Prior to yesterday’s release of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), Malcolm Turnbull looked set to become the greatest arts PM since Whitlam. Post MYEFO, the PM seems a sure bet for the title of greatest adversary to the Australian arts since Ern Malley. Shit, maybe since the band Bachelor Girl. $46 million of cuts to arts have been announced and these follow the slash bonanza started at $100 million in the 2014 Abbott budget.
Before we address the cuts and their devastation to the future, let’s fondly remember Turnbull’s artsy past.
If we don’t count his sumptuous elocution and a daring taste in ties, Turnbull has offered shrewd Australians a single cause for joy: his ardour for the arts. In 2008, his was the sole parliamentary voice heard to protest those unlawful and unwise moves to censor Bill Henson’s exhibition. Then shadow treasurer, Turnbull said of the moralising raids, “I think we have a culture of great artistic freedom in this country and I don’t believe the vice-squad’s role is to go into art galleries.”
His stand was courageous and principled. Then, half the nation, including the prime minister, was afflicted with the Lovejoy virus and to claim, as Turnbull more or less did, that to truly “think of the children” was to protect their future liberty was dazzling. Defending naked kiddies is no political picnic, but he did it and emerged a true liberal and advocate for the arts.
Then, this year, Turnbull put an end to Brandis’ snooty slush fund, restored a chunk of funding to the Australia Council and softened, just a little, on protecting the profits of content distributors — often a good sign for the actual producers of creative works. An aesthete, a defender of free speech and, so his passionate and costed support for “innovation”, would have us believe, a politician committed to creative risk, Turnbull seemed on the side of the artist.
No such luck. With yesterday’s raft of deluded, targeted austerity measures, the future looks as bleak for as long as a Centrelink queue in Adelaide. Mal might have a few Hensons proudly hung on the walls at home, but in the corridors of power, his policy is one of concealment.
Look. I don’t want to be that wanker who sobs for the end of high culture. If you ask me, our “select” festivals are too unselectively full of bad art from Portland. But, while there may be some minor wear to the fabric of tedious privilege, the real damage done will be to everyday networks. The working artist and the average punter will be struck by these further cuts.
For all the Abbott government’s practical grandstanding about the “people”, the people were those afflicted by the first range of measures. $37 million was taken from national cultural institutions and $25 million from Screen Australia in the 2014 budget. The $105 million cut to the Australia Council was sold by Brandis as a no-nonsense end to feminist burlesque in Northcote. But this, like the other “savings”, impacted the foundations of a sector that some of the “people” work in and that nearly all of the people consume.
It’s not just that Tits McVixen will fail to find funding for her rhinestone vulva installation next Fringe. It’s that a generation of Australian artists and art workers will not have the means to develop their skills, and we won’t, of course, have much to consume.
There is much talk about the “ecosystem” of the sector and while this might be read or exploited by many as the fragile, self-absorbed ravings of artsy ninnies, it’s bloody true. I mean, we can have Malcolm sit his first great policy test on the topic of startup innovation and every “agile” businessperson will applaud. Much of Australia agrees that it’s vital to reproduce Silicon Valley conditions with government spending. “Businesses will be given the freedom to fail” Malcolm said, just last week. Artists don’t even have the freedom to try.
What was urgently needed, particularly in view of very recent cuts, was not yesterday’s further penalty to Screen Australia of $10.3 million. More than $36 million will be lifted from an as yet unspecified range of “cultural and collecting entities” and the only warming news is that another Brandis vanity, the Book Council of Australia, will be axed.
In all areas of revenue spending, efficiency should be enhanced and possibilities for favouritism quashed. So, this is not to recklessly suggest that all budget measures to the arts are bad — although, the hits to Screen Australia do seem particularly near-sighted.
But it is to suggest that these cuts are themselves recklessly political.
You don’t need to be a macroeconomist to know that the figure of $46 million is small change. Its impact on the deficit won’t mean a rounding error. And even leaving aside the arguments that professors of economics, and actual economies themselves, routinely make about the folly of austerity as a route to surplus, we can all probably agree that you need to spend money to make money. Fewer jobs in a sector which depends on on-the-job training means fewer future jobs. If we can take calculated risk for every half-arsed cut-and-paste Uber pitch and call it good sense, we must, at the very least, be able to do the same for arts.
But, what has been done, in a short era of devastation, is even more damage to the ecosystem. FFS.
It’s all very well and good to make a case, as Malcolm has, for the rights of the artist, but this doesn’t mean much when the tools of the artist are set beyond reach. To paraphrase Anatole France, the law, in its majestic equality, allows both rich and poor to piss on a canvas. But now, the only people oxidising will be those few already replete with champagne.