May 11, 2020 Ryan Johnson

Coronavirus: Morrison must stage a dramatic rescue of the arts

Published in The Australian on 11/5/2020


The demise of the Sydney arts centre Carriageworks highlights the threat posed to smaller, grassroots companies and theatres. Picture: AAP


In 1994, Paul Keating released Creative Nation, an arts policy that was designed to “pull the threads of Australia’s national life together so we can ride the waves of global change and create our own”. These objectives are just as vital today as we face an arts sector on its knees.

Our creative industries are more than entertainment alone. They are a source of national pride. Australian stories need to be told, especially in times like these.

We need our artists to help us through the long days of social distancing, but we cannot afford to let our creative industries collapse at the same time.

Despite the hardship, our local artists who are fortunate to still be in work are doing their best to bolster community spirit. There have been some terrific endeavours, such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which is streaming live concerts; the National Gallery of Victoria providing virtual tours of exhibits; and the Arts Centre Melbourne hosting a weekly variety night.

The Victorian government has also created Victoria Together, an online hub that gives free access to a wide array of on-demand online entertainment experiences and live shows.

But, while government support in Victoria allows some of our big institutions to do their best to fill the void, smaller local businesses and organisations are crumbling throughout the pandemic.

In NSW, the first major casualty was arts centre Carriageworks in Sydney, which called in the administrators earlier this month. This was a devastating development. If there’s no future for a large-scale, government-backed venue such as Carriageworks, what hope is there for smaller, grassroots companies and theatres? A tragic example in my electorate is Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company. This small company specialises in theatre for at-risk young people. But only a few weeks ago, at a time when it could least afford it, Somebody’s Daughter lost its Australia Council funding.

A young woman named April emailed me a few days ago about the company. She told me that she had been introduced to Somebody’s Daughter when she was 14. At the time, April had already overdosed once and was on a pathway towards further personal destruction. Somebody’s Daughter gave her “the time, attention, patience, tough love and motivation to get back on my feet. Performing across Australia, including at parliament, gave me a whole new sense of self, a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of belonging”.

April’s experience is just one example of the power of theatre, and the arts more broadly. In these difficult times, where mental health challenges are rising, we need organisations that specialise in giving young people a voice and a stage.

But our creative industries, as well as telling our story and lifting us up, are also crucial to steering our economy out of this downturn. As Adrian Collette, chief executive of the Australia Council, noted in these pages last week, they are a major contributor to the national economy. Cultural and creative activity made up 6.4 per cent of our GDP, or $111.7bn in 2016-17; and they have massive impacts on our tourism and hospitality industries, as well as in health (especially mental) and education. They also employ around 600,000 workers.

In so many ways we cannot afford to wake up at the end of this epidemic with no creative arts industry. The federal government needs to step up to save our creative industries and the thousands of jobs that exist within them.

Live Performance Australia estimates the live performance industry alone needs $850m in support to get to the other side of this crisis. That is 30 times what the Morrison government has offered up thus far. For many artists, the earliest round of coronavirus restrictions meant an immediate end to work and the prospect of six months or more without their livelihoods. This pain was exacerbated when so many artists were excluded from the government’s JobKeeper package.

To make matters worse, the Australia Council’s funding, which saw harsh cuts in the 2014-15 budget, has still not been restored to the levels during the previous Labor government, forcing it to make tough choices to defund organisations throughout this devastating pandemic.

On top of that, the government has suspended local screen content quotas for new Australian drama, documentaries and children’s programming.

Sadly, this treatment of our arts sector is no surprise. If you ask those in the industry, they can tell you that this is the culmination of a dark period for the arts.

Lack of funding is resulting in thousands of lost jobs while also leaving our nation without creative content and experiences that we are desperately seeking throughout this pandemic.

Scott Morrison has a choice: he can empower a generation of artists and go down in history for saving his nation’s creative industries, or he can let them evaporate.

We need our artists now more than ever. We need their stories, songs and their words. And just like other parts of the economy, we need to protect their jobs.

Josh Burns is the federal Labor MP for Macnamara.


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