We commend this report for rightly acknowledging the importance of the creative sector, and the disastrous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector. While we agree with the many bipartisan recommendations, these additional comments provide scope for even more that can be done to help this vital sector.
The pandemic has had a devastating and transformative impact on the Australian creative sector. Many individuals and organisations have been forced to leave the sector or to close for good.
The Morrison Government waited too long to pledge targeted assistance for the sector, and delivery of these funds took even longer.
It is also important to remember the arts sector was in a vulnerable state well before COVID hit, thanks to years of neglect and funding cuts inflicted by Coalition governments.
Therefore, we submit these additional recommendations to help Australia’s creative industries.
1. Representation for future wage subsidy programs
A restored ‘Department of the Arts’ should be represented in all discussions around future wage subsidy, job creation and protection programs whether prompted by the current COVID-19 pandemic or any other circumstances that require such programs.
The Committee heard evidence that the toll of the public health emergency on the overall arts labour market was significant, with employment falling by 872,000 people between March and May 2020. ‘Arts and recreation’ was the second hardest hit sector by jobs lost, and employees average work hours decreased by 21 per cent between the March and June quarters of 2020 (compared with the all industry average of five per cent).
The nature of those who work and derive income in this industry – from artists and actors to musicians and technicians, meant that JobKeeper failed to cover many of these people who often work in the gig economy, on short-term or casual contracts and who work from project to project.
Submissions made to the Committee suggest that for one representative body, roughly half its’ members in the entertainment sector were unable to access JobKeeper.
The restored ‘Department of the Arts’ should make representations to other Departments to provide adequate coverage for people working in the creative and artistic industries.
It is vital that any future economic and worker support programs and packages provide coverage for these workers.
2. Insurance Scheme for events sector
The pandemic has been devastating for the arts and events sectors. The unpredictability of the pandemic has meant that Australian businesses have been left on their own when events have been cancelled at short notice due to outbreaks.
This has had a profound impact on jobs and confidence. Without an insurance program underwritten by government, the industry will continue to be vulnerable and we will see even more jobs lost and Australian talent left abandoned. The risk of putting on big live events is just too great.
The Committee heard evidence from Ms Gwendolyn Konx. Ms Knox stated that, “I personally have had all my bookings cancelled indefinitely. At 63 years of age and living remotely of indigenous descent, my chances of re-entry to the sector could be very challenging.”
Forecasts of lost revenue provided to the Committee, suggested that some organisations expected to lose $70 million in revenue this financial year.
As commercial insurance is no longer available for COVID-19 for events, the Morrison Government must immediately establish a live event insurance program – similar to the Temporary Interruption Fund which applies to the film industry.
3. Fully funding the ABC
The ABC is one of Australia’s most beloved and trusted public institutions. It is not only a vital source of reliable and independent information and news during times of crisis – as best illustrated during the pandemic and the bushfire crisis of Summer 2019/20 – it is also an organisation that invests in Australian creative content and production.
Continual cuts and indexation of the ABC’s funding and pursuits of efficiency in expenditure has led to job losses, the closure of regional and local news bureaus and broadcasting, and an erosion of the ABC’s ability to invest in Australian content.
The Committee heard that the ABC is a key commissioner of Australian scripted content spending $489 million in the last five years, and prioritising the promotion of indigenous works.
A number of inquiry participants pointed to the success story of children’s television show Bluey. Bluey was co-commissioned by the ABC and receives international attention.
In a time where misinformation is rampant and extremism is rising, the ABC is vital to provide the public with objective and independent news and information. And in a time when the pandemic has caused so much disruption to our arts and creative sectors, the ABC’s investment in Australian entertainment and content is more vital than ever.
We call on the Government to provide stable and adequate funding to the ABC and ensure ongoing support for this vital institution.
4. Remove the efficiency dividend from the National Collecting Institutions
The National Institutions have been subject to efficiency dividends for decades, and there is barely any fat left to cut. Job cuts and reductions in services have been the result.
These institutions are meant to showcase our national stories, and they are major employers for Canberra as well as tourist attractions. Continued cuts through efficiency dividends are not sustainable and we call on the government to reconsider this longstanding policy.
5. Properly fund the Australia Council
The Australia Council was subject to major funding cuts and disruption under former Arts Minister George Brandis, and it has yet to recover - annual funding is below where it was when Labor left office. As an arms-length funding body which operates on the basis of peer review, the Australia Council is the backbone of our national arts ecosystem. The federal government must acknowledge this and deliver the Australia Council the funding it needs to play this important role.
6. Properly support and help grow Australia’s Gaming Sector
Labor Members note the Government’s neglect of the Australian video games Industry, which has stymied the growth of what should already be a powerhouse of Australia’s creative economy.
We condemn the Government for slashing the Australian Interactive Games Fund - a key Labor initiative to deal with the effects of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the concurrent major restructuring of the global games industry, due to the move to mobile platforms – a cut that contributed to the stunting of the Australian games industry, and undermined Australia’s success as a digital economy.
After cutting the Interactive Games Fund in 2014, the Liberal National Government stubbornly refused to act on the recommendations of the April 2016 Report of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, “Game on”, which included a funding scheme as well as the introduction of a refundable tax offset.
For years, this short-sighted Liberal National Government has rejected and ignored industry and Labor’s repeated calls to support one of the largest and fastest growing entertainment and media industries in the world.
After seven years of wasted time and intransigence from this Government, Australia’s vibrant but small video games industry has been outpaced by Finland, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, and others, where government support has been well delivered. Not only has Australia missed out on thousands of highly skilled and high paying jobs and investment, but Australian talent has also leaked to environments more supportive for games developers overseas.
Labor Members are pleased the 2021 Budget finally announced support in the form of a 30 per cent tax offset for local and international businesses that develop digital games in Australia, and that the game of catch up can finally begin.
We note however that a significant number of the Australian-owned businesses which are currently of sufficient size to access the tax offset received support from the first $20 million that was disbursed from the Australian Interactive Games Fund, before it was abolished. It is arguable that, if the slashing of $20 million from that fund had not occurred, the games industry could have up to twice the number of companies it has today able to access the proposed tax offset, and many more if such fund had been extended.
While Australia’s games industry is resilient, it is caught in an underdevelopment trap in part because of a long-term lack of public policy and understanding of its role in high end digital skills development and therefore its place in the digital economy, as well as global export focus.
Australia can boast a world class indie game development sector but we lack a government who is focused on helping them grow and export their businesses.
The Liberal National Government has mismanaged support for this sector and Australia is missing out on the significant economic and cultural dividends as a result.
Ms Emma McBride MPMr Patrick Gorman MP
Member for DobellMember for Perth
Mr Josh Burns MP
Member for Macnamara