Artists around the country are reeling from the news that the Federal Government has removed them from the political agenda. As of 1 February 2020 the arts will no longer be represented as a department name as the former Department of Communications and the Arts has been rolled into a newly formed Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
According to the Canberra Times, outgoing head of the department Mike Mrdak told his staff in a memo. In the memo, Mrdak says there was little consultation on the decisions. ‘We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the machinery of government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the department or to changes to our structure and operations,’ Mrdak wrote.
Mrdak became Secretary of the ministry in September 2017 and has only just begun to put his stamp on the role. Under the new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, the Secretary looking after the arts will be Simon Atkinson, the current Secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development. New to that role in September 2019, Atkinson will have have to stretch an already large portfolio to include the arts and communications.
The Hon. Paul Fletcher has provided a statement about the future of the department saying existing staff would be retained and Fletcher himself would remain as minister. The statement also commits to the existing budget until June 2020 but nothing beyond this.
The sector responds
Given the sudden nature of the announcement, many artists have been left blindsided and apprehensive. CEO of the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) Esther Anatolitis said, ‘I think news is shocking and has a detrimental impact on artists who are already feeling the pain of cuts and multiple multi-year funding applications. We’re still dealing with the shockwaves of the last years funding cuts. So when you have an unannounced restructure it contributes to that sense of disarray and confusion.’
Anatolitis is convinced that this is a poor signal to send to artists and arts organisations at a time when they are already under pressure. ‘What artists need to hear is that the Australian Government has confidence in them and their work. This is a confusing announcement from a prime minister trying to make some efficiency measures. But we now have a Federal ministry that doesn’t have the arts in it, when every study shows the importance of the arts to the economy and to our future,’ she continued.
Many artists and arts workers echoed Anatolitis’ sense of apprehension and shock online:
According to the (former) Department of Communications and the Arts, cultural and creative activity in Australia contributes over $100 billion to the economy annually.
But that’s chickenfeed, right? And honestly, why encourage them. We’ve got an economy to run.
— Nick Feik (@NickFeik) December 5, 2019
Ministerial portfolios have been unchanged by the restructure – but the changes look set to keep coming. In the press conference announcing the restructure, Morrison stated that there were further changes afoot, with more announcements to be made as early as next week.
The new name is the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. ‘The Arts’ have dropped off completely, which is a sure sign that they’re not a concern for this govt. Expect more funding cuts to orgs etc
— Joshua Badge (@joshuabadge) December 5, 2019
While Morrison insists these changes are intended to increase efficiency, rather than as a money saving measure, they come hot on the heels of several major industry cuts. The latest of these was the shocking $783 million loss in funding the ABC over a four year period. The cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts between 2016 and today have also taken their toll, with as few as 55% of invited applicants expected to receive four year funding, leaving around 70 applicants without this crucial support – not to speak of the 250 who didn’t make it past the Expression of Interest stage.
Until we know more about the fallout of this restructure, artists and arts workers are bracing themselves; the worst may well be yet to come.