The limited discussion of cultural policy in the lead-up to the federal election has left many in the arts sector wondering how the outcome of Saturday's ballot will impact them, as they recover from the devastating losses of the pandemic.
With just two days of the campaign left, time has all but run out for the major parties to make any final policy announcements.
The focus of the election debate has by and large been on housing affordability and cost-of-living measures, although several peak arts industry bodies and lobby groups have been vocal about the absence of pre-election arts commitments from the two major parties.
Labor has, in the final week of the campaign, made a pledge to develop a national cultural policy, while the Coalition has stopped short of making any specific pre-election promises for the arts.
The Greens by contrast have put forward a comprehensive plan with detailed arts funding commitments.
Among the ideas floated are an artist's wage guarantee and a residency program for schools and libraries. But do they hold up to scrutiny?
And can the Australian arts afford not to have a comprehensive cultural policy at this critical juncture?
Here is a run-down of arts policy pledges by the major parties announced to date.
Despite commissioning an inquiry in response to the impacts of COVID-19 on the sector, the Coalition government has not included arts in its policy platform for this election, nor did it take an arts policy to the last election.
In a statement to ABC Arts, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher said: "The Morrison government recognises that the arts sector continues to face challenges unique to the industry, which is why we acted quickly in establishing extensive support throughout the pandemic, totalling $500 million.
"The centrepiece of this support is the $220 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund – so far we have provided $200 million to 541 projects, creating more than 213,000 job opportunities across Australia."
Crisis funding allocated to the arts via the government's Creative Economy package lifted arts investment significantly compared to pre-pandemic expenditure.
In the last budget, the government committed a further $20 million to the RISE fund but flagged that other initiatives would be wound back — a forecasted contraction of more than 20 per cent by 2025-26, totalling $244.7 million.
In the final days of the election campaign, details of how the government intends to support the arts are sparse.
When asked if the government will commit additional funding to the arts if re-elected, a spokesperson for the minister said: "We'll make funding commitments at the appropriate time, just as we have been doing since 2019."
On Monday afternoon, Shadow Minister for the Arts Tony Burke took to the stage at iconic Melbourne live music venue The Espy to announce Labor's commitment to developing a national cultural policy.
If elected, Labor will revive its 2013 Creative Australia policy, developed by former prime minister Julia Gillard and then-arts minister Simon Crean.
Among its other pledges:
- Revive cooperation between federal, state and local governments
- Reaffirm the need for arms-length funding
- Examine a national insurance scheme for live events
- Promote Australian creators on streaming platforms
- Protect performers and audiences from ticket scalpers
- Put First Nations art and culture at the centre of their approach to the sector
- Restore the "arts" as part of a named government department
Prior to Monday's announcement, Labor had made commitments to reinstate $83.7 million in funding cut from the ABC and lock in five-year funding terms to replace the current triennial terms for both ABC and SBS.
Labor has also pledged under its First Nations policy to shore up intellectual property protections for Indigenous artists and to combat the sale of fake art.
Burke said in his speech on Monday: "For nearly a decade there has been no cultural policy guiding the advice of departments or the decisions of ministers.
"Instead we have had a culture war. Attacks on artists as workers. Attacks on the universities and TAFE colleges that train them. And attacks on the institutions including the Australia Council and the ABC which support their work. Our collecting institutions were left to fall into disrepair.
"An Albanese government will restore cultural policy and end the culture war."
At the last election, Labor proposed a comprehensive arts policy, similarly involving a refresh of their 2013 vision, but was criticised for featuring an uncredited stock image by German illustrator MoinMoin on the cover page.
Burke acknowledged that the policy needs revision and emphasised that the order of priorities should be re-evaluated.
"[The] concepts are all sound, but I have a firm view that the order needs to reflect the extraordinary cultural strength that is unique to this continent. We have the oldest continuing cultural practices on the planet.
Labor has already announced funding for a number of arts initiatives, totalling $181.2 million, but Burke did not make any additional pre-election funding promises in his speech.
The most comprehensive arts policy proposal in this election campaign has been put forward by the Greens.
The party's spokesperson for the arts, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, unveiled the multi-billion-dollar funding initiative earlier this month.
The proposal includes the establishment of a $1 billion Live Performance Fund, $1 billion for an Australian Stories Fund, and a multidisciplinary Creativity Commission worth $10 million a year.
The Greens also pledged to extend RISE funding "on an as-needed basis, and [to] fully fund all applications that meet the criteria of the grant funding".
Key policy initiatives:
- Provide additional COVID recovery funding through the RISE fund
- Establish a $1 billion Live Performance Fund to inject money into Australia's festival, music and live performance sector
- Put an artist-in-residence in every school and library
- Create an artist's wage pilot program
- Establish a $1 billion Australian Stories Fund to develop and grow local industry
- Regulate global streaming giants and require services to invest 20 per cent of money earned from Australian subscribers in Australian content
- Establish a multidisciplinary Creativity Commission with a $10 million-a-year fund
- Provide pandemic insurance for live events
- Legislate a minimum performance fee to provide stability for live performers
- Invest in arts education with the establishment of a new multi-disciplinary arts school for Adelaide
Among the more innovative measures proposed in the plan is an artist's wage pilot program, which would provide $772.60 per week for up to 10,000 established or emerging artists annually.
Similar programs have been implemented successfully internationally, including the French artist wage guarantee Intermittence du Spectacle, established in 1936, and the more recently enacted Irish basic income scheme for artists of 325 euros ($487) per week.
"[It] supports the recovery of the arts industry as well as investing in its growth into the future. Our policy would make the arts accessible to everyone, as it should be."
The policy also includes an artist-in-residence program that would see an artist or author placed in registered schools and libraries around the country for one to two days a term. According to Hanson-Young, the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has costed this program at $14.7 million a year.
"By investing in arts education and creating secure jobs, we will not only ensure a steady pipeline of artists to feed our local creative industries, but we can ensure that choosing the arts as a career is a financially viable option for our young people," she said.
Hanson-Young confirmed the PBO projects that the total cost of the policy would approach $6 billion over the next decade and said this will be a "top-order issue for the Greens" if they hold the balance of power.
"We will push the next government to deliver genuine support and opportunities for the creative sector," she said.
Other notable mentions
Of the 1,641 candidates running in this federal election, 90 per cent belong to a political party, 8 per cent are independents and the remaining 2 per cent belong to unaffiliated groups.
Of the 130 independent candidates, there are a handful who have made public commitments to advocating for the arts. They include:
- Zoe Daniel — Goldstein (currently held by Liberal MP Tim Wilson)
- Jo Dyer — Boothby (currently held by outgoing Liberal MP Nicolle Flint)
- Monique Ryan — Kooyong (currently held by Liberal MP and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg)
- Dr Sophie Scamps — Mackellar (currently held by Liberal MP Jason Falinski)
- Allegra Spender — Wentworth (currently held by Liberal MP Dave Sharma)
- Kylea Tink — North Sydney (currently held by Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman)
Jo Dyer worked in the arts for more than 20 years and has proposed five key areas for arts policy improvement, including the development of a National Cultural Policy, a universal basic income scheme for artists, and a 20 per cent content quota for local streaming services, among other initiatives.
Dr Sophie Scamps has outlined a seven-point plan for the arts, including greater support for arts education and the role of Indigenous arts and culture, stronger protections for public broadcasters, and also advocates for a national strategy.
Allegra Spender is running on three key policy priorities for the arts: bolstering funding for the ABC and SBS, supporting creative industries (including restoring funding to the Australia Council), and rebuilding arts education.
Arts policy missing in action
Australia has been without a substantive arts policy for nearly a decade.
Since the Coalition government was elected under Tony Abbott in 2013, the federal arts portfolio has contracted both in terms of funding and stature.
Dr Ben Eltham is a lecturer in cultural and creative industries at Monash University, co-author of Australia Institute’s Creativity in Crisis report (2021) and part of the Fund The Arts campaign.
He says there have been a number of stringent cuts to the cultural portfolio under the Coalition, dating back to Joe Hockey's first budget in 2015, which included a $52 million cut to the arts portfolio and stripped $104 million from the Australia Council (80 per cent of which was later reinstated after sector-wide criticism).
"That was a disaster for the governance of the arts sector and did a lot of damage that's taken years to repair," Eltham says.
"I also think the ongoing attacks on the ABC across really the entire nine years of the Coalition government are really significant."
Despite the increase to arts funding in response to COVID-19, federal spending over the past decade has been in decline.
Analysis by think tank A New Approach concluded that per capita federal arts funding fell by 22.7 per cent between 2007–08 and 2019–20.
Eltham says arts funding is low on the government's list of priorities both politically and electorally.
"Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is very much running on his record, and he can rightly point to a significant amount of spending in terms of pandemic stimulus for the arts. The RISE program ran to more than $200 million and it's definitely the case that some of that money flowed to artists and was very helpful.
"[But] the last budget before the election wound back most of that stimulus and actually locked in cuts to a lot of the arts portfolio going forward. There's significant austerity coming down the line for the national cultural institutions," he says.
In the lead-up to the election, peak visual arts and crafts body the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) has been campaigning for stronger policy commitments from across the political spectrum using the slogan #VoteForArts.
As part of their campaign, NAVA has produced an election "report card" to compare pre-election commitments between the major parties against five key policy priority areas.
Recognition of the arts as 'real' work
NAVA's executive director Penelope Benton says one of the most pressing issues for artists in this election is recognition.
"We want recognition that art is a real job: that artists and art is essential, not just for the people who make it or for diehard art lovers but for everybody."
She says the pandemic has had a huge impact on morale in the arts community.
Because of the arts sector's reliance on casuals, many arts workers were ineligible for government subsidies during the pandemic.
Eltham says the highly insecure and precarious nature of arts work — the "original gig economy" — has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
"The most pressing problem in the cultural labour market is that wages are low and in fact falling in real terms. And that's a real crisis not just for the arts but more broadly for the enjoyment of culture from ordinary Australians.
"We're losing a lot of talent and we're also eroding the ability of ordinary Australians to gain access to a rich cultural life," he says.
The Greens' artist's wage program offers a possible solution to this, but Eltham says its implementation hinges on whether the Greens are able to get the balance of power in the Senate.
"[If they don't], it's hard to see whether they'll have the leverage to get any of this up. But let's assume that they can make it work politically, then potentially, it is transformative."
Pointing to the proposal to double funding for the Australia Council, which would lift their total allocation to $439.6 million a year, Eltham says: "That would be transformative for the small and medium sector, which is the most creative and the most energetic part of performing arts and small-scale creative sector in Australia."
Benton agrees that the Greens' policy has a lot of potential and aligns with a number of NAVA's priority areas.
"I commend the Greens for putting out this policy. I think it's really great. But there are a lot of really specific things in there that could do with some massaging.
"It's quite weighted to the performing arts sector and [the language] excludes the visual arts. [But] it could be broadened and I'd like to work with them on doing that. I've expressed that to Senator Hanson-Young," Benton says.
Do we need a national cultural plan?
In pledging to develop a national cultural policy, Burke said on Monday afternoon that a Labor government would seek to get the arts sector "back on track quickly".
Benton says: "I agree with what the Labor party have said, and I think everybody [in the sector] does, that we don't have another three or four years to be in the state that we're in right now.
"I think the first step is meeting with all the different art forms and talking to them. There's a lot of expertise in the industry already and there's a lot of listening that needs to happen," she says.
Eltham takes a more critical view of Labor's announcement, saying their 2019 arts policy under Bill Shorten was a stronger pitch.
"I don't see a lot of merit in [this announcement], unfortunately. They've had nine years in opposition and they had a pretty good policy statement last time around. I actually see this as walking back on what was promised three years ago."
He also says that creating a national cultural policy isn't necessarily the best strategy.
"What we need is a big reinvestment in support for the arts and culture. If that's wrapped up with a shiny document and called a policy, then that's fine, but it's more about where the rubber hits the road.
While Benton broadly supports Labor's proposal, she has some caveats.
"I think a good critique of the Creative Australia cultural policy is necessary — it's 10 years old and things have changed," she says.
"I also think that collaborating, consulting and listening to First Nations practitioners is essential and really needs to be at the core of that work."
Putting First Nations first
Labor has emphasised the need to put First Nations culture at the forefront of arts policy — a suggestion that has been made previously and which Benton and Eltham agree is now long overdue.
"[During the pandemic], there was this realisation that Indigenous art has become the national identity, and that's been recognised in the international arena for some time but has [lagged] domestically," says Matthew Everitt, president of Indigenous-led arts advocacy body the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia.
Everitt is a proud Taungurung man from the Kulin Nation in Central Victoria and says for there to be greater recognition of Indigenous arts in Australia's cultural life, the development of a national cultural policy should be First Nations-led.
He says a whole-of-government approach and pan-industry consultation are also needed.
"You've got to look at the industry as a tapestry — everything's connected.
"[Consultation] has to be across the whole sector — right through distribution, wholesale retail dealers, arts centres, independent artists: the whole gamut — because they're the ones who are living it," he says.
Acknowledging the far-reaching impacts of COVID, the government commissioned an inquiry into Australia's creative and cultural industries and institutions — they are due to report back on its 22 recommendations in December.
Among the recommendations is the establishment of a National Centre for Indigenous Arts and Culture.
"That idea has been floating around for a long time, in different stages of feasibility. I think it is really important to not only look at what one National Centre of Excellence would look like but what it would look like in individual states," says Everitt.
In embedding First Nations' arts and culture in policy, Everitt says it's time for governments to transition from a consultation to a co-design process.
While Labor has said they will centre First Nations arts and culture in developing their cultural policy if elected, Eltham says funding commitments are needed to make this pledge meaningful.
"Labor hasn't promised any new funding for the Australia Council, but if [they] wanted to do more funding for First Nations arts and culture, presumably that's where it would have to be done. So I question where that priority is going to actually materialise."
He says there are a lot of other opportunities for investment.
"Funding for Indigenous media for example, as the Greens have promised. Labor's [promise] of support for First Nations languages in schools [is] really positive. But I would like to see funding for First Nations performing arts, First Nations literature, First Nations music."
A return to austerity
If the Coalition is re-elected and does not commit further funding to the arts beyond what has been announced in the budget, Eltham says it will return the sector to austerity.
"It'll reimpose fairly stringent funding cuts or at least static funding over the medium term.
"That really means it'll be an underfunded sector, and that's disappointing because things weren't exactly great in 2019 going into the pandemic. Then the sector has faced its worst crisis in 100 years."
Eltham says many parts of the sector, particularly the performing arts, are "hanging on by their fingernails".
"They absolutely have not recovered to anything like 2019 levels. So there's a lot of pain in the sector."
Benton says the lack of a strategic vision and robust support for the arts is "a lost opportunity for the country".
"The sector will be the shadow of what it should and could be. There'll still be elements of it that exist because people are so passionate about what they do, and will work to make things happen because it's important to us.
"But it's not healthy and it's not sustainable," she says.
One of the key priorities NAVA has been advocating for during the election is to stimulate long-term sustainability in the arts sector.
"We really do need a whole-of-government national cultural plan because [although] the Coalition has given money to the arts throughout the pandemic … it isn't informed by a bigger picture.
"You have these big chunks of money being chucked at one-off things that have an impact in the moment, but then [they're] gone.
"[That approach] doesn't have impact across the broader ecology and that's what we believe a national cultural plan will do," she says.
Benton says she retains hope that the government, if re-elected, will support the arts beyond what they've announced in the budget.
"Minister Fletcher does actually really like the arts and he does care.
"I think he just needs to listen to the industry that's saying that we need a national cultural plan as recommended by his own inquiry so that there is a strategic and considered approach to investment."