STATEMENTS BY SENATORS;Arts Funding – 11 Nov 2015

‘The king is dead; long live the king.’ That is what Senator Abetz told this place a few weeks ago upon the removal of Mr Abbott from the position of Prime Minister. Along with the removal of the Prime Minister, Minister Brandis also lost the arts portfolio. The removal of the failed arts minister has evoked considerable joy amongst the arts community, both nationally and in my home state, in particular, of Tasmania. However, this rejoicing is premature as, while Minister Brandis is gone from the arts portfolio, his policies remain under the new minister, Senator Fifield.

I do sincerely wish him luck—and I have said this to Minister Fifield’s face—in fixing the devastation inflicted upon the arts industry by his immediate predecessor. There was a lack of consultation, I know, but also a lack of knowledge of the broader arts community when Senator Brandis made those decisions. It is pretty safe to say that this Abbott-Turnbull government is the worst government in generations for the arts community. It has caused disruption on a scale that has never been seen before. This government’s ideological attacks on the arts has caused untold confusion, anger and heartbreak.

As a full member of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affair References Committee, I have taken the lead role for the Labor Party in the inquiry into the recent arts funding budget decisions. Time and again, the committee has heard that this government has been a disaster for the Australian arts industry. At every inquiry, we have heard the same evidence. It has caused companies and organisations to close. The changes will be particularly felt in my home state of Tasmania. Tasmania has a wonderful, vibrant, innovative and extremely talented arts industry. It is full of extraordinarily passionate artists who strive to tell the stories of our home state to a world-class standard. Unfortunately, this government has failed them.

When Senator Brandis decided to set up his thoroughly discredited National Program for Excellence in the Arts, having failed to consult with anyone outside his own office, he did so with an arrogant bias against anything not produced by a major company in Sydney or Melbourne. Senator Brandis wanted to see himself as a modern day Lorenzo de’ Medici; a wise and beneficial patron of the arts. He wants to be the hero who is lauded for funding the contemporary equivalent of Michelangelo or Botticelli. Australian arts funding for the last year has been skewed by Senator Brandis’s view that excellence is solely represented by the work of the major organisations. Anything else is not ‘excellent’ and is unworthy of funding from the minister’s personal NPEA fiefdom.

In Tasmania, we only have one organisation that is a major performing arts group, and that is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It is a wonderful organisation, well worthy of the major organisation funding it receives from the Australia Council. No-one in Tasmania, especially in the Tasmanian arts community, begrudges its success. The Tasmanian arts community is fiercely proud of Tasmania’s orchestra. However, it does not sustain the majority of artists practising in Tasmania, and that is the rub. These artists mainly work for small to medium companies or organisations—often multiple organisations, simultaneously—and as individually practising artists. They may also work doing other paid employment to support their practise, because we all know artists do not make much money.

It is the small to medium organisations that are the lifeblood of the arts industry in Tasmania. Few in this country have the benefit of working for one of the major organisations that were quarantined from Senator Brandis’s cuts to pay for his slush fund. It is the small to medium organisations that are creating the revolutionary new works that are travelling internationally and that interstate Australians and international visitors are flocking to see.

I recently held a roundtable with the Tasmanian arts community with shadow minister Dreyfus, as part of the Tasmanian task force initiative. Representatives from a large number of organisations came along to give their views on the current state of the industry and what is needed to keep it going. Without a doubt, the overwhelming view of the roundtable was that it is the policies of this Abbott-Turnbull government that have put the arts industry in jeopardy. Artists told the roundtable that, before the change to the Australia Council’s funding, ‘the arts industry had just enough people and money to keep it going’. I emphasise that: it had just enough people and money to keep going. The effect of ripping the money out of the Australia Council grants program and shifting it to the NPEA could very well be the collapse of significant parts of the Tasmanian arts industry.

The government have failed to understand the whole nature of the arts. One of the roundtable participants said:

The arts in Tasmania is a ‘micro-economy’ where small amounts of funding are leveraged greatly. It’s an interweaving ecology.

I have heard the phrase ‘the arts is an interweaving ecology’ time and time again during the Senate inquiry’s public hearings. The government do not understand this point. They see arts organisations as silos that employ a certain number of artists as full-time equivalents. They do not see that, in reality, artists work across multiple organisations. They work extremely hard and often contribute large amounts of their own labour, pro bono, to projects or organisations they are involved in. Organisations work cooperatively, connected by deep relationships and a shared commitment to producing quality art. The government do not understand because they only believe in competition. They do not understand a sector that works cooperatively. They also do not understand that money spent by arts organisations does not go just to artists but goes straight back into the economy. This was illustrated by witnesses who told the roundtable:

The basic point is that arts organisations don’t just employ artists. They employ admin staff, printers, sign writers, they book venues—

with the costs involved there, not just for the room but often for drinks and things where money is put across the bar and people are employed. The witnesses told the roundtable:

Most income for small-to-medium organisations is spent on wages, and the people are very low waged people, so that is spent on food and rent. The money keeps rolling.

From what I have seen, it is clear that the government do not understand the arts, particularly the small to medium organisations. The government keep on telling arts organisations that they need to get philanthropic funding, but the government either do not understand or do not care how difficult it is for small organisations to compete with the majors for this very tiny amount of private funding. As one of the stakeholders told the roundtable:

There is just so much pressure on the sector to diversify and get philanthropic funding. But we operate at the bottom of the food chain. We do behind the scene work … Our work is invisible; there’s no high impact outcomes. We cannot compete with the major organisations that offer opening night red carpets and opportunities to schmooze with the stars. We are a niche not-for-profit doing specialist work. But if we don’t do it, who will? And if we go the [artists] will suffer.

While most of the conversations about changes to arts funding have been about the cuts to the Australia Council to fund the NPEA, there have also been significant cuts to Screen Australia in the recent budgets. Funding cuts in the last two budgets have seen federal government funding for Screen Australia drop from $100.8 million in 2013-14 to a projected $84.1 million in 2017-18. This is having a devastating impact on Screen Australia and the various state based organisations it funds. These cuts are going to significantly impact on the operations of Wide Angle Tasmania. Wide Angle Tasmania will lose $80,000 worth of funding from Screen Australia from 2016. Tasmania has a small but vibrant screen industry, and Wide Angle Tasmania are at its heart. They provide enormous support to the sector. For emerging Tasmanian filmmakers who want to access professional equipment, they are the only people to turn to. They provide training courses for young filmmakers so they can start their professional careers at home in Tasmania; and they support the industry through screenings and film competitions and providing a network for talented people to engage with each other. Almost all of the Tasmanian film industry is linked to, and dependent on, the work of Wide Angle Tasmania. Wide Angle Tasmania recently announced that they will be closing at the end of June 2016, due to their loss of funding. This a terrible outcome for Tasmanian directors, actors, screenwriters and technical crews, who do so much wonderful work with very little money. The government should be ashamed.

I would like to finish this contribution with another comment or two from the roundtable. The first quote is:

The engagement by the Government is disingenuous and we are exhausted by all the changes.

Another quote:

We are losing knowledge of the industry as people are leaving or burning out.

It is clear from these comments that the Tasmanian arts sector is in a desperate state, and it is also clear that failed former arts minister Senator Brandis is to blame. The new minister needs to fix this mess—and, as I said, I sincerely hope that he can. But he needs to fix it now, before Wide Angle Tasmania and other Tasmanian arts organisations close the door and the Tasmania arts industry collapses with them.