As a new government is sworn in down in Kamberri (Canberra) this week, many in the arts sector are excited by the prospect of a ceasefire in the long and tiresome war on arts and culture that has characterised the last nine years. An unprecedented level of hostility from government has seen a decade of damage control, managing harsh cuts and sudden shifts at the whims of ministers; the absence of any cultural policy at all from the LNP spoke volumes about their priorities, even before the skimming of public money, corporate appointments, interventions in Australia Council decisions, and so on.
So it’s interesting to note that, unusually in its history, the arts and artists were largely absent from Labor’s election campaign. Criticised for having a ‘policy to develop a policy’ approach, prospective (and former) Arts Minister Tony Burke left his announcement to the final week and kept his promises fairly vague. It’s no wonder there were few public endorsements from musicians, writers, and actors for Labor this time around.
While the obvious message from the weekend is that the national mood has shifted significantly on climate action, it’s also likely that many voters have responded to the hip-pocket issues that affect our day to day life, including cost of living. We know that precarity and gig work are underpinning the phenomenon of shrinking wages everywhere. We know that the low unemployment rate is built on the back of casualisation, unpaid overtime, and many forms of wage theft.
The arts is important not because it deserves more attention than other public goods, like schools and hospitals, but because it’s an area where these unfair labour practices are increasingly normalised and can be usefully challenged.
Creative Australia, the policy released under Gillard and swiftly burnt by George Brandis in 2013, seemed to face the fact that the massive contribution of the arts—its huge economic, social, health and public value—comes at a cost largely borne by its workers, in the form of unpaid and underpaid labour. The policy document acknowledges the huge amount of unpaid work that enables ‘the creative economy’ to function, and that is required for the arts to remain accessible to most Australians: ‘This volunteer effort effectively doubles employment figures in the sector, but also underlines the relatively low wages of workers, variable employment prospects, and heavy reliance on unpaid work,’ according to the report. It’s the only mention of wages in the 152-page document.
In his pre-election statement, Tony Burke promised to build on Creative Australia and mentioned the need to acknowledge artists as workers, but he offered few details on what that will mean in practice.
There are some areas where quick progress can be made. Restoring funding to the Australia Council and respect for the arms-length processes of its allocation are an important first step. Removing tax on literary/art prizes and grants, and extending the PLR/ELR scheme to Digital Lending Rights to help authors, are two examples of simple actions that would swiftly help to rebuild trust with the literature sector. NAVA has laid out similar ideas for practical change in the visual arts.
But down in the trenches of the war on arts and culture, we have had time to think. Even more so in the pandemic, which continues to threaten our livelihoods and health at work. Questions about accessibility, sick leave and insurance have surfaced. Artists and writers have not been simply waiting for funding to be restored so that we can go back to the way things were. We are not looking for easy fixes and ‘winnability’ anymore. We are looking for institutional support that reflects our value.
If artists are workers, where are the entitlements that other workers take for granted?
Prime Minister Albanese has promised an employment summit to bring unions and employers together to make our industrial relations laws fit for purpose. There is some hope that the ACTU’s ‘secure jobs’ agenda will see more protections put in place for casualised and contract workers.
But what does ‘secure jobs’ mean for working artists and writers, freelancers who have for so long been left out of any collective bargaining processes at all, reliant on our own negotiating power as sole traders? How will we be protected as workers? The last thing we need is another meaningless consultation process that results in another rebranding exercise from our national arts bodies. While plenty of advocates will be lining up for more funding, we need policy that looks beyond the restoration of funding to badly damaged structures. As is the case in health and aged care, education, and other essential services, we need to renew our focus on the people that are doing the work in arts and culture. The tide has turned against the neoliberal framework of ‘creative industries’; we tried that, and it made us much worse off.
There are plenty of solutions on offer already, among them a Basic Income for Artists, hundreds more fellowships, an injection of funding in arts education, artists in residence in schools and libraries, and so forth. What is clear is that artists are desperate for direct support, and it can’t all come in the form of piecemeal project funding or gig-based work.
The simplest policy change that would support artists would also support everyone else doing it tough: a change to income support. Making Jobseeker $88/day, and either getting rid of mutual obligations altogether or making art count. A version of this was Greens policy in 2016, and Labor’s too, when Peter Garrett was briefly Arts minister; both parties have since abandoned it, the former in favour of a Basic Income model, the latter in favour of promising those on Centrelink nothing at all.
If this is a government that understands that artists are workers, then it already knows we deserve fair pay. So it’s time to make public funding for arts and cultural activities contingent on fair pay for artists. Well-funded arts organisations should be required to put artists on the payroll. We shouldn’t accept that our tax dollars for arts and culture are so unevenly distributed. And we can’t expect cultural strength when our cultural sector is so reliant on unpaid and undervalued work.
There has been some movement in that direction already. Copyright Agency now asks applicants whether they will pay their writers ASA rates. The musicians section of MEAA has made great inroads with a $250 minimum fee for publicly-funded gigs in most states. The Australia Council currently has a soft recommendation that grant applications adhere to fair standards of pay. But it needs to be binding across public funding, at all levels of government.
In fact, this was Labor’s policy going into the 2019 election. ‘Labor will lead by example and make sure that government and publicly funded organisations have written policies on artists payment,’ was their pitch to the arts under Shorten, in a policy also promising to ‘explore a standard for industry fees and end ‘exposure’ as a form of payment’.
I understand that the arts might seem a low priority compared to, say, adopting the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But one of the reasons we have had this nine-year war is that placing culture at the heart of our social priorities means acknowledging the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and vice versa. Art and culture are not at the margins, not a decorative addition to our lives. They are who we are and just as importantly, who we might become.
Albanese says he wants his government to be nation building. What are nations but stories, images, anxiously shared and contested dreams? The war on artists and cultural workers has gone on too long. It has left us shell-shocked, our institutions, workplaces, and professional relationships badly damaged. But it has not beaten us. If Labor really want to bring this country together, they are going to need a lot of help from artists and writers to do it. Let’s demand the change we need from them as well.
Jennifer Mills is an author, editor and critic based on Kaurna Yerta (Adelaide). Her latest novel is The Airways, published by Picador in 2021. Dyschronia (2018) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Aurealis, and Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.