, it regularly witnessed a little bit of both.
On Saturday, the Gershwin Room was where Labor chose to launch its arts policy before a room of arts leaders, with former Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler, Mushroom Music and Frontier Touring founder Michael Gudinski, actors Marta Dusselldorp, Rhys Muldoon and Simon Burke and screenwriter Andrew Knight among them.
Both Labor and the Coalition have promised packages worth about $30 million to boost contemporary music.
Comedy and Australian drama will benefit according to Labor’s arts policy, with a boost for local production for the ABC ($40 million) and SBS ($20 million) in addition to reinstating funding cuts made in recent years.
Labor will also reinstate its $25 million fund for the development of interactive games.
It’s about the story
Where Labor has stolen the narrative, the Coalition prefers to let the record speak for itself.
Via email a Coalition spokeswoman said: “the Morrison Government announced several arts initiatives in the 2019-20 Budget, including $30.9 million to amplify the Australian music industry, $22 million to the Bundanon Trust, $10 million to the National Library of Australia’s Digitisation Fund and $8 million to assist the work of the national cultural institutions.”
“This builds on other measures implemented, including $140 million in location incentives (for the screen industry), a boost to National Gallery of Australia funding, funding for the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia and additional funding for Indigenous languages. We are delivering all of this without increasing taxes,” the statement read.
Arts Minister Mitch Fifield declined to elaborate.
Senator Fifield was appointed to the twin arts and communications portfolios by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull after the 2015 election.
Before that election, arts funding was bitterly disputed and gave rise to a Free the Arts campaign in response to then-arts minister George Brandis’s decision to divert $100 million from the Australia Council to a fund administered at his discretion, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.
Executive director of peak body Theatre Network NSW Jane Kries said the Free the Arts campaign grew out of an immense threat to artists’ livelihoods, but it also resulted in the greatest moment of mobilisation the sector had ever witnessed.
Artists united convincingly and under Senator Fifield’s guidance, the funds were largely returned to the Australia Council’s control.
Three years on Ms Kries said: “When Mitch Fifield first came on, he really made an effort but we haven’t had much since and the arts has fallen to the bottom of the food chain.”
“The arts is now so undervalued politically and at a policy level, there is a deep sense of real concern,” she said.
What about the screen sector?
In the screen sector, the Coalition’s failure to make decisions to protect the future of the local industry is stark.
The screen production industry welcomed a $140 million location incentive package designed to lure foreign film shoots to Australia announced on the Gold Coast a year ago.
The deal followed lobbying from the part of the industry hit hard by foreign currency fluctuations and incentives offered by competing international territories.
Australian actor Judy Davis (centre) was part of a screen industry delegation that took its concerns about Netflix to Canberra. (ABC News: Mark Moore)
However, screen producers and networks have been united in calling for Australian content obligations for new platforms like Netflix.
A campaign called Make It Australian was launched in response to the threat of streaming platforms and the Federal Government launched three different inquiries into the industry.
Reports from the inquiries were delivered but no responses were forthcoming.
Labor communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland told a recent screen industry meeting Labor would consider making the streaming services commit to Australian programming — the suggested figure has been 10 per cent of the platform’s programming costs — but no promises have been made.
A Labor spokeswoman said: “Labor can’t respond to the report of the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review because it hasn’t been released by the Minister [who] has sat on it for over two years, refusing an FOI request and a Senate Order for Production of Documents.”
“What’s more, the review lacked a critical policy development step — consultation on options — needed to move stakeholders beyond their opening positions and to ensure the settings are fit for purpose and avoid unintended consequences. Labor’s approach under the taskforce will be swift, consultative and evidence-based,” she said.
The Government further earned the ire of screen producers and broadcasters when it revealed on Easter Saturday, during the caretaker period, that Netflix and other streaming services had been granted eligibility to domestic tax incentives.
Those companies will receive tax breaks for shooting here but have no requirement to do so.
“The Morrison Government’s decision to extend tax offsets to streaming video services is a missed opportunity to require those platforms to invest in Australian content,” Screen Producers Australia chief Matthew Deaner said on behalf of the Make It Australian consortium, which represents thousands of creatives and small businesspeople.
“This has ignored long-standing calls for the rules to change so that streaming platforms have obligations to invest in producing local content,” he said.
Flinders University professor Julian Meyrick said Labor had, in recent decades, stolen the narrative on cultural policy making.
“By contrast, Coalition cultural policy has been incremental, eschewing, very publicly, the idea of ‘regulating’ culture, as they see it,” he said.
Professor Meyrick said historically this meant the Coalition respected existing cultural organisations. The Howard-era 1999 Nugent Inquiry into the Major Performing Arts, which created the framework for funding the nation’s Major Performing Arts companies, is a case in point.
“The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have been out of whack with past Coalition attitude to arts and culture, and it’s not easy to say why,” he said.
“These PMs are no more or less cultured than any others Australia has had, with the exception of Keating and Whitlam, but George Brandis’s [Australia Council raid] was a bad misfire, and after that they seemed stuck for an answer.”