Why is the Australian government waging war on the arts?

News has just come to light that as of next February, Australia will no longer have a federal department dedicated to the arts.

This is the latest, and most drastic, in a series of actions by the government which displays a trend against the arts sector. But why is this the case, and what does it all mean?

Why is the Australian Government against the arts?
Photo: Dani Hansen

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that as of next year, Australia will no longer have a federal arts department.

Speaking in a press conference on Thursday, Morrison has revealed that as of February, Australia will be cutting the Department of Communications and the Arts.

In a move that Morrison has described as “busting bureaucratic congestion”, the government will see 18 departments cut down to 14 in what will be a major public service overhaul.

Currently, the Department of Communications and the Arts supports Australia’s creative sector through the advisement of government, the development of policy, management of grants, and more, with the ultimate aim of promoting national cultural growth.

As of next February, the department will merge into a new entity, called the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

When speaking of the new department, Morrison failed to mention the arts.

“In [the] area of communications, [we’ll get] a strong synergy between what’s happening in communications policies, communications, infrastructure delivery and regional Australia.”

The tale of Sydney’s lockout laws

It was only three months ago that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the repeal (excluding Kings Cross) of Sydney’s controversial lockout laws. However, for many, the news was too little too late.

Since the introduction of the lockout laws in 2014, 500,000 less young people visit Sydney per annum, according to a parliamentary inquiry released earlier this year.

The laws are widely perceived as having damaged the city’s culture and nightlife, forcing the closure of countless venues, bars, and restaurants, as well as draining billions of potential dollars from the economy.

Rather than addressing the crucial issues which underpinned them, the reality of the lockout laws saw a heavy-handed approach that achieved a lowering of violence in those areas by simply getting rid of everyone.

In September, Berejiklian backed down on her previously hard-line pro-lockout law stance, describing; “Sydney is Australia’s only global city and we need our nightlife to reflect that.”

NSW festival regulations

In a similar story, a series of harsh festival regulations imposed by the NSW government earlier this year led to the cancellation of festivals including Mountains Sounds, as well as crippling financial burdens on numerous other festivals (who only survived because they were popular enough to weather the damage).

A Legislative Council Regulation Committee-conducted report and subsequent inquiry led to the reversal of the strict laws in September, with votes from Labour, The Greens, and crossbenchers.

However only a month later, an even harsher Music Festivals Bill was proposed by Berejiklian, despite the repeated recommendations from the deputy coroner to introduce pill testing as a way to combat drug-use at music festivals instead.

The Music Festivals Bill passed in November – albeit with a small victory which will see the establishment of an advisory industry round-table.

Economy and the arts

This week, Australia’s GDP figures showed the worst annual economic growth in 18 years, leading economists to declare a “household recession.”

In 2009, Australia ranked first in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international body that uses a peer-reviewed approach to help countries forge better economic performances. Now, in 2019, Australia ranks 18th, having seen the worst economic blow-outs of all the included countries, at 11.6% of GDP.

Despite this, last year ATO data showed that one-third of large Australian companies paid zero tax on over $330 billion worth of income.

In contrast, when it comes to the arts sector, in 2017 it was reported that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy in one year alone, providing jobs to almost 600,000 people.

An About A New Approach report earlier this year found that local governments are increasingly seeing the value of arts and culture in their communities and subsequently stepping up their financial commitment.

Yet the report also found that over the last decade, overall government support for culture has not kept up with the country’s population growth.

Currently, federal, state, and local governments contribute almost $7 billion to arts and culture each year, a figure which makes up only one percent of their total combined expenditure.

Importance of arts in society

Countless studies have demonstrated the benefits that arts and culture provide to society, including the improvement of health, safety, and general well-being.

In 2017, Arts and Minds, a leading arts and mental health charity in the UK, led weekly art workshops designed to help people experiencing depression, stress or anxiety. 71% of participants reported a decrease in feelings of anxiety, 73% a decrease in feelings of depression, 76% of participants said their wellbeing increased, and 69% reported that they felt more socially included.

These findings were mirrored by the conclusions of a two-year inquiry conducted by the APPG, a cross-party group of parliamentarians in the UK with a shared interest in the field of arts, health, and wellbeing. Their report Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing found that arts can help meet challenges in health and social care associated with ageing, loneliness, long-term conditions, and mental health – with an added outcome being that arts can save the healthcare sector money.

This year, a US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts report found that arts contribute more to the US than Agriculture, with that rate growing faster than the overall economy at large.

Nevertheless, back here at home, the government continues to attack the arts.

Whilst the impact of the decision to eradicate the federal arts department remains unknown, on the global stage we recede further and further away from the exciting, forward-thinking nation that we could be.

All of this begs the question: why is Australia choosing to fall behind?