Federal budget 2014: arts and culture experts react

The budget is out – so what does it mean? Tali Caspi

Even before the announcement of the 2014 budget by Australian Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey tonight, there were “budget bad news” leaks flying around in the media. So what do we know now?

The as-yet-unspecified back-office functions of the following Canberra‑based collection agencies will be merged from 2014-2015: the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia, Old Parliament House, National Film and Sound Archive, National Museum of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. This will achieve an estimated government saving of A$2.4 million over four years.

Leaks and speculation around funding of the ABC and SBS have also been borne out, but at a lesser level. A 1% reduction in funding for the ABC and SBS will net the government savings of A$43.3 million over four years.

The ABC’s contract for the Australia Network will also be terminated, saving an estimated A$196.8 million over the next nine years.

Uncommitted funding to arts programs administered by the Attorney‑General’s Department will be reduced, a move that will directly affect the Australia Council and Screen Australia. Savings of A$87.1 million over four years will be achieved, with cuts to Screen Australia of A$25.1m over four years, and cuts to Australia Council of A$28.2m.

Funding for the Adelaide Festival Centre’s support for Asian cultural activities will also be ceased, with an estimated saving of A$1.8 million.

So, over to our academic experts for insight into what the 2014 budget means for Australian arts and culture:

Peter Tregear, Professor and Head of School, Australian National University School of Music.

As was expected, the Arts do not feature heavily in the Abbott Government’s first budget; indeed as yet, there is no link from the Government’s budget website to a specific Arts Portfolio statement on its impact; rather they’re tucked away in Attorney General’s papers without a top-level heading.

And yet this was, as the Treasurer declared in his speech to Federal Parliament, “a budget that aims to builds Australia’s future”. But how can we possibly know what that future should be unless we, as a nation cultivate the kind of reflective, self-aware, civil society that is able to grasp such questions in their full complexity?

Without such a national ambition we run the risk, as the slogan goes, of cultivating only an economy, not a society (and such a slogan should surely not be the property of The Greens alone).

To be sure, government initiatives and funding will always only represent a part of what is required to sustains a vibrant arts community, but it remains a crucial part. We should indeed be concerned, then, that the budget predicts savings of “A$87.1 million over four years by reducing uncommitted funding to arts programmes administered by the Attorney-General’s Department, the Australia Council, and Screen Australia”.

Certainly, if the Treasurer’s aim was to ensure that the budget pain was shared by all, then the arts have also taken their “hit”. But it is disappointing that that there is no immediately obvious alternative vision for the role of the arts in Australian society, or any apparent acknowledgment, as there has been by, say, Singapore, of the economic benefits that flow on from encouraging creativity across society.

But, in turn, have the arts as a whole also failed to make their case well enough for their role in the national debate about just how we should imagine, let alone deliver, Australia’s future?

Joanna Mendelssohn, Associate Professor, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales

The budget papers claim:

savings of $2.4 million over four years from 2014‑15 by consolidating the back office functions of the following Canberra‑based collection agencies: National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia, Old Parliament House, National Film and Sound Archive, National Museum of Australia and the National Archives of Australia.

I’m not sure how, exactly, this can be obtained. If “back-office” means marketing and publishing, it could be all well and good, as centralising these could mean more tightly targeted marketing and more finely tuned publishing standards.

There will be real problems if security is centralised. The national collections contain works that are by any measure priceless, and vulnerable to theft. Good security depends on staff being familiar with their colleagues as well as systems.

Any attempt to rationalise and homogenise collections management will further endanger the national collections. Registration, conservation, exhibition and curatorial staff are the people whose job it is to make sure that every element of the nation’s cultural legacy can be located at any time, that works are conserved before they go on display, that exhibitions are coherent and tell different aspects of a national story – that information is made freely available to all (thanks Trove) and that due diligence is undertaken before any purchase.

The real lesson of the National Gallery’s acquisition (and return) of the statue of Shiva is that there is no such thing as too much research prior to acquiring works for public collections. Cuts will be made here at our peril.

The cuts to individual grants programs for artists will mean less innovation, and probably less art being made. It may encourage some artists and performers to travel to other countries where there are more opportunities and a lower cost of living.

The changes to the funding of tertiary education will have two effects on the arts and the humanities.

The first of these will be to accelerate the tendency of wealthy local students to undertake their first degrees in international universities. As the difference between local fees and international fees shrinks there is every incentive for the children of the rich to travel for a broad-based humanities education. This was reasonably common before the expansion of tertiary education after World War II, so it will be a case of back to the future.

The most devastating impact on the rise of tertiary fees is that those children of the working class who make it to university will be under pressure from both family and society to only undertake utilitarian degrees, and not waste time and money on growing their intellect or pure research. Sir Robert Menzies, who understood the value of the arts, the humanities and pure research, would be rolling in his grave to see the Gradgrindvision now inflicted on us.

Jason Potts, Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University

Predictably enough, as part of the theme of phasing out of industry support (AKA “corporate welfare”) Screen Australia faces substantial cuts ($25.1m over four years). This was not unexpected, given Scroz’s rather underwhelming track record (with some exceptions, for instance Indigenous film).

The Australian government, having recently extracted itself from the car industry, now looks to be getting out of the film business. Obviously some will be affected, and adjustment will be painful, but this will not be the end of the Australian film industry.

The ecology of the industry will need to adapt, as will the mix of films that are made here. This looks like a permanent change.

But bundled in this saving of A$87.1million are also cuts to the Australia Council (A$28.2m), and arts programs administered by the Attorney General’s department (A$33.8m). The OzCo cuts look different to the Scroz cuts and can probably be read as a lean few years to come. The nearly A$2m cut to the Adelaide festival is best seen as part of the drive of the federal government to get out of areas that are properly the jurisdiction of the States.

Public broadcasters – the ABC and SBS – are expected to deliver efficiency gains – in part by benchmarking against commercial broadcasters. These figures, based on a 1% reduction in base funding for budget savings of A$43.5 over four years, should be able to be met by the organisation without significant disruption. Possibly this is about preparation for privatization in subsequent years.

The axing of the Australia Network is not necessarily a payback for the debacle of the way the contract was awarded, but would seem to represent a straightforward technological efficiency, as Malcolm Turnbull has previously argued. The main consequence here will be any cross-subsidisation from that A$196.8m that was flowing back to the ABC will be lost, and maybe that is the real hit to the public broadcaster.

The 25,000 people that wrote letters in support of community broadcasting will be relieved that particular A$17.7 million looks safe.

Jo Caust, Associate Professor, Principal Fellow (Hon), School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

The 2014 Budget announcement in relation to the arts begins by announcing the cessation of funding for the Adelaide Festival Centre’s support for Asian cultural activities – a saving of A$1.8 million. This initiative announced by Minister Penny Wong in mid-2013 was designed to foster a direct relationship between Australian arts educators and practitioners.

The Adelaide Festival Centre has been working hard to raise the profile of Asian cultural activity through its OZ Asia Festival and other initiatives with Asian artist and arts organisations and was intending to take this to another level by making Adelaide and the Centre a “hub” for arts leadership training and development focusing on the Asian region.

But it seems that, at present, any understanding of “soft diplomacy” through culture is neither understood nor valued.

Overall, the Government will be cutting A$87.1 million over four years from funding to arts programs across several portfolios. Under the previous government’s Creative Australia Strategy the Australia Council was promised a total of A$75.3 million in new money for arts funding.

But the Australia Council is now facing a cut of A$28.2 million – in “uncommitted funding” – over the next four years. The emphasis in the wording is on “uncommitted”. It means the cuts will affect mostly individual artists and smaller arts organisations that are not presently on triennial or annual funding agreements.

So as in Queensland the impact of the cuts will be felt most by new and emerging activity rather than larger established arts organisations. At the same time there is an increase of A$5.3million promised over the next four years to the Creative Partnerships Program – reflecting a desire by government to encourage other sources of support for the arts apart from direct government subsidy.

But it is larger arts organisations again that receive the most benefit mostly from philanthropy and sponsorship. The impact of these changes will be felt most keenly in the areas of the arts sector that can least afford them.