Dear Treasurer – Our Arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

Tobacco drying sheds North East Victoria: The creative industries are too important to become just another industry overtaken by history.
Stephen Cassidy
| May 10, 2016

An arts agenda for the future – central to everyday life

Like it or not, we’re all part of a double disillusion election, and an early one as well – as if we need any more of them, given some of the disastrous outcomes of past ones. Somewhere in the noise and dust, Australia’s arts and culture future could well be lost.

Many thousands who are part of the arts and culture sector have been affected by the Budget and will be further affected by decisions that politicians of all shades of grey make in the coming months. The whole arts and culture sector has had an uneven treatment from government in the past. It’s as though everyone recognises that it’s important to Australia and Australians but no-one is quite sure what to do about it. Whether it’s about telling Australia’s story, making cities more liveable, starting children on a lifetime of capability or opening doors for the young from remote Aboriginal communities, arts and culture keeps coming up in the conversation.

Cumulative corrosive effect of arts cuts

arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda

Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of arts support. At the time of the transfer (and then partial return) of large amounts of funding from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts, the public budgets of the Ministry for the Arts over the last few years revealed that the transfer masked serious reductions in overall Ministry program funds over several years. Comparisons are difficult because of the continual change of departments but the historical trend is clear. There are odd blips but the overall trend is clearly down.

Worst of all about this decline is that it’s not as if these programs have ever been massive ones by any measure, so these cuts have been made to what are extremely modest and lean programs to start with. The long-term structural weakness in the national budget has not resulted from over-spending by any of these programs. If and when that structural weakness is corrected, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see these programs being increased again to their former level.

Cuts based on static view of economy and population

Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. The cuts – both recent and older – are based on a static view of the economy and population. But Australia’s economy and population are both growing. While there have been concerns about the economy slowing, it still grew by 2.5% in the 12 months to the end of the September 2015 quarter and population grew by 1.4% in the year to the end of June 2015.

Economics writer, Matt Wade, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Budget 2016: The emptiest words in politics are “record spending”’ has challenged the distortions of talking about spending without referencing population growth. It’s lazy economics, lazy politics and just plain distortion. He writes, ‘The combination of inflation and population growth means public spending will always be hitting records. If it doesn’t, essential services are likely to deteriorate and congestion worsen.’ He goes on to point out that ‘In February Australia’s population topped the 24 million mark having added the latest million people in record time – two years and nine months. Australia is likely to add another million people within the next three years.’ The implications of this are profound – for all public services, not just arts and culture, and for the Governments that deliver them and the politicians who talk about them.

Expansion not reduction needed

Creative industries … are a central part of projecting Australia’s culturally diverse and democratic story to ourselves and to the world

There needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding (and support for other essential services) to cope with the growth. Coupled with the decreasing ability of arts and culture organisations to service a growing population they already had difficulty servicing before, we are facing the prospect of an increasing inability to deliver what we have come to expect from them.

In this extremely disappointing climate for arts and culture I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit this sorely mistreated but essential part of our daily life, our national character and our democratic aspirations. Here are my suggestions:

Central to everyday life and the main national agenda

  • We want to see arts and culture recognised for the essential central role it plays in Australia’s social and economic life, with it included on the main national agenda, recognising its integral relationship with major economic and social factors such as economic development, education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity, and health and wellbeing. Research, including extensive case studies, make this broader benefit clear. As far back as 2004, ‘Art and wellbeing’ an Australia Council publication by Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, examined this in detail. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community which involvement in arts and culture provides. It’s no exaggeration to say that in many cases it changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.
  • The focus on the economic role of arts and culture is similar to the focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.
  • These changes to the economic life of the nation due to the growth of the knowledge economy are also beginning to transform the political landscape of Australia, throwing it to established political parties to rise to the challenge.

Knowledge economy, creative industries, arts and culture

  • Increasingly the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape are both clever and clean. They are mainly service industries that make up the knowledge economy, based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also new and innovative ways of doing business.
  • At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.
  • The creative industries are underpinned by the arts and culture sector and the artists and arts and cultural organisations, mainly small, that make it up and create the content which feeds into and inspires other sectors.
  • A central component of the creative industries, which intersects with the other parts of these industries, and a large proportion of the artists who feed into it, is the music sector.

  Australian culture – what it means to be Australian

  • Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s culturally diverse and democratic story to ourselves and to the world. ­– they help channel those who write the stories, make the video clips, paint the pictures and dance the dances that tell our story.
  • In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors of the knowledge economy do not. As part of Australia’s culture sector they share the critical function of managing the meaning of Australia and what being Australian means, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

But wait, there’s more – addressing social challenges

  • Arts, culture and creative industries also show promise in helping address central social challenges Australia faces, such as responding effectively and productively to cultural diversity and tackling Indigenous disadvantage in a practical and positive way. These industries depend on innovation and innovation occurs where cultures intersect and differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged and assessed.

That’s not a bad start – let’s see where that might take us and how many of those seeking our votes mention any of it.


  1. John Bell

    I am a big supporter of the arts, I teach Strategic Planning in Arts Management, have worked in the music business worldwide (with Michael Smellie for a while), have a daughter who is Principal Oboe withe the Estonian National Symphony and have served on a number of NFP arts boards. I have thought about the issues you raise extensively and think this article from Andrew Taylor puts the issue you raise into realistic perspective. The “industry” is too fragmented to have any real economic clout with politicians.

    Let me know if you would like some help.

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