ABS data suggests ‘cultural and creative’ won’t save Australia

Culture is more than the subsidised arts and GDP statistics. red5standingby

The release of new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on the contribution of cultural and creative activities to the Australian economy represents an ever more sophisticated grasp of employment, contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross Value Added (GVA) and various other economic indicators for this sector. It is the first time this data has been collected and reported by the ABS and it is to be welcomed.

But does it tell us anything new? Not much, I’d say.

First, it establishes the “cultural and creative sector” at A$65.5 billon and 5.6% of GVA in 2008-9 – a pretty respectable contributor to the Australian economy. (The contribution to GDP calculated on a satellite accounts basis is even more solid: A$86.7 billion.)

It is around half that of mining, financial and insurance services, and rental hiring and real estate services – the three biggest contributors. The 2008-9 National Accounts show the input of the creative and cultural sector is double agriculture, forestry and fishing; a couple of points behind construction; and bigger than education and training.

The dollar value again highlights a message that has been sent to governments since the mid-1980s: “culture” is more than the subsidised arts – it’s growing, and it demand serious consideration from both local and national government.

In general, the arts get the big money (and they are part of the sector, undoubtedly) but the cultural and creative industries (which generate wealth and jobs, as glossed by the federal government here) get the rhetoric – and the budget cuts.

Second, employing the term “cultural and creative sector” deals with the persistent dispute between “cultural” or “creative” industries by lumping them together (whereby the contribution is A$78.8 billion GDP) and reporting separately (the cultural sector accounts for A$50.1 billion of GDP). “Cultural” includes:

activities which communicate symbolic meaning (e.g. beliefs, values, traditions), require human creativity as an input, and potentially contain intellectual property, whereas “creative” generally refers to activities for which human creativity is a particularly significant input.

The A$30 billion difference between these two figures is mainly accounted for by the:

creative segment containing the Computer System Design and Related Services industry, and the manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing industries for clothing and footwear products.

That is, as has been constantly claimed since the UK government invented “creative industries” in 1998, the inclusion of software design inflates the GDP and employment figures by a half – and is a ruse to give the creative industries sector more economic clout.

Equally, when the expansion to include “creative input” results in just computer design and various retail and manufacturing sectors, it also confirms what the critics have long argued: “creativity” is a term that could apply to almost any of the industries in the national classification list.

That it does not – information, finance and education are just some of those on separate lists – indicates the redundancy of the term “creative” as a reliable descriptor of the sector.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the contribution of the cultural and creative sectors to the economy is just over half that of manufacturing. Central to the narrative around the creative industries is that they represent the new knowledge-based economy set to replace the utilitarian, material-processing industries of the past.

Not on this count: manufacture and mining represent a fifth of GVA as opposed to a twentieth for the creative industries. Don’t give up your day job, Australia. (Further comparisons are made under the header “Industry Comparisons” here.)

The ABS report also counts volunteers and non-market activities, which contribute A$800 million – or 10% to the GDP figures of the cultural and creative sector. This is a welcome addition but fails to grasp the extent and importance of this kind of free labour for the creative and cultural economy.

In Australia, the 2007 ABS survey of Work in Selected Cultural and Leisure Activities found that between 2004 and 2007 there had been a 30.2% increase in the total number of Australians engaged in cultural work; but the percentage increase in the number involved in “unpaid work” was more than three-times that of those involved in “some paid work”. That is, though it does not show up on the statistics, unpaid work is now more or less a structural condition of creative labour.

The report uses Australian economist David Throsby’s key distinguishing characteristic of the cultural sector as “communicating symbolic meaning”. It is crucial to know how much this sector contributes in dollars; but the increasing sophistication of collection only comes up with levels of GVA and employment established over 15 years ago.

I’d suggest that the line of argumentation so dear to many in the creative industries lobby – that these are the industries of the future, driving innovation and global competitive advantage – has now run out of steam.

These industries deliver culture, meaning, pleasure and knowledge about ourselves and the world in ways that are never going to be captured by GDP statistics.