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 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.
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.
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.
the Prime Minister, Ministers and Lord Mayors employed hundreds of thousands of people with a high proportion of sole trader contractors, SMEs and casuals.’ Some were able to be covered, most were not. ‘As each day passed, hundreds of businesses, spaces, venues, productions, events, festivals and cultural outlets closed.’ As the crisis developed, the likelihood of reopening or restarting diminished. ‘The scale of loss across the cultural and creative sector was unprecedented – and devastating, both culturally and economically.’
‘This is 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.’
As the organisations noted ‘the work of the sector relies on gatherings, and national and international touring, both small and large, in remote locations, in regions and in cities. It was the first industry to be hit with announcements of cancellations and closures, making front-page news across the country. Venues and other programs have been closed down by government order, without any industry support. And the sector will be one of the last able to trade again.’Government-funded organisations in minority
While city, state and federal agencies, including the national arts funding body, the Australia Council, made adjustments to their funding programs and existing relationships, funded organisations comprise only a minor segment of the creative, cultural and entertainment sector. The letter noted that ‘over 90% of artists, creators and businesses are not in receipt of public funding and are not able to benefit from these measures.’
This is a major problem with the Government’s strategy of support and it explains why it was essentially flawed. Because the Government focuses on the sector as though it is only the arts sector, it thinks of support almost solely in terms of discretionary grants. This means it tweaks the grants system expecting to fix the much broader weakness in the sector, rather than redesigning the JobKeeper program to reflect the real nature of contemporary jobs. This is like trying to turn a giant supertanker by sticking an oar in the water.
‘Because the Government focuses on the sector as though it is only the arts sector, it thinks of support almost solely in terms of discretionary grants. This means it tweaks the grants system expecting to fix the much broader weakness in the sector, rather than redesigning the JobKeeper program to reflect the real nature of contemporary jobs.’
Forcing those in the sector to rely on income support payments, like JobSeeker, apart from the fact that they are of much lower value, also has the effect of separating arts workers from the organisations they work for in ways that wage subsidies like JobKeeper would not, ‘dispersing creative teams and imperilling business viability’.
The trap of casual, part-time work
The many ways in which the Australian Government doesn’t understand the creative sector has been underlined by its decision to wind back the JobSeeker allowance from 27 September. After that 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.
‘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.’
The gig economy arts and culture as an ‘industry’ has been massively successful over the last 25 years. It notes that ‘this has been in both national and international terms; in employment, earnings and exports; and, in terms of urban and regional regeneration. However, these achievements have been at the expense of cultural workers who have increasingly been (self) employed on short term contracts and project work. As in the party game of musical chairs, this approach is hugely efficient and flexible but when the music stops many fall by the wayside.’
It’s a case worth following in more detail. According to the report, the nature of the so-called gig economy has been explored in a review of modern working practices – which found that the ‘gig’ economy affects the whole economy. However, ‘as the name suggests, it was born in and pioneered by the cultural economy’. In older economies large organisations employed staff on permanent contracts that covered the ups and downs of the economy. However, the report notes, ‘in today’s economy, employment is “just in time” – when the performance ends, so does the job.’
‘This means that the challenging work practices which the creative sector needs to confront extend way beyond the creative sector – hence on the one hand, the task is greater, on the other, there is the possibility of common ground in seeking change and therefore potentially a much broader coalition with a shared purpose.’
The key point the report makes is highlighting the inherent business models of the sector that determine its precarious state. ‘It is the domination of self-employment that makes the cultural economy so flexible with the minor fluctuations; but, fatally vulnerable in the current situation. There is no work, nor prospect of work. The Government's self-employment COVID-19 relief is difficult to apply to such variable earnings patterns as those found in the cultural sector, plus they will take time to claim. However, without some support even if the arts infrastructure is able to open its doors, there will be nobody to tread the boards.’
The name ‘gig economy’ suggests that like the COVID-19 virus, the work practices of the creative sector have infected the rest of the economy. But these sort of work practices have been around for centuries, more or less resisted by unions and community organisations over the whole period until neo-liberalism swung back the pendulum. The way dock workers used to be recruited is merely one dramatic form.Coming to work with a cough
It’s all very well to say that the days of coming to work with a cough are over – as has been pointed out, these are words from someone who has never worked in a job without paid sick leave. Governments have created a situation where workers are forced to come to work when sick. When companies and successive governments have gone all out to casualise the workforce, so a huge chunk have no paid sick leave, a large part of the health crisis had been created before the virus even existed.
When companies and successive governments have gone all out to casualise the workforce, so a huge chunk have no paid sick leave, a large part of the health crisis had been created before the virus even existed.’
This is a issue that applies to essential front-line workers workers as well. They are in the most casualised, precarious and dangerous jobs. Applause is good but money and improved conditions, like pandemic sick leave for people forced to self-isolate, would be better. There are already signs that this is starting to happen – after years of unions pointing out the problems and being ignored, much as they highlighted fundamental deficiencies in the aged care sector which are now becoming dramatically apparent due to the ravages of COVID-19. This means that the challenging work practices which the creative sector needs to confront extend way beyond the creative sector – hence on the one hand, the task is greater, on the other, there is the possibility of common ground in seeking change and therefore potentially a much broader coalition with a shared purpose.
Drastic changes reshaping creative sector
However, the coming challenges are not just about work practices. In coming decades we will see many drastic changes which will reshape the creative sector and the way it does business. The whole creative sector has been grappling with this for the last six months and there is a wide array of case studies and a vast body of discussion about this. Here are just a few, wide-ranging observations I’ve made and examples I’ve found over the lost six months of shutdown.
- just 35 per cent of the Melbourne population , compared to 50 per cent of the population in Sydney.
Comprehensive high-level strategic body needed
In response to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the creative sector, Arts Minister Paul Fletcher on 22 August announced a new body – a Creative Economy Taskforce – which could have been a very important step forward and which normally I would have become very excited about. But, while the new body might be useful, unfortunately it’s not a ‘creative economy’ taskforce – on the contrary it’s a Large Festival, Gallery and Performing Arts Taskforce, with a minimal representation of artists, small to medium sized arts companies or commercial creative economy companies.
It’s really a Large Arts Taskforce, which while it has relevance to the creative economy, represents but a thin slice of this much bigger sector. If it wasn’t for the inclusion of Alison Page, entrepreneur, artist, and film and television producer on the one hand, and Dan Rosen, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Recording Industry Association (New South Wales), on the other, I’d be astounded at how homogenous and narrow its makeup is.
When what is needed is a comprehensive high-level strategic body, I am surprised that, except for Alison Page, there is hardly any screen industry presence, no-one from the publishing industry, no representation from the large collections institutions which have much relevance to the rest of the creative economy, no community cultural development or regional representation. Perhaps the Government thinks it will link up all these elements for many of which it has responsibility, but if there is to be a comprehensive strategic national approach, all these diverse voices need to interact in discussions from the beginning.
Much more vast and thorny issues – and immediate challenges
In the broader context there are much more vast and thorny issues facing everyone, which have been thrown up or highlighted by the pandemic. Government has a crucial role in setting the framework for the operation of the economy, not simply reflecting it, and responsibility for strategic areas, like education and health, that the private sector is incapable of carrying forward without fundamentally distorting. Aged care is just one area that has to be rethought from top to bottom.
Remaking the world we know – for better or worse
‘Given the Government cannot avoid spending enormous sums of money if it is to be in any way capable and competent, this is an unparalleled opportunity to remake Australia for the future. Usually opportunities such as this only arise in rebuilding a country and an economy after a world war. It is a perfect moment to create the sort of clean, clever and creative economy that will take us forward in the global world for the next hundred years. Unfortunately a failure of imagination and a lack of innovative ambition will probably ensure this doesn’t happen any time soon’, Remaking the world we know – for better or worse.
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 short answer #1: Mismanaging the future – the 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’, .
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.
‘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.