Monday, November 2, 2020

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 in the face of this pandemic, 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. Creativity and culture could play a crucial part in this renewal. Unfortunately a failure of imagination and a lack of innovative ambition will probably ensure this doesn’t happen any time soon.

Given the Government in this moment cannot avoid spending enormous sums of money if it is to be any kind of a capable and competent government, 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. Creativity and culture could play a crucial part in this renewal.

The Government dropped the ball responding to the bushfire emergency before largely abandoning the creative sector in the face of the pandemic.

Looking back, rather than forward
Yet I can’t help suspecting that this Government is using the pandemic and its aftermath as a convenient excuse to make the sort of changes it has wanted all along. Aligning education (or as they seem to think of it, ‘skills and training’) even more firmly with the short-term needs of the neo-liberal economy, keeping welfare firmly clamped down, largely ignoring the crisis-ridden aged care sector, with the large number of people in it who are no longer seen as productive and hence, of less importance to ‘the economy’.

‘I can’t help suspecting that this Government is using the pandemic and its aftermath as a convenient excuse to make the sort of changes it has wanted all along.’

In the creative sector which is my area of interest, the Government has used the opportunity provided by the pandemic to realise its long term ambition to suspend local content quotas – something likely to destroy thousands of small innovative Australian businesses in the screen production sector for the permanent benefit of major multinational content producers.

Making a feature of failure of imagination
Faced with an opportunity to show imagination and grasp the immense opportunities before it in response to the pandemic, the Government has instead chosen to take the same old path it has always favoured – deregulation of the labour market, skewing of the economy by special treatment for fossil fuels, tax cuts, subsidies to the well-off in the wishful hope that they will spend up big, directing most support to sectors hit least hard, ignoring women in the process.

Over a third of the Australian workforce, both casual and self-employed workers, does not have access to paid leave, and this is particularly high amongst younger workers. While this level has been stable for the last few decades, after a big jump from the 1980s to the mid 1990s, there are no signs that this will decrease – employers and the Government are pushing to increase it. 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 kind of business model, the ‘gig economy’ is especially prevalent in the creative sector where it arose and it has meant that the impact of the Government response to the pandemic has hit the sector particularly hard.

‘Faced with an opportunity to show imagination and grasp the immense opportunities before it in response to the pandemic, the Government has instead chosen to take the same old path it has always favoured.’

On top of this the Government has locked in previous lack of readiness on pandemics and failed to build in preparation for future pandemics. This current pandemic was long predicted but it was cheaper for Government to pretend it would never happen. Now they are doing it again, even as the dire consequences of the current pandemic are still in front of our eyes. That’s even shorter than a short memory.

Economist Ross Gittins makes sense with his comments about the breakdown in lockdown in the Victorian pandemic. After all the superficial and opportunist politicking around the Victorian inquiry into the failures of hotel quarantine, Gittens gets to the heart of the issue. It's not who did what or who didn't do what. It's the overall neo-liberal ideology that holds all governments, Liberal and Labor, in its grip and limits their vision.

With the two parties, despite notable and important differences – especially for the creative sector, it can easily become a competitive spiral to the bottom. Both parties claim to be better at managing the economy. However, I can't see much evidence that the Coalition claim to always be better at it is true. The successful response of the Rudd Labor Government to the Global Financial Crisis and the current Coalition response to the pandemic makes the picture much less clear cut. In its strategy to rebuild the economy following the onset of the pandemic, it seems that the Government is largely ignoring advice from many economists to spend money directly to create lasting public assets and that its ideological position is skewing its economic approach.

Age of coal is over
This is a government seemingly incapable of recognising that the miraculous age of coal is coming to an end. When I was in Scotland in 2017, I visited Culross, one of the areas in the UK where coal first started to be mined to power industry. It was like standing on a crossing between two worlds. The Government doesn’t have a dynamic and historical view of what is happening around them. They think the world has been a certain way as long as they have been governing and it will always be like that – except it won’t.

The research unit in Minister Fletcher’s own department, the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, points to the fact that in 2016, the total cultural and creative workforce (including embedded creatives working in non-creative industries) was 868,098 people, or 8.1% of the total Australian workforce. That figure has almost certainly been increasing. The cultural and creative economy, including activity in the wide range of cultural and creative industries as well as cultural and creative activity performed in other industries, was worth $111.7b to the Australian economy in 2016–17 (6.4% of GDP). University-based research group, ‘A New Approach’, have drawn on the work of the Bureau and complemented it with its own research to publish a series of working papers that are a valuable contribution to the analysis.

‘It’s not that long ago that I have forgotten the weak response of the Government to the national bushfire disaster. With the challenge of the pandemic for a while it looked as though it had learned its lesson. The Budget – as its strategy to respond to the economic fallout of the pandemic – suggests that might be wishful thinking.’

None of it will shift the thinking in this tired and out of touch Government. Whatever the views of the Arts Minister, the response to the pandemic comes from the whole Government and its failure in relation to the creative sector belongs to the Government as a whole. Much of the practical work and direction during the pandemic has come from the State and Territory leaders. One of the areas where the Federal Government has responsibility – the aged care sector – has been a shocker. It’s not that long ago that I have forgotten the weak response of the Government to the national bushfire disaster. With the challenge of the pandemic for a while it looked as though it had learned its lesson. The Budget – as its strategy to respond to the economic fallout of the pandemic – suggests that might be wishful thinking.

Opportunity to remake the world
A period of immense destruction is the perfect time to remake the world in a better way. It often happens after world wars, when the population is so outraged by what has happened that it is prepared to grasp new and drastic opportunities. It’s not going to happen with this government, which is too narrow, short-sighted and smug. Someone else will have to take up the challenge.

In the world of Governments and governance there are some promising developments. The two party system of mainstream parties has many flaws. While there is no question that a national Labor Government would be better in important respects for the creative sector and the clean and clever economy of the future, Labor still shares many limitations with the Coalition. A comprehensive strategy for renewal that encompasses and builds on the strengths of the creative sector can only be introduced by a party that has a realistic chance of forming government – which means one of the two major players, either Labor or the Coalition.

Yet there is still a role for smaller parties and Independents in raising issues, initiating specific measures and supporting worthwhile strategies. I have thought for a while that those smaller parties or individual Independent members who are principled and forward-looking may offer some hope for Australian democracy – and hence Australian creativity and culture. While far too many of the Independents are opportunists, happy to extract limited deals from Government for their followers to keep them being elected, but with no real vision or strategy of their own, others potentially offer more promise.

‘In the world of Governments and governance there are some promising developments. The two party system of mainstream parties has many flaws…. I have thought for a while that those Independents who are principled and forward-looking may offer some hope for Australian democracy – and hence Australian creativity and culture.’

Maybe I’m being unduly optimistic but amongst the Independents I was impressed with Cathy McGowan in the aptly named seat of Indi, who saw off Sophie Mirabella and brought a fresh voice into Parliament. Now she has passed the baton to another Independent, Dr Helen Haines. I also find myself on the mailing list of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie. I contacted her some time back about some ideologically-driven union-busting proposal by the Government. Since then I have been receiving emails from her office about other issues, like the proposed ban on mobile phones for those in immigration detention centres and support for veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

She asked those on her mailing list to tell her how they thought she should vote, but also asked them to explain why they thought as they did. She wasn’t taking a straw poll – she was genuinely consulting, but unlike an opinion poll she was seeking to understand the reason why people thought as they did. After this, along with the many others she had involved in consideration of the issue, I was informed how she intended to vote before it became public.

In the past Jacquie Lambie has taken a range of positions on assorted issues, many of which I wouldn’t necessarily agree with, but I think she, and those like her, are potentially a pointer to part of the future for Australian democracy. The fact she is a Tasmanian, representing the original island home where I was born and raised, probably makes me like her. The fact she works hard, takes her job seriously and brings everyday values around fairness and democracy to that job makes me like her even more. Parliament is full of far too many people from backgrounds of wealth and privilege. What hope do they have of understanding what life is like for those from backgrounds other than theirs? She possibly may be a refreshing change to all that.

However, for these smaller parties and Independents to be of relevance to Australia’s creativity and culture and the creative sector, they need to have some interest in the issues of the area. In the past some have played very positive roles in this respect. Others are largely a waste of space. It will be interesting to see where our latest crop line up.

Crashing the creative economy

Back in March I was driving home from South Australia and the bushfire damage of Kangaroo island, past supermarkets emptied of toilet paper. One commentator wondered whether Australia was experiencing not a coronavirus but rather a moronavirus. At the time I would never have thought that Australia’s once mighty creative sector would have ever been reduced to the ailing remnant it is now.

The whole country has been in lockdown at home, keeping itself amused, distracted, informed, educated or enlightened by watching film, listening to music, watching streamed performances and online exhibitions. Once again those in the creative sector have put themselves and their work out there to support the community in tough times. In exchange they have been largely abandoned, with an ad hoc grab bag of useful but relatively small support packages to help cushion the blow, but no real systematic or informed strategy to keep them operating and producing work.

‘The whole country has been in lockdown at home, keeping itself amused, distracted, informed, educated or enlightened by watching film, listening to music, watching streamed performances and online exhibitions. Once again those in the creative sector have put themselves and their work out there to support the community in tough times. In exchange they have been largely abandoned.’

There has been discussion for a long time about whether focusing on the economic importance of the creative sector is a dead end, because it tries to justify the sector (or ‘the arts’ or ‘culture’) solely in terms of the economic benefit, an ultimately futile effort. The impact of the pandemic has shown that the discussion itself is a dead end. The economic significance of the creative sector – for society generally and for those working in the sector – became clear when overnight it largely ceased to have any economic significance at all. The reality is that while creativity and culture have wide-ranging benefits and impacts for society far beyond economics, they also have broad economic impacts. They definitely have economic impacts for those in the creative sector because a significant – and until the pandemic, growing – part of the population makes a living (or at least attempts to) from the operation of the sector.

The problem is that I am beginning to wonder if all the research and evidence in the world doesn’t really matter if you have a government with a massive hole at its centre – a form of creative and cultural colour blindness. It overlooks creativity – and at the same time it somehow manages to overlook women and education as well.

Special treatment and a sense of entitlement
Some sectors of the economy are obvously seen as a priority by the Government. National and State Governments have bent over backwards to keep elite sport afloat. I find the on-field behaviour of elite footballers puzzling. Despite being constantly on show across the nation, it fails to set an example to a locked down nation, which often looks to it for inspiration and example. In a contact sport, there is inevitably going to be lots of contact. That can’t be avoided. Yet, the whole country has been told to avoid shaking hands and hugging even their closest and dearest relatives. Beyond unavoidable levels of contact, the players don’t seem to take much notice of the restrictions affecting the rest of the population – they seem to do exactly what we’ve all been told not to do. After all that special treatment, it’s as if they are rubbing our noses in the fact that they are very special and the social rules designed to save lives don’t apply to them at all.

‘Given the Government love of sports metaphors, ‘dropping the ball’ seems an apt description.’

Football, an extremely well-paid sector, seems to have had special treatment that any other sector could only dream of. At the same time music venues and theatres are shut, throwing musicians, performers and a vast array of behind the scenes back up personnel out of work. Given the Government love of sports metaphors, ‘dropping the ball’ seems an apt description.

As important as the creative sector or the higher education sector are, the problem is that there are many sector of the economy and Governments pick their favourites, based on the awareness, knowledge and experience of the members of Government, the efforts of lobbyists and special interest group and donors, and ideological leaning. Government action or inaction was always going to show clearly how much or how little it grasped of the reality of the economy of the future and the trends which are shaping the century ahead. It is possible we really are two different countries, both going in opposite directions – one into the future, the other into the past. Somehow I can’t see this Government contributing much towards the clean, clever and creative future I mentioned earlier.

See also
 
An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing 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. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future.
 
Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times
‘We live in troubled times – but then can anyone ever say that they lived in times that weren’t troubled? For most of my life Australia has suffered mediocre politicians and politics – with the odd brief exceptions – and it seems our current times are no different. Australia has never really managed to realise its potential. As a nation it seems to be two different countries going in opposite directions – one into the future and the other into the past. It looks as though we’ll be mired in this latest stretch of mediocrity for some time and the only consolation will be creativity, gardening and humour’, Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times

‘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 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.
 
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?’ The short answer #2: Broken broadband unbalances the books.

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’, 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.

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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