Saturday, October 17, 2020

Skewing the view - call for inquiry into mass media in Australia

This is highly relevant to those with an interest in Australian creativity and the creative sector. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, having courted the Murdoch media for many years in politics - as every politician ends up having to do - is now free from owing Murdoch anything and has launched a petition for a Royal Commission into the media in Australia.

I don't know if signing petitions is of much use, but given the way the Murdoch stranglehold on our mass media has skewed our democracy and a future for Australia based on creativity and diversity, I'm prepared to give it a go. It beats scrawling 'who writes this rubbish?' on copies of their papers in coffee shops.
 
My acknowledgement from Parliament House noted how many people have signed in just a week: 'You have successfully signed petition reference number EN1938 and there are 300,880 signatures on this petition.'
 
Why not take a short break from worrying about the future of creativity and the creative sector in Australia and for the sake of our democracy, have a go, sign and then share early and often?
 

Monday, October 5, 2020

The short answer #2: Broken broadband unbalances the books

Back in 2013, when the first of the latest string of Coalition Governments we have had was elected, there seemed to be a strong view within the Coalition that broadband was a luxury, mainly useful for entertainment. Yet those of us familiar with the work of Australian post-production companies, doing the finishing work on major US films during the day while the US industry slept, and sending it by broadband overnight for work to resume in the Northern hemisphere the next day, knew it was a key part of Australia’s productive infrastructure. Then the COVID-19 pandemic confirmed it. Now the Government has acknowledged that there are major deficiencies with the National Broadband Network but is it too late to save it and make it the national asset we need and deserve?

I don’t normally write about technical issues. However high quality broadband is so crucial to the future of the creative sector that commenting about it is unavoidable. After spending ten years belittling the Labor Government plan for almost universal high speed broadband, the Coalition Government has finally accepted that what it has produced is a second-rate mess.

 

Distinctive National Broadband Boxes have sprung up across the nation - but the news is not as welcoming as the message on this one.

Now, seven years after the Coalition Government was first elected, it is pushing ahead with plans to spend $4.5 billion to fix up the compromise its own cuts have created. The Minister now responsible, Paul Fletcher, used to work for Optus, so on top of the advice from his department, he must have a pretty good historical idea of the problems. It’s a good sign that he has finally made this announcement, despite the limitations of Government commitment. There’s also the question of who would want to go into the next election with this disappointing issue on your hands?

Monday, September 28, 2020

Music makes the world go round – the bright promise of our export future

After ABBA, in an unexpected break from its traditional way of building national wealth from natural resources, Sweden managed to discover a new source of income. It was not as you would expect coal or oil. Rather than oil what it had discovered was song royalties, part of a fundamental change in the nature of modern economies which transformed them from relying solely on natural resources, transport and manufacturing to make creative content a new form of resource mining. Examples like theirs point to potentially major opportunities for the Australian music industry to become a net exporter of music.

Many years ago, in a universe far, far away – actually the arts and culture division of the Australian Government – I was responsible for a time for literature and contemporary music policy and programs. A songwriter who worked in the area with me, who knew a thing or two about the economics of the music industry, pointed out to me that after ABBA, Sweden had managed to discover a new source of income, which was not as you would expect coal or oil.

Building a Scandinavian economy of the future - renewal energy and creative content together pack a powerful economic punch.

Rather than oil what it had discovered was song royalties. From then on, I was intrigued. My songwriter colleague at the time had drawn some of his insights from a forum organised by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), the national organisation representing copyright holders in creative content in music and song.

‘APRA has been around since 1926 and today represents the rights of 103,000 songwriters, composers and publishers across Australia and New Zealand. At the heart of what APRA does is collect money for the use of its members’ intellectual property – their songs.’

 This is why a little-publicised recent speech by Jenny Morris, noted Australian musician and song-writer and current Chair of APRA, is so important and timely. She made her hard-hitting address at the National Press Club in Canberra in August this year. Incidentally she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia five years ago and Sophie Payten, better known as Gordi, fresh from a concert at the Sydney Opera House, assisted in delivering her address.

Monday, September 14, 2020

The old normal was abnormal – survival lessons for a new riskier world

When I hear the call to get back to normal, I think ‘what was normal about the old normal?’ The sudden shutdown of large sectors of the economy highlighted drastically how precarious was the situation of vast chunks of Australian society, in particular but not exclusively, the creative sector. The business models implemented by the Government to help businesses survive and employees keep their jobs didn’t work at all for those who had already been happily left at – or even deliberately pushed to – the margins of society and the economy. In good times the creative sector is flexible and fast at responding. In bad times it is a disaster, as the failure of the COVID-19 support packages for the sector shows.

I am starting to think that ‘trickle down economics’, the concept that making the wealthy wealthier will inevitably flow down to those earning less – an idea seemingly admired by the Government – could be called more accurately ‘piss upon economics’. This is no rising tide lifting all boats – it’s becoming quite clear that wealth is more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The reality is that in dealing with the pandemic, the Government responded to a world they knew – and helped create. The problem is not only with the Government’s response but with the business models of the sector that made it all possible – business models that are part of a larger trend in our economy and society generally.

‘In the economy of the future the creative sector and the higher education system will be critical. Yet in facing this crisis, it seems the Government has largely abandoned both of them.’

In many ways, in its response to the pandemic, the Government has demonstrated sharply its fundamental weaknesses and blind spots. In the economy of the future the creative sector and the higher education system will be critical. Yet in facing this crisis, it seems the Government has largely abandoned both of them.

If you don't water the roots, there will be no leaves - and no trees.

Not only does the Higher Education sector train our artists and cultural workers but, as the creative sector has pointed out, 70% of artists who earn a living beyond their creative work do so through teaching. Yet universities are excluded from JobKeeper, as are university galleries and their staff. The neglect extends even further ‘Local Government institutions and their employees are excluded – that’s every regional and suburban gallery, museum and performing arts centre in Australia. The lifeblood of their communities, with nowhere to go. Coupled with the long-term run down and privatisation of technical and further education, no-one will be calling Australia the clever country any time soon – the clever dick country is more like it.

Casual, short term project work across multiple employers

This is further demonstrated by the unsuitability of the JobKeeper package for many artists and artsworkers who work on a casual basis on successive short term projects across multiple employers. Someone might be continuously employed for many years but in that time work for a succession of employers for no more than a few months at a time.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Endless attrition at major collections institutions undermines our long-term cultural future

The endless attrition of the ‘efficiency dividend’, with its long-term debilitating impact on our major national cultural institutions, continues to do harm. With the periodic announcement of job losses, more and more valuable expertise is increasingly lost and important programs affected. This will undermine the ability of these institutions to care for our heritage and to provide access to their collections for Australians across the country. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. At some point Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible.

The most recent news in the ongoing decline of our major national cultural institutions was that the National Gallery of Australia would shed staff due to a range of pressures including the ongoing impact of the ‘efficiency dividend’. However, this is a long-term, ongoing decline. More and more valuable expertise is increasingly lost and important programs affected.

 Canberra vista showing many of the national cultural institutions.

Ironically this occurred just as the Government announced a well-overdue $250 million rescue program for the badly battered creative sector, a program that while generally welcomed by the sector, was described by corruption-busting journalist, Michael West, as ‘chicken feed’. Two and a half months later not much seems to have happened. The announcement of the job losses occurred at the same time as the Government began spending around $500 million on a questionable extension to one single cultural institution, the Australian War Memorial. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

The short answer #1: Mismanaging the future - creative sector left in the lurch again

Another one of the many ways in which the current Australian Government doesn’t understand the creative sector has been underlined by its decision to wind back the JobSeeker allowance. In the clean and clever economy of the future both the creative sector and the higher education sector will be critical - yet both have largely been abandoned by the Government.

Increasingly I wonder if the current Australian Government is up to managing an economy – much of what it is doing seems more to be dictated by neo-liberal ideology than economic merit. I can’t see how many of the ideas it is pushing ahead with will help the economy – in fact they are likely to make things worse: cutting welfare (those on welfare would spend every extra dollar they get, thereby stimulating the economy quickly); cutting taxes (those getting the tax cuts, mainly focused inevitably on higher incomes have been saving, not spending in response to the economic recession); and undermining the superannuation system (which will hit the lowest paid and most insecure, with mostly intermittent work - mainly women). On top of this they are still fixated on deregulating the workforce (creating more precarious short-term casual jobs without sick leave or other protections, which made the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus inevitable).

Flawed stimulus packages

Even their stimulus packages seem flawed in terms of what they are supposed to achieve. During the Global Financial Crisis, the Rudd Government rolled out the roof insulation scheme, which despite its flaws, did what it needed to do. It had quick take up because it didn’t involve building and it left an overall benefit to the nation by reducing energy use. In contrast the HomeBuilder scheme is still barely underway because of all the steps needed to start work and it will leave lasting benefits only to those home owners who can access it. Direct government spending on social housing or other worthwhile community projects would be far more effective at stimulating the economy, while at the same time leaving broader social benefits to the nation from taxpayer dollars.

What started me on this path was thinking how in the economy of the future the creative sector and the higher education system will be critical. Yet it seems this Government has largely abandoned both of them and is focused on bolstering sectors like coal and gas that are rapidly being overtaken by developments with renewal energy.

Consigning much of the creative sector to poverty

Another one of the many ways in which the current Australian Government doesn’t understand the creative sector has been underlined by its decision to wind back the JobSeeker allowance. From 27 September, JobKeeper will move to a two-tier system. Workers who usually worked less than 20 hours per week pre-pandemic will receive $750 per week, while full-timers will get $1,200.

Yet many of the industries with the highest proportion of those working less than 20 hours per week are also those that have faced the tightest restrictions due to the pandemic. Industry sectors such as arts and recreation, which have been most affected by the coronavirus restrictions, are also those which have the highest share of their workforce working too few hours to be eligible for the higher JobKeeper rate.

Before the pandemic these workers would have put together a living wage by working several part-time jobs. The problem is that because of the pandemic and the restrictions to deal with it, many of the jobs they used to rely on to supplement their incomes no longer exist. The Government action is compounding its neglect of this sector by consigning much of it to poverty. 

See also

Music makes the world go round – the bright promise of our export future 

‘After ABBA, in an unexpected break from its traditional way of building national wealth from natural resources, Sweden managed to discover a new source of income. It was not as you would expect coal or oil. Rather than oil what it had discovered was song royalties, part of a fundamental change in the nature of modern economies which transformed them from relying solely on natural resources, transport and manufacturing to make creative content a new form of resource mining. Examples like theirs point to potentially major opportunities for the Australian music industry to become a net exporter of music,’ Music makes the world go round – the bright promise of our export future.

The old normal was abnormal – survival lessons for a new riskier world
‘When I hear the call to get back to normal, I think ‘what was normal about the old normal?’ The sudden shutdown of large sectors of the economy highlighted drastically how precarious was the situation of vast chunks of Australian society, in particular but not exclusively, the creative sector. The business models implemented by the Government to help businesses survive and employees keep their jobs didn’t work at all for those who had already been happily left at – or even deliberately pushed to – the margins of society and the economy. In good times the creative sector is flexible and fast at responding. In bad times it is a disaster, as the failure of the COVID-19 support packages for the sector shows’, The old normal was abnormal – survival lessons for a new riskier world.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia

Creative organisations and artists often collect information and research in order to report to funding bodies about how grant funding has been used. Apart from the need to report on funding or to make a case to government, or society in general, the creative and cultural sector also needs evidence and understanding for its own purposes. While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, the organisations need it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They need it to know whether what they are doing is effective and worthwhile – or whether they should be doing something else.

Effective research and evaluation is a key element in ensuring long term growth of creative and cultural organisations, to ensure that they are effective in meeting their own objectives. Across all areas of the creative and cultural sector, it is clear how critical research, evaluation and measurement is to understanding what the creative and cultural sector does and what works best.

Music is a universal language in a world full of languages.

The critical importance of research
I have previously looked at the importance of research about creativity and culture and its role and significance in Australian society and the Australian economy. In my article, ‘Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture’, I noted ‘Most arts and culture organisation – and, increasingly, most government departments – don’t have the ability, expertise or resources to undertake research. This is where partnerships are crucial, whether in actually carrying out the research, or in helping set it up so it can be done in an economical and effective way.’