Hockey’s budget ignores the cultural economy, to its shame

How grim a message is the budget inadvertently sending? Maria Schaefer Photography

The reality of the 2014 budget is now pretty clear, not just its specific provisions but the kind of nation it wants Australia to become.

How it affects culture relates not just to this or that cut to arts funding or to the public broadcasters but to that wider vision of society.

The staggering political cynicism on display in Hockey and Abbott’s broken promises is a new low and will further contribute to the diminishing of political life in Australia. The Coalition has invented a “budget emergency” to set up a “cut-spending-or-die” scenario. With this budget, it’s performing emergency amputations with a blunt saw.

A smart re-drafting of taxation, public management, economic governance and social welfare is the long-term answer to the structural problems in the Australian economy. Instead we get a one-size-fits-all, low-tax, small-state mantra.

Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, Capital, has documented the rising levels of inequality in advanced economies. He proposes three broad ways to rectify this:

1) increased taxation, especially of top earners
2) economic growth
3) increased investment in skills for the workforce.

The first has not happened in any meaningful way in this budget. Despite the one-off debt-reduction levy, this is a budget for the 1%, built on the erroneous belief that taxation stifles growth.

Ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, Joe Hockey’s position on economic growth is that it will be secured by getting the state out of the economy. This is a profligate abdication of responsibility and we are not likely to witness anything more than a 1% or 2% growth.

As for skills, education has just got a whole lot more expensive.

These changes will have profound implications for the cultural economy.

Young people in the cultural economy

Young people, the creative heart of the culture of tomorrow, are already saddled with increased educational debt. Those unwilling to take this on will be forced into low-paid jobs or threatened with a removal or any kind of income support. Universities, the powerhouse of a cultural economy in which a higher degree is the norm, will be set against each other in a false market in which they can name their own price.

As students and management glare at each other through return-on-investment eyes, the space for creative engagement with the contemporary world will further diminish. Creative thinking will continue to migrate to those private or charitable institutions that can afford to be out of the stifling Gradgrindism that is contemporary academia.

As with the music industry, television, or art and design schools, the cultural economy will become the preserve of the wealthy middle class – those people with the time, the money and the social connections to make a living in this sector.

The cost of cutting public broadcasting

Cutting funding to the arts is as lazy and inevitable as the decimation of the overseas budget. It speaks the mean ignorance of the current political elite, certainly – but also its economic illiteracy. This can be seen above all in its assault on public broadcasting.

The ABC and SBS are not some social-democratic hangover from a time of scarcity before the internet brought choice for all. They are exemplary models of what a cultural economy is, why it should be valued, and how it should be managed.

They are built on the ideal of inclusive cultural citizenship, valued for their economic and cultural contribution to society. Their management involves a detailed and sustained knowledge about how they operate as industries at the intersection of economic, cultural and social values. They act as flagships and “market organisers”, with enough heft to open up opportunities for small and medium-sized cultural business to participate.

What’s more, they retain a strong professional and public service ethos, invest in training and are committed to recruiting from across the community and the regions of Australia. They are absolutely crucial to our image and influence abroad, and could be one of the beacons projecting Australia as an open creative democracy throughout the Asian region.

The cultural economy’s vital signs

The ABC and SBS point to how a cultural economy is conceived and managed. It is a complex ecosystem with a range of different values and players involved, from the gratuitous to the rampantly commercial, from the individual artist to the corporate giants.

Rather than nurture the sophisticated infrastructure of public and third-sector agencies, which are essential to the governance of this sector, the government can see only state (bad) and private sector (good).

Cheered on by the theologians of the Institute of Public Affairs this budget is a disaster for a country facing increased competition from a China climbing rapidly up the value chain, including its burgeoning cultural industries.

As the resource boom fades this is the worst possible way to respond.