Monday, April 13, 2020

Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector

The last few months have been a wild ride. First the national bushfires and now global pandemic. In February people were being encouraged to visit fire-ravaged regional centres to help boost local economies. By March they were being urged to stay home to help reduce the spread of pestilence. I’m quietly seething at governments which knew this was coming, but just didn’t have a fixed date, and thought they could make savings by pretending it wasn’t coming. Now the Australian creative sector has largely been infected as well, but without the ventilators required to keep it alive.

What I find amazing – but not unusual ­– is that for the last five years, medical experts have been predicting another pandemic. Meanwhile penny-pinching governments have been cutting funding for medical research. Now people are going to die because Government failed. Governments exist for the big challenges, the long term issues. But we keep electing politicians who can't see beyond the next election in three years time. We've had drought and massive bush fires and now pestilence. To top it off we are about to see a whole crucial economic and social force crippled, as the creative sector is largely sidelined.

Too little, too late
Unfortunately, as the ‘too little, too late’ response to the bushfires showed, our current Government is not well suited to deal with this crisis, for two reasons – temperament and ideology. Firstly, temperament – Morrison is just not a decisive, strategic leader. He's been forced to respond to the coronavirus, but it's not a natural fit. Luckily, just like Rudd during the Global Financial Crisis, he has listened to the advice of his departments and the experts, but it was not a natural or instinctive response.

Recognising the crucial role of the creative sector is central to understanding the clean and clever industries of the future - Daylesford Primary School displays its support for STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Mathematics - as the engine of the contemporary world.

Secondly, ideology – the Coalition don't believe Government should have much of a role at all and they are also fixated on the myth of the centrality of the individual above community, so they aren't very good at social mobilisation or public health campaigns. As a result they are the last people you want running this sort of whole of Government response. Hopefully they'll learn, but it goes against the grain, so they will always lag and be less decisive than needed. I am equally as pessimistic about their role in leading the economic and social rebuilding that has to happen down the track.

In response to the pandemic and the need to shutdown society – and hence the economy – the Government bailed out vast numbers of sectors. Airlines, private hospitals, banks – all benefited. Some sectors were relatively neglected, such as the higher education sector, which is critical for many other important sectors in the knowledge economy. Mostly those who didn’t benefit were those this Government usually can manage to ignore without too much risk – casual employees, migrant workers, international students, refugees. They are happy to take the economic and financial benefits many of these groups provide, but also happy to move on afterwards. After decades of trying to turn as many employees into casuals as possible, it’s easy to let them shoulder the burden of crisis. With no sick leave or holiday pay and no penalty rates for working odd hours, they have few reserves in the face of a massive hit like this.

Creative sector omitted
Amongst all these bailouts, handouts and legups the creative sector was omitted. The relief package does not cover most of those in it. Due to the Government restrictions to deal with the COVID-19 virus, within a short period 47% of the sector had closed down, far higher than any other. This is not surprising, given the fact that the restrictions immediately impacted on performances and events. So many in the creative sector have employment patterns that consist of a life-time of short-terms contracts across a number of employers or do not work as companies with ABNs, that most are not eligible for what’s on offer.

Government restriction hit the creative sector almost immediately and disproportinately.

Simple research and forecasting might have shown that, if anyone cared. Ironically during disasters like bushfires, this same sector has risen to the occasion on many occasions, playing an important role in helping community recovery. Even more ironic, while everyone is locked down at home watching television, reading books and listening to music, at the same time the people who produce all these are now out of work indefinitely. The creative sector is called upon whenever it’s needed but the response in turn when it is under threat is sorely lacking.

‘Ironically during disasters like bushfires, this same sector has risen to the occasion on many occasions, playing an important role in helping community recovery. Even more ironic, while everyone is locked down at home watching television, reading books and listening to music, at the same time the people who produce all these are now out of work indefinitely. The creative sector is called upon whenever it’s needed but the response in turn when it is under threat is sorely lacking.’

The Government didn’t completely ignore the creative sector. Yet it’s response showed a great deal about how it sees the sector and the Government’s relationship with it. It is almost completely along the lines of a funding source that provides grants to the arts – it is either grants funding or charity, as evidenced by its support for Support Act, the worthwhile body that assists performers in need. It relied to a large extent on the response of its main national arts funding body, the Australia Council, yet given the limitations of funding available through that organisation, it’s part of the whole arts funding model approach, rather than an industry sector approach.

A skirmish to divide up the scraps
There was a massive reaction to the long-awaited announcement by the Australia Council of its four year funding support for small to medium organisations. Yet that misses the main problem – Australia Council arts funding has been become less and less relevant as it diminishes in real terms. While its funding rounds are still important – and for many small organisations the difference between survival and shutting their doors – they have become just a skirmish to divide up the shrinking scraps. It's not too late for the Government to act on a more strategic vision, but it won’t happen, despite how seriously the creative sector has been hit by the pandemic.

So why was the creative sector as a whole overlooked. There is no short answer – but to my mind there are two main reasons. The first reason is that the Government – reflecting the views on most Australians – does not particularly value the creative sector. The thing about being part of the mainstream culture is that you don't value it because it is everywhere and also invisible. If you are an English speaker for example, you don't value your language until it is threatened by other languages – ‘speak English, why don't you?’ It's just what you speak – everyday. Why does anyone speak anything else?

More generally, Intangible cultural heritage is a perfect example. People often think this means only Indigenous heritage but our intangible cultural heritage is everywhere – the Melbourne Cup is an example. Cultural understanding and awareness is a form of literacy. Learning another language helps you appreciate your own language more. Encountering another culture the same way you encounter a new friend makes you appreciate what you already have. You don't value your culture until it is taken away from you and when it is the mainstream culture that won't happen. Look at the European response to supporting their creative sector and you see we are worlds apart. Perhaps it might have been better for Australia to have been settled by the French.

‘The Government came a long way in terms of their narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government, because otherwise the economy would have been devastated (and I'm sure that within the Government there were those who wanted to do far less). However this shows how serious the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date.’

The second reason – and this is the most damning for any Government that claims it is the best economic manager on offer – is that the Government is out of touch with the emerging economy of the future and the clean and clever industries that comprise it.

Failure of economic management – too narrow and out of date
The Government came a long way in terms of their narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government, because otherwise the economy would have been devastated (and I'm sure that within the Government there were those who wanted to do far less). However this shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. They've missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. This was also apparent in the neglect of the higher education sector, which is crucial for other important sectors of the knowledge economy, including the creative sector. The impact now – and also once the pandemic is over – will be huge.

They've missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. This was also apparent in the neglect of the higher education sector, which is crucial for other important sectors of the knowledge economy, including the creative sector.

This same lack of foresight and strategic vision is shown in the response to the economic opportunities presented by climate change. Driven by the climate change deniers in its ranks, the Government has been too intent on waging an ideological war around the threat of climate change to grasp the sizeable benefits that could accrue from a strategic response. The tail continues to wag the dog.

Opportunity to bounce back
Former Liberal leader, John Hewson, has made the point that this crisis offers the Morrison Government an opportunity to bounce back from it’s appalling record on the bushfires and then its initally slow response to the corona virus pandemic. Whether it will rise to the opportunity remains to be seen. It showed it could do things no-one ever imagined possible for a Government of its stripe, so we can only hope – while keeping all other options open. The Government is experiencing a spike of support – no wonder when it has shown it is prepared to spend up big to keep much of the country afloat. However, such moments are always fleeting and Governments cannot afford to bask in short term approval for too long.

‘Hopefully this moment might mean that the two main parties, but particularly the Coalition, will stop drinking the neo-liberal Kool-aid. Will we see the dramatic shift we need to increase support substantially for a functioning health system, education, science, research and development and a strategic public sector role in the economy and society – not to mention our creative sector?’

Hopefully this moment might mean that the two main parties, but particularly the Coalition, will stop drinking the neo-liberal Kool-aid. Will we see the dramatic shift we need to increase support substantially for a functioning health system, education, science, research and development and a strategic public sector role in the economy and society – not to mention our creative sector? Perhaps. I’m not hopeful – it will only come from widespread demand by the population that makes politicians feel the pain of their constituents.

After this, I don't want to return to normal – normal was not working. If we don't take this opportunity to think about a new way of living, then we deserve the next bush fire in September and the next coronavirus outbreak in a few years time. As we emerge from this crisis, our world will change in unimaginable ways – both for better and for worse. Let’s hope as many of us as possible are still in it and that the creative sector survives to underpin the economy we have been waiting for.

Update 
There has been intense discussion about what has been happening to the creative sector in recent days. It is not going away.

The Australia Institute recently hosted an online discussion on the issue. It’s good to see that this respected and very effective research body has been looking at the creative sector recently. Applying their research capability to the sector is a very positive step.

‘A New Approach’, the research body looking at the value of the creative sector has published an update on its work advocating for the sector.

The Australian Academy for the Humanities has released a statement, ‘Our cultural and creative future at the crossroads’, highlighting the serious state of the sector.

Prominent creative sector figures have spoken on ABC media about the crisis.

Linked to this the National Tertiary Education Union has been campaigning for an adequate package of support to prevent Higher Education falling apart.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook

Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy
‘Survival in the creative sector in a post-COVID world will require enhanced literacy in the opportunities of the new industries of the future, the clean and clever knowledge economy which is altering our world on a daily basis. Now a new short course delivered completely online in the new digital universe we are all increasingly inhabiting will look closely at the creative and cultural economy and the broader impacts of creativity and culture, both economic and social. It will outline the role of the creative sector in managing meaning and explain how telling Australian stories puts us on the international stage in an increasingly globalised world’, Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy.

Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck
‘In its response to the pandemic the current Government came a long way in terms of its narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government. However the longer history of neglect of the creative sector shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. It has missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. It's most recent actions have merely compounded a seven year history of neglect and damage,’ Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck.

Out of the ashes – art and bushfires
‘While the current bushfires raging across much of Australia are unprecedented in their scale and severity, they are a reminder of how people have responded after previous fires, rebuilding communities and lives in the affected areas. They have also focused attention on the impact of the fires on creative practices and business and on how those in the arts and culture sector can use their skills to contribute to bushfire recovery into the future’, Out of the ashes – art and bushfires.

Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture 
‘Understanding, assessing and communicating the broad value of arts and culture is a major and ongoing task. There has been an immense amount of work already carried out. The challenge is to understand some of the pitfalls of research and the mechanisms and motivations that underpin it. Research and evaluation is invaluable for all organisations but it is particularly important for Government. The experience of researching arts and culture in Government is of much broader relevance, as the arts and culture sector navigates the tricky task of building a comprehensive understanding in each locality of the broader benefits of arts and culture. The latest Arts restructure makes this even more urgent.’, Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world
‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity
‘When I was visiting Paris last year, there was one thing I wanted to do before I returned home – visit the renowned French bakery that had trained a Melbourne woman who had abandoned the high stakes of Formula One racing to become a top croissant maker. She had decided that being an engineer in the world of elite car racing was not for her, but rather that her future lay in the malleable universe of pastry. Crossing boundaries of many kinds and traversing the borders of differing countries and cultures, she built a radically different future to the one she first envisaged’, Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity.

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture

‘Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.


No comments:

Post a Comment