The ascendancy of a federal Australian Labor Party (ALP) government is usually a good omen for the arts. Numerous ALP prime ministers have introduced ambitious schemes: in the 1970s, for example, Gough Whitlam fired up the national film industry with the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Film Commission; he also transformed the Australia Council for the Arts into a statutory corporation and gave it a Film and Television Board. Twenty years later, Paul Keating announced the Creative Nation cultural policy document, which promised A$252 million in arts funding over the following four years, including A$60 million for Australian drama, documentaries, and children’s programs and A$13 million for the SBS to commission Australian content. And in early 2013, the Julia Gillard government released its Creative Australia arts funding strategy, only for the plan to be immediately shelved when the ALP lost the federal election a few months later.
Federal Coalition governments have a history of doing the opposite – and those of the past decade have been particularly miserly. Screen funding has been slashed under a succession of Liberal Party prime ministers since 2013. Perhaps the most notorious of these cuts took place in 2015, when then–arts minister George Brandis took A$100 million from the Australia Council in one fell swoop, leading to the loss of sixty-five arts companies and a 70 per cent decrease in grants to individual artists.
Other cuts have occurred more incrementally. Over the past eight years, the ABC has seen A$526 million in cuts, which has resulted in the loss of 640 jobs. And in March 2022, the Scott Morrison government, in its final budget, threatened to cut funding to Screen Australia from A$39.5 million to A$27.8 million in 2022/23 and then A$11.6 million in 2023/24, while overall funding for film and television was to be slashed from A$195 million to A$150 million.
So, when Labor came to power again under Anthony Albanese in May last year, arts organisations the nation over celebrated. Many – including Live Performance Australia, the Australian Music Centre and the National Association for the Visual Arts – wrote open statements of welcome, and called on the new government to execute cultural policies that would prioritise First Nations artists, increase funding and improve federal–state government relationships.
However, when the Albanese government handed down its first budget in October, the arts sector was disheartened. According to the government’s forward estimates document, total arts funding will comprise A$860 million in 2022/23, but drop to A$771 million by 2023/24. These estimates are no different from those offered by the Morrison government a year ago. Policy adviser Ben Eltham said the budget was a ‘missed opportunity’ and a return to ‘austerity’, while journalist Steve Dow described the news as ‘disappointing’.
That said, all is far from lost. The ABC, SBS and the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance welcomed the government’s promise to give the ABC an extra A$83.7 million in operational funding and A$32 million for international services over the next four years. Further, in 2023, the government will lead a public consultation into increasing the ABC’s stability. This will focus on funding cuts and political interference, so that – in the words of federal Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland – the ABC can ‘deliver public-interest journalism that holds people in positions of power to account, exposes corruption, injustice, and counters dangerous mis and disinformation campaigns’.
Meanwhile, the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association was pleased with the government’s commitment to ‘backing the digital games sector’ through its pledge to bring in legislation establishing a Digital Games Tax Offset, which offers a 30 per cent tax offset to studios that spend A$500,000 or more on eligible Australian game development.
While Minister for the Arts Tony Burke warned the arts sector not to expect too much from the October 2022 budget, January’s launch of a new National Cultural Policy (though still yet to be released at the time this column was written) offers some cause for optimism. The process has been aided by the appointment of a seven-member advisory group including writer Christos Tsiolkas, arts philanthropist Janet Holmes à Court and historian Clare Wright, and has involved extensive public consultation and submissions.
Hopefully, just as the government has foreshadowed for the ABC, these plans incorporate a strategy that fortifies the Australian arts against future funding cuts and political interference – not just over the next year to come, but for the foreseeable future.