Proposed merger of Screen Australia and Australia Council spells … incoherence

Screen Australia has had its ups and downs, its hits and misses. PR Image/Hopscotch Films

The recommendation made by the Commission of Audit to merge Screen Australia and the Australia Council is yet another example of this government’s policy incoherence.

Locked into belligerent opposition to anything done by Labor it has arrived in power bereft of any agenda – other than to somehow cut spending, cut taxes and open Australia for business. What that actually means is anybody’s guess.

The creative industries has always been a conundrum for the Coalition. Yes, it sounded all very business- and innovation-like, but it was launched by Labor’s Paul Keating. And some residual conservatism in what quickly became a fully neo-liberal party suggested that maybe the “intrinsic value” of the arts was important, whatever that meant (probably something to do with Sydney Opera House).

This recommendation exemplifies this incoherence.

Screen Australia has had its ups and downs, its hits and misses – but it has learnt a lot over the last decade. It also has been subject to contradictory impulses. Do we go for Australian content or do we promote films that employ Australian facilities? The Great Gatsby was, in the latter terms, an Australian film. These don’t have to be opposites.

In recent years the promotion of Australian content could also mean a commitment to developing local skills below the threshold of the huge global tax-cut seeking “runaway” production crews. Perhaps we could have a diverse thriving film industry growing local talent. Many initiatives in Indigenous film were moving this way, as were experiments in digital distribution (let’s not mention the NBN).

Of course none of this registered with the present government.

They want to cut spending so hey, why not Screen Australia? It’s all about subsidy right – and that’s wrong, as we all know. So the industry bit should be left to its own devices – like cars and canned fruit. But maybe some of it is art – historical content, like, you know, Gallipoli. So let’s give it to the Australia Council.

The Australia Council was set up to distribute arts funding. It has no capacity whatsoever to deliver an industry strategy, even if the government knew what such a strategy might be.

In my view, if this recommendation is followed, the Australia Council will administer the rump of Screen Australia and somehow promote a few historical art film projects. This is no good for the Australia Council, already suffering a barrage of criticism for its inability to administer what it does have.

And it is no good for the film sector, suffering from the high dollar but also beginning to think in new ways about what it might be. It’s lose-lose.

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