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.

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, an open letter to the Prime Minister, Ministers and Lord Mayors from a broad group of creative organisations outlined the underlying issues. It noted that the sector ‘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.’

It’s not just an issue in Australia. A timely report from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre in the UK has identified the same inherent problems with this sector in the UK. The report makes the point that 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.’

The gig economy

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.

‘It’s all very well to say that the days of coming to work with a cough are overthese 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.’

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.

  • Accelerated move to online and remote work and learning. With many more people having experienced working from home, it will be much easier to live out of cities and still work in them.
  • There will be a massive growth in cashless payments, merely reinforcing a trend that was already unstoppable.
  •  I suspect rationing will become much more widespread, with timed visits even more important. To compensate for this experiences will need to become more intense. Watching how the hospitality sector faces up to these challenges will be illuminating – it was the only sector of the economy hit harder than the creative sector. At one stage when you booked a restaurant, you often had that booking for the whole evening. Then, as the economics of the restaurant business became tighter, two sittings became more and more common. This potentially could double bookings. Restaurants also started to check that bookings were still coming the day before, so minimising empty tables. One way of responding to the new sparser world we will be inhabiting might be to increase the number of sittings. If in a small restaurant you could previously seat 20 tables and now this needed to reduced to 10, if you doubled the number of sittings, you might be able to offset the sparser seating. Patrons would have to adjust to shorter, more intense experiences, but they might be prepared to accept that for the continued existence of restaurants. Overall the whole retail sector everywhere is liking to be drastically changed and this will flow through to the creative sector as well.
  • Virtual experiences through online delivery and digital content will have to become core business, not just the way core business is promoted, with no charge associated. Galleries and museums can more readily adapt than many organisations. Major events, such as the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, present a challenge but the organisers rose to the occasion, as did so many others. I watched several performances of Bach in the Dark, online live-streamed concerts by Australian musicians that viewers could subscribe to for a small chanrge. Not being able to provide feedback was a constraint, as the performers acknowledged, however, theoretically the number of paying viewers could be infinite. Viewers lost the communal sense of experiencing something powerful as part of a large crowd, but in many ways instead got a much more intimate, personal experience. Having had to convert a face to face university course involving two full days of face to face interaction into an online version in a few days, I understand the problems – and the potential. However, for many creative practicioners digital and online distribution will not cut it. As one performer noted, he felt like a cobbler in a world of people who no longer wear shoes.
  • This inevitably raises the issue of the quality and accessibility of online connection. Ironically in the past the importance of the Internet for essential activities was often underestimated – hence many of the well-known failings with the National Broadband Network. It took a pandemic to show that the broadband network is critical infrastructure.
  • Diversified income streams will be the order of the day. I think of the Sydney cookie dough shop that wanted to get rid of unused mix and found the response was so high, it became a permanent income stream.
  • Old way of doing things may see a resurgence – the return of drive in cinemas is just one example.
  • Public transport has become essential to the way people move large distances in modern cities. The problem is that the people who provide services can’t afford to live in the same desirable areas as those who can afford to buy services. The COVID-19 pandemic has skewed the use of public transport. Back in mid 2015 just 35 per cent of the Melbourne population used public transport, compared to 50 per cent of the population in Sydney.
 
‘It’s time to apply the lateral thinking of the creative sector to imagining how a new world post-pandemic might work. We can learn from and contribute to those in the hospitality sector, who in many ways are in a similar situation to those in the creative world. Both sectors depend on people coming together, often in in crowds, to share experiences.’

It’s time to apply the lateral thinking of the creative sector to imagining how a new world post-pandemic might work. We can learn from and contribute to those in the hospitality sector, who in many ways are in a similar situation to those in the creative world. Both sectors depend on people coming together, often in in crowds, to share experiences.

 For any sort of worthwhile future, there are a range of things that must change. The creative sector has to become part of the broader efforts to make this happen. More difficult is that it must also think through what this means for its own practices and start to implement it.

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.

There are also broader issues for the creative sector that are far beyond the ability of the sector to start to address by itself. The concentration and type of mainstream media ownership has major implications for the creative sector, and social media regulation and taxation needs to be totally overhauled. There is little point in fostering the creative sector without realising that this cannot be undertaken without recognising the dominant role of mainstream media and social media in moulding creativity and culture. One immediate example is the role of Australian content frameworks – for which incidentally the Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher, is also responsible – in shaping Australian culture.

‘However, the immediate challenge is the fact that unless the sector thinks carefully about its fundamental business models and practices, nothing will really change. In the era of the ‘gig’ economy and neo-liberal enthusiasm for deregulation and casualisation, the same trends which shape the creative sector are fundamentally changing our economy and society as a whole.’

However, the immediate challenge is the fact that unless the sector thinks carefully about its fundamental business models and practices, nothing will really change. In the era of the ‘gig’ economy and neo-liberal enthusiasm for deregulation and casualisation, the same trends which shape the creative sector are fundamentally changing our economy and society as a whole. There is an urgent need to change working conditions and practices, which implies business models, because work often happens in businesses and ultimately is about making businesses work in some sort of sustainable and strategically successful way.

The creative sector will not survive without challenging these trends but it will not be able to do so without accepting that the solution must reach across our economy and society. We’re all in this together, but some are in it more than others.

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.

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’, The short answer #1: Mismanaging the future – the creative sector left in the lurch again.

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.

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,’ Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector.

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.

 

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