No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.
Democracy is a not just a wonderfully robust concept, it is a delightfully simple one. To be called a modern democracy, all a country needs to do is fulfil some straightforward conditions. First is to guarantee basic human rights to every individual; the separation of powers between the institutions of the state – Government (the Executive), Parliament (the Legislators) and the Courts (the Justice system). Add the freedom of speech, the right to vote, and toss in religious liberty. And include a commitment to do your best to avoid corruption. Simple.
But for a society to be truly be democratic it depends on the active engagement of its citizenry in that process and a trust that the decisions being made by governments are in the best interests of all its ‘stakeholders’. Nothing undermines a healthy democracy so much as a lack of engagement or a breach of trust.
These two informal additions rely on journalists and artists to offer insight and information to the broader proletariat, to alert them to those breaches of trust in order that they may engage with the issues that concern them.
And in Melbourne last week in the arts, it would be fair to say we saw two examples of how those informal conventions are failing. One at the micro level, the other was macro.
THE MICRO – Engagement
On Friday, the performers’ union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), held a forum in n Melbourne to discuss actor’s conditions and producers’ responsibilities as they apply to ”co-operative” (artist run) and ”independent” (initiated by independent producers) theatre. In the scheme of things this is a micro issue but the union is right to take an interest in the independent sector which has grown significantly as governments continue to cut arts funding.
As a consequence of those cuts, the independent sector is, for most of us, our only source of employment — if working for little can be called employment. Central to the union’s pitch was a more comprehensive written agreement between actors and presenters. While I’m all for workers’ rights, I fail to see how another level of managerialism is going to do that.
Administrative overkill already sees a theatre company like Red Stitch in Melbourne spending a week producing the 20 page acquittal they’re obliged to provide to get a $12,000 local government grant. A bigger form isn’t going to fix things.
Instead of joining this management frenzy the union could turn its attention to something more practical. How about start by lobbying governments to change the legislation around Workcover so actors in these independent productions can be insured?
You see, if an actor does a co-op show they are classed by governments as volunteers and volunteers don’t get Workcover. If they do an independent show for less than equity minimum, which is invariably the case, then they are regarded not as employees but contractors responsible for their own insurance, despite the fact they are technically employed.
And these actors can’t get Workcover insurance because they are not set up as contractors and producers can’t offer it because they’re technically not employing anyone. Ensuring that an actor isn’t left with a huge medical bill if something goes wrong would make a real difference. We can squabble about our meagre share of the box office over a beer.
Or the union could speak to the Federal Government about changes to social security arrangements that mean unemployed actors who receive Newstart and appear in these shows risk losing their entitlements because they are not fulfilling their job search requirements. This move by Canberra seems purely designed to reinforce the message that art and artists are not to be tolerated. It that fails to acknowledge that being in a co-op show is often an attempt by an actor to demonstrate their abilities to a wider group of employers; it is in essence a two- hour job interview repeated eight times a week.
But the big disappointment at this is union meeting was the attendance. Fifteen. Thirteen if you don’t count the two aging, pseudo-socialist, middleclass hams in the front row. (Myself and a colleague).
It’s unfathomable that at a time when the arts community is arguably facing the biggest threat to its survival in the last 50 years, only 15 people could find the time to gather to discuss an issue that affects them directly. If actors won’t engage in a conversation that impacts their livelihoods, why should anyone else bother to listen to our bleatings? It was a disheartening example of how we are failing ourselves; where we have not only failed to exercise our democratic rights but more importantly as artists our democratic responsibility to engage.
THE MACRO – Trust
Last week saw the announcement of the Victorian State Budget. The state had just posted a budget surplus of nearly $2 billion and $107 million of that will go splashing around in the ‘Creative Industries” portfolio . Sounds good doesn’t it? The Creative Arts Minister thought so.
“Our galleries, museums, libraries and theatres bring thousands of people every year to our state, helping grow our economy and create jobs. This investment will keep Victoria as the creative state – and continue to raise our profile as a global cultural destination.”
Thank you Martin Foley. Martin presents as a great supporter of the Arts. And artists. When the former Federal arts minister, Senator George Brandis made his egregious grab at Australia Council funds in 2015, wiping out nearly 50% of Australia’s small to medium arts organisations in the process, Martin came out as one of his staunchest critics.
“The release of the Australia Council four year funding sends many of our most innovative arts and cultural organisations in to crisis…he has delivered savage funding cuts that will undermine creative organisations, audiences and jobs.”
By taking aim at independent artists and leaving the big arts companies (known as Major Performing Arts organisations or MPAs) unscathed, Brandis was dramatically reinforcing a feature of Australian social policy that is becoming endemic. Systemic inequality. But arts funding, as with education or health funding, should be an expression of equity and trust.
Martin Foley has delivered, $107 million to the “Creative Industries” and not one cent directly to artists.
We trust that resources will be allocated fairly, and in this case, as in education, they weren’t. For independent artists it was a rude awakening. It implied that it mattered little that we were already surviving on the smell of an oily rag, but that we should share the rag around. And it came without consultation or warning, one day we had an independent arts ecology and the next day we didn’t. It wasn’t just a breach of trust but a devastating and demoralising one. As my colleague Julian Meyrick wrote at the time “Cut, cut, cut if you want… but if you’re not instituting meaningful change… you’re just a nutter with a knife”.
These things of course work both ways. Because the arts don’t stand apart from society but are an integral part of it they aren’t exempt from the political fluctuations that determine the allocation of public resources. When times are bad we all expect to bite the bullet fairly; when they are good we all expect to benefit. That is democracy at work. An exercise in trust and to a certain degree hope.
So we don’t expect to hear that when a government posts a significant surplus that the money will only go one way. And yet that is exactly what Martin Foley has delivered, $107 million to the “Creative Industries” and not one cent directly to artists.
For a creative community still recovering from the Brandis debacle the Victorian budget is nothing short of a kick in the face that flies in the face of Foley’s own reassuring statements about the importance of creativity in this state. It is impossible to fathom how Martin Foley feels we can have a creative state without any creatives. Or at least any that aren’t living at home with their mothers.
Imagine if 10% of that $107 million went to the artists for the making of work. $10.7 million spent over four years could mean 500 grants to artists to make things. 500 opportunities for independent artists and small and medium arts organisations to engage. These are organisations and individuals that don’t require expensive infrastructure to make their work. Instead it’s all gone uptown to infrastructure and festivals, events and extravaganzas.
Australians understand that art is an important part of their lives and doesn’t just happen in museums. And if it is to truly connect with them at least some of it needs to be made here. But to make world class work we need sustainability and continuity of experience. What has been let slip through our fingers was an opportunity to offer at least a little bit of that, to consolidate the artist’s position within our community, to express what we would all like to hear, that local artists are valued. We had a chance to boost the morale of a sector that Foley has admitted is in crisis but the trust has been breached yet again although in this case not by of a nutter with a knife but a clown with a money pot. And that seems somehow far more damaging, both to our artists and our democratic ideals.
Neil Pigot (right) is currently appearing in the Red Stitch production of American playwright Will Eno’s ‘The Realistic Joneses‘. He is pictured in the production with Red Stitch actor and artistic director Ella Caldwell. Photo by Teresa Noble.