Things were bad in literature. After years of neglect the situation was growing dire; author incomes were dismal, literature was being left with the dregs as Australia Council funding dried up—and Richard Flanagan wanted to secede.
The legacy of the Abbott government and the cuts pushed through by former arts minister and Attorney-General George Brandis was a sector rattled by chaos and austerity, with little prospects for improvement. When funding was directed to the arts—like the Morrison government’s COVID response RISE program—it failed to trickle down to literature.
This was the situation faced by writers going into 2023; a pandemic endured with little support, declining wages and a sector that had yet to recover from successive governments attempting to tighten the belt when there was nothing left to give.
The Albanese government’s new Revive policy begins the process of reversing this decline. Announced on Monday at the storied Espy in St Kilda, the policy promised a large-scale reform to expand the remit of the Australia Council, and to put the arts ‘back where they are meant to be—at the heart of our national life.’
To a packed audience in the Gershwin Room, Arts Minister Tony Burke promised to reverse the Brandis cuts ‘in full’ and establish four new bodies within Creative Australia—a rebrand of the Australia Council—including a First Nations First body, Music Australia and the Centre for Arts and Workplaces.
‘The arts cannot be left simply to those who can afford to do it. Arts jobs are real jobs,’ Burke said.
Revive interweaves other government priorities such as implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and Burke’s other portfolio, Employment and Workplace Relations, into arts policy.
But the real surprise came with the promise to create Writers Australia, a national body coordinating literature, vested within Creative Australia and expected to begin operation in 2025. Its $19.3m in funding will come on top of existing funds with Writers Australia positioned to better support writers to create new works, invest in key literary organisations, develop publishing market opportunities, establish a National Poet Laureate program, and deliver the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
On the one hand this is the most progressive literature policy Australia has had since the creation of the Literature Board in the 1970s. On the other hand, there are still outstanding questions. There are two years until the body will come into operation and those working in the field will remember past attempts to create a national literature body.
There was Writing Australia, the unsuccessful attempt to create a peak body for writers centres that was defunct within two years, and more recently the Book Council of Australia debacle that heralded the Brandis era.
In that instance, a national body was established to represent the interests of publishers, agents and booksellers, with $6 million in funds taken from the Australia Council’s operating budget. It faced pushback from the broader literary sector culminating in an open letter signed by high profile figures like Nick Cave and JM Coetzee arguing it was a rush-job initiated without proper sector consultation and a limited terms of reference. The body was ultimately abandoned.
In the intervening years the literature sector, that is authors, literary journals, writers festivals and writers centres, have been without a unified national body that represents the true breadth of the sector and the complex ecosystem they inhabit where non-profits and individual creators intersect with the commercial sector.
While the Australian Society of Authors represents professional practitioners and has long campaigned on copyright-related causes like lending rights, other parts of the sector—literary journals and other small organisations—have not fallen under its remit. The National Writers Centre Network (of which I am a spokesperson) is an informal coalition of the state literary organisations but has no dedicated resources.
The absence of this voice was felt in the scrum for disaster relief during the pandemic. In that time literature was often crowded out by other sectors with well-organised advocacy and lobby groups like Live Performance Australia.
Still, writers’ voices never fail to cut through. Writers were among the loudest in response to the call out for submissions to the 2020 parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions, detailing the impact of Covid-19 and associated lockdowns. Researcher David Throsby, the Sydney Review of Books editor Catriona Menzies-Pike, and authors Helen Garner, Charlotte Wood and Christos Tsiolkas appeared at the inquiry.
The literature sector also dominated the submissions to the National Cultural Policy consultation process and the frustration was palpable. Richard Flanagan, who called the Australia Council a ‘disaster’ for literature, called for the artform to secede.
‘Funding and the politics of funding within the Australia Council is dominated by performing arts, the lion’s share of funds goes to performing arts bodies, and it is essentially a performing-arts grants body. It’s time it was recognised as such, and literature split from it,’ he said.
The challenge going forward for this new body is to put writers first and not replicate the experience of the Book Council that was led by publishers and skewed to their interests. To succeed, it must successfully serve literature both as culture and industry, that is, everyone working in literature and not just commercial operators.
Literature as a sector is complex. Its success depends on the relationships between the sum of its parts. Readers and readership is cultivated by an ecology of writers, literary organisations, publications, publishers, booksellers, media and festivals.
In particular, youth literature organisations such as Express Media, publishers of Voiceworks, and literary journals more broadly have been among the most neglected in this ecosystem. If publications like Voiceworks serve as a training ground for the next generation of writers, literary journals are themselves the engine of literary culture, allowing for an experimentation with style, a testing of ideas and development of a uniquely Australian voice. A key challenge for Writers Australia will be to repair the damage done to them, through restoring their funding and enabling growth.
Another important function of Writers Australia, flagged at the launch, will be its responsibilities in research and advocacy. Beyond the vital administration of grants programs, these functions will be essential to the new body. To date the industry has largely relied on the Macquarie University survey on author income to track how well writers are fairing. This survey is critical, but more research is required to fully understand how to best support the professional careers of writers and advise the government on its policy settings.
Beyond the existing structure of grants and prizes, royalties and lending rights, literature and other art forms are increasingly looking to artist employment models like company models, to employ writers as salaried staff in their own right.
There are also other developments that should be welcomed. The Australian Society of Authors has successfully lobbied the government to establish digital lending rights under the existing PLR/ELR system, and the policy acknowledges that multiple submissions during the consultation process called for the creation of a universal basic income.
The policy does not go as far as to recommend or embrace the suggestion to adopt an approach similar to what is currently practised in Ireland, but acknowledging the demand is a recognition of a growing priority.
This also comes in the context of a large number of submissions, including from myself, calling for an increase to the base social security payment, JobSeeker, to a liveable level as a bridge towards providing a universal basic income. Writing is a full-time gig in itself and unless we support those from low-income backgrounds, the risk is that we close off the world of literature to those with means.
This policy is Revive. The next five years will be important to rebuild what was lost. What comes next requires fortitude and imagination to create a truly vibrant literary culture.