Note: I have a self-imposed embargo on writing about Australian arts when not in the country, which I am (again) breaking to write this due to the extreme nature of the government cuts and their wider implications. I am conscious that taking pot-shots from afar is not ideal, and no attempt is being made to capitalise on this position.
Reading Alison Croggon’s self-published submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Arts Budgets of 2014-15, which is reviewing a reallocation under direct government control of almost 50% of Australia's major arts funding body's budget allocates to artists, one can make some casual notes which result in an alarming whole. Putting aside Alison’s undeniable authority on the issue established in an intimidating autobiographical introduction, the irrefutable nature of the argument is its most shocking component. Some statistics presented are alarming to those new to them: that the Arts sector is nearly as big as Mining, that it is a far greater employer, that it receives substantially less government subsidy than mining, not to mention benefiting to Australian life in terms of education, togetherness, and identity. These arguments are not new to Croggon, who has been championing these statistics for some time to anyone who will listen.
Nor, unfortunately, is it news to the Australian government, which has full access to this data. They know how big the arts sector is, they know how big an employer it is. They have mapped out precisely how the cuts will affect everyone – as Alison puts it, "individual artists, who already substantially fund the arts through their unpaid work, will be forced to compete in a diminishing pool", moving overseas or opting for different careers to keep off the dole queue. This is not an accident, it is precisely the point. As ad hoc and reckless as the Abbott government’s strategy may sometimes seem, the cause and effect has been fully mapped, and it is certainly not something drawn up on the back of a napkin at Rockpool Seafood Restaurant over a few glasses prior to a helicopter ride home to Double Bay. The reality is not casual - it is much worse.
The question that naturally arises from Alison’s argument is as follows: why would any government, especially one from a party nominally interested in economic prosperity (at least historically), want to smother a sector that is seemingly performing so efficiently and productively – employing so many people with so little government expenditure? The answer to this question lies in their overall electoral strategy, which involves marginalising target groups and decimating their influence on the political narrative.
Removing the real opposition
Among the greatest threats to the Australian government at the next election is the potential for communities and collectives of critical thinkers to collectively emerge in opposition to it and form coherent counter-narratives. The money from Arts Council Grants is one of many methods of support and growth for these communities and can indirectly feed critical public dialogue. The free time that people from these communities have to be active – many of which, it should be noted, are still in fledgling stages and are still defined by individualism, career-driven and institutional objectives – is removed when you starve them of money. Furthermore, cherry-picking certain artists to receive funding allows the government to distribute the flow of finance only towards those artists which are not likely to even inadvertently feed this community. The comments from the CEO of Opera Australia, Craig Hassall, that he was “delighted” and that “my first thought is that I am relieved and delighted that major performing arts companies' funding hasn’t been cut […] I don’t really have a view on where the money comes from, as long as the government is spending money on the arts” should be read in this light – further, not only will Opera Australia benefit from the changes through its funding being maintained, it will directly benefit from the removal of its primary competitors in the marketplace, which includes small and independent organisations thriving on some sense of collectivity, community and solidarity. Furthermore, the beneficiaries of the cherry-picked funding – Brandis’ own Artists Army if you like - are likely to be classically-trained artists from wealthy backgrounds, who include most of Australia’s opera singers, it being an expensive activity, further benefiting from another individual source of funding.