Arts cuts: Abbott Government takes us backwards

Budget 2014 cuts to arts funding wipe out many of the gains of Creative Australia and may signal the renewal of the culture wars.
Arts cuts: Abbott Government takes us backwards

Wipe out! Image via www.capetowndailyphoto.com.

Senator George Brandis’ first budget as Arts Minister establishes some uncomfortable precedents for the self-described music-lover.

This is the first budget in many years to significantly cut arts funding. By doing so, the Government has not only damaged cultural support in Australia; it appears to have signaled that the decades of bipartisan support for culture and the arts are ending.

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All told, more than $100 million in funding has disappeared: $34 million from Brandis’ Attorney General’s Department, $28 million from the Australia Council, and $25 million from Screen Australia. $10 million has been saved by abolishing the Australian Interactive Games Fund. The books industry will be disappointed to learn that the Get Reading! program has also been axed.

In the scheme of a $415 billion Commonwealth budget, the arts portfolio is a miniscule $572 million: 0.13 %. Organisations like the Australia Council support surprisingly large amounts of cultural activity on a shoestring. While the arts sector understands that the federal budget must eventually return to surplus, many artists are getting by on much less than a living wage, as the Australia Council’s own research shows.

That’s not to say the arts doesn’t have enemies in politics, such as vocal right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt. Opinion poll surveys show that the arts are an area that ordinary Australians would prioritise if cuts have to be made. On the other hand, different surveys also show that Australians like and value the arts, and would like to see more taxpayer support. As so often, when it comes to support for the arts, much depends on what questions are asked, and who is asking the questions.

The symbolism of cutting arts and culture seems especially acute because Minister Brandis has made little concerted effort to foreshadow or explain why the arts should take a hit, beyond the generic arguments of budget repair. Given that killing off the entire arts budget will not make much of a dent in a $29 billion deficit, many may ask whether the sector has been targeted as payback for its perceived left-wing tendencies.

During John Howard’s administration, Brandis argued that Liberal governments have been truer friends of the arts in Australia than Labor. That argument must now be in question. Many will wonder whether this is the beginning of a new culture war, in which arts funding will be collateral damage.

These cuts will hurt, and not just symbolically. The cuts to Screen Australia, for instance, represent almost 10 per cent of the agency’s funding. Screen Australia will shrink this year, and keep shrinking all the way out to 2018. That can’t be good for Australian film-making. In an industry that often relies on the federal government as the key early investor for many commercial projects, less funding from Screen Australia will almost certainly mean lower production levels, and lower employment. In an interview with the ABC this morning, Screen Australia’s Fiona Cameron forecast cuts to production funding 'across the board'.

The Australia Council cuts are not quite as draconian, but they are certainly painful. After years of lean times enduring Labor’s efficiency dividends, Creative Australia gave the Australia Council new resources for the first time in a decade. That money has already started to make significant difference, with the Australia Council supporting new initiatives and new programs. Now those gains are at risk. It’s one step forward, and one step back.

As Jo Caust pointed out in The Conversation, the worrying aspect of the Australia Council cuts is that they will fall largely on grants to artists and small-to-medium organisations, who don’t have their funding already locked in. That may be the intention, as Brandis has flagged his overt support for the major performing arts organisations. But the result of those cuts means less support for the new and emerging activity that is often the most creative and innovative. That’s strangely inconsistent with one of the themes of Joe Hockey’s speech, which was about enhancing productivity in order to 'pay it forward' for Australia’s future.

One of the aspects of the budget that will have direct impacts on many artists is not in the arts portfolio at all: changes to Newstart. Under the new rules, a jobseeker under 30 will no longer be able to access Newstart until she has completed six months of mutual obligation. That means no money at all, for six months.

Apart from the obvious implications for poverty, it's an open secret that many artists rely on the dole as they rotate in and out of poorly-paid, insecure creative work. Winding back Newstart eligibility like this will have a big impact on the ability of younger artists to pursue their craft. The changes are already causing wide concern in the industry.

Of all the cuts, perhaps the most mystifying was the axing of the Interactive Games Fund for local games developers. Gaming is a vast international industry; on some calculations it is larger than than cinema. Australia used to be a world player in game development, but the local industry was ravaged by the high Australian dollar.

Simon Crean’s efforts to introduce federal funding for the industry were in part a recognition of the fact that game development represented a big potential source of new jobs and exports for Australia. The paltry $10 million that the government will realise by cutting the Interactive Games Fund is a tiny saving, but a huge opportunity cost. The local games industry is already reeling.

Ben Eltham

Wednesday 14 May, 2014

About the author

Ben Eltham is ArtsHub's industry columnist.