All the bees are too busy writing submissions

For the first months of the Abbott prime ministership, it seemed the LNP lacked a coherent arts policy. Aside from acting quickly to dismantle the promise of Creative Australia and slash the Australia Council budget by some $30 million in 2014’s budget update (MYEFO), forcing a restructure, there wasn’t much going on. Abbott’s work was mostly to trample the sandcastles of his predecessors, rather than build policy, and the arts were no exception.

Alas, the agenda became clearer. As Arts minister, George Brandis earned himself notoriety by pilfering the trusted Australia Council by a further $108 million (over four years) to fund the NPEA, a move which would have decimated (and may yet decimate) small-to-medium organisations in particular. The Australia Council, fresh off a strategic restructure, was scrambling to re-restructure and cancelling grant rounds.

Brandis’s was the kind of looting that you would expect from a government that either thought it was invincible or knew it was about to implode. No sooner were the portfolios rearranged under Turnbull than new Arts minister Fifield presented us with the apparent compromise arrangement of Catalyst, a move which returned a fraction of the money (8 million a year, so less than a third) to the Australia Council, and retained the rest to spend at the Ministry’s discretion, and/or disappear into administration costs. Ben Eltham has written about Catalyst in detail elsewhere at Overland, but essentially, it does little to redress the damage and leaves the door open to further pilfering.

The literature sector had no time to process Catalyst before the government leapt to accept the Harper Review recommendation to remove parallel import restrictions on books. Last week the ASA was quick to send a bulletin to members, claiming authors’ writing incomes have already halved in the last ten years due to dropping book prices. Spokesperson Angelo Loukakis said the ASA will continue to make submissions and campaign against the move. ‘Allowing overseas publishers to dump remaindered copies of Australian authors’ books published elsewhere onto the local market,’ he said, ‘will undercut the investment of local publishers and reduce pay to our authors.’

The removal would also have an impact on local publishers who rely on buying Aus/NZ rights for books from the US and UK and publishing them in Australia – their publication is currently protected for the term of 30 days against imported copies of the same book. Although they voluntarily reduced that 30-day period to 14 to ease pressure on booksellers, some publishers are nervous that removing it altogether would unfairly disadvantage small players in an already pressured market. Scribe’s Henry Rosenbloom told Crikey that this income stream keeps independent publishers afloat and able to support Australian writers.

Some of our most establishment baby boomer writers have penned an open letter claiming this will have a big impact on Australian literature, which they call ‘a free trade success story that doesn’t take from the public purse‘, forgetting that their own careers were nurtured in a heady age of public arts funding and free education in the 1970s and 1980s.

If the intention of removing parallel import restrictions was simply to make books cheaper, especially if it were to allow local sellers to better compete with GST-free purchases from Amazon, then removing the GST on Australian books seems like an obvious solution. If only such clarity of purpose could be identified. But a closer look at the LNP’s movements in the arts so far can illuminate that purpose.

On Wednesday, the Senate Inquiry into the 2015 arts funding debacle released its findings. The report makes for a surprisingly stirring read. 2,719 submissions and dozens of forum participants spoke almost in unison about the need for support for small-to-medium organisations and public investment in a healthy arts ecosystem. They spoke about the detrimental impact of the NPEA, and the losses to literature in particular. About the need to support individual artists and emerging artists, and restore programs such as Artstart for new graduates. The report also accuses the government of a lack of coherent arts strategy, with one key issue identified as ‘The (absence of a) policy’.

What we have are abstract nouns. In defending Catalyst, both Turnbull and Fifield have invoked the buzzword of innovation, which replaces the also vague excellence. But around here, innovation looks a lot like instability. Expecting people to develop innovative programs when they’re working to short-term project funding, when they have no reliable source for core running costs like wages, and when their own jobs are on the line, is a bit like smashing up a beehive and expecting the honey to appear in mid-air.

Perhaps instability is exactly what the LNP’s policy is about – a form of disaster capitalism in miniature. The Productivity Commissions and restructures and grant reviews and funding reallocations and snap announcements are all putting pressure on the sector, and that pressure has specific outcomes. Big, confusing blows keep cultural workers scrambling and unable to plan. All the bees are too busy writing submissions to the latest inquiry to make dissenting art.

That Catalyst was announced a few days before the Senate inquiry report was due, forcing another delay, adds weight to the instability theory. Instability could also drive a wedge between large established arts companies and smaller organisations. The LNP’s arts policy has nothing to do with efficiency or savings. Its intention is to destabilise and silence.

The invocation of a free market approach suggests an ideological stance against protectionism, but that argument goes out the window when held up against all the other things the government subsidises, like brown coal and Mal Brough. Even the trifecta of Carey, Flanno and Keneally recognise this in their open letter, but they still think it’s useful to call the book industry a ‘free market success story’. That’s a deeply counterproductive adherence to government ideology in a time when arts funding skulls are so prominently displayed on the fenceposts of Parliament.

Because if those 2,719 submissions show us anything other than articulate frustration, they show us what effective support for the arts really looks like. The submissions are full of good policy ideas. In literature, these include restoring and increasing direct funding to small publishers and writing organisations and writers themselves; promoting the sale of Australian work and the reach of Australian libraries; supporting the small-to-medium organisations to nurture developing talent. The phantom of the Book Council that has been haunting the industry for several years now might step in to negotiate some of these changes and think up a few more, were it to take on a physical form in our realm.

The Senate Inquiry report states that the changes made in the 2015 budget and 2014 MYEFO ‘were completely arbitrary’ and ‘disastrous’; the committee recommends restoring diverted funds to the Australia Council, disbanding Catalyst or finding other ways to fund it, and importantly, developing an over-arching arts policy framework against which these kind of ministerial whims can held.

The statement of dissent attached to the report by its two government members, Senator Ian MacDonald and Senator Dean Smith, is also illuminating. It describes the committee as ‘a divisive and combative atmosphere’ and claims that the remarkable consistency of the 2719 submissions was due to vested interests and lobbying, and ‘seemed to betray an unhealthy sense of entitlement to the financial support of the taxpayer’.

The government’s contempt for the sector couldn’t be clearer. Compare this with the attitude of the majority of the committee: ‘The committee regards this country’s rich and diverse arts sector as an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the fabric of Australian society… Australian arts are already excellent.’

It is strange how utopian that kind of language is beginning to sound.

With Turnbull’s appointment as the latest prime minister, many hoped that a more considered approach to the arts might materialise, one that respected the Australia Council as an institution that, for its flaws, has developed a strong decision-making process that accounts for the complex needs of the sector from a position of mutual respect. An approach that actually consulted stakeholders. Some even hoped that attempts would be made to undo the damage already done. Instead, we have another distracting emergency.

Should we be worried about the removal of parallel import restrictions? Yes, but I don’t think the sky is falling. I doubt that the impact of their removal would be noticeable at the level of most working writers, especially among all the other downward pressures on our incomes. But taken in the context of the last two years, it comes as yet another attack on vulnerable cultural workers. It is yet another move in a program the government has decided to implement in place of an arts strategy: the policy of instability.



Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. A terrific cogently argued piece – love this line:Expecting people to develop innovative programs when they’re working to short-term project funding, when they have no reliable source for core running costs like wages, and when their own jobs are on the line, is a bit like smashing up a beehive and expecting the honey to appear in mid-air.

    You get very well the incredibly depressing effect of all this and that it feels intended to be depressing. This constant attack on creative people who earn less from their work in a year than a politician gets as a stamp allowance for a month. We get to feel our country isn’t just indifferent but actually hates us. It’s hard to feel continuing to produce work is worthwhile.

    1. “It’s hard to feel continuing to produce work is worthwhile.”
      That’s the whole point of the exercise. Stop producing art and then there’s no need to fund it.
      Except for their favourites, of course.

    2. “… We get to feel our country isn’t just indifferent but actually hates us …”

      Personally, the thought that if I played my cards right, I could be considered a right royal pain in the arse to cliques of morally bankrupt old white men is one I’ve always found pretty damn appealing.

      So much so that being deemed socially acceptable by such tossers would SERIOUSLY alarm and depress me !

  2. Yesterday I went online to buy a certain new book as a Christmas present and browsed around a bit to compare prices – turned out the Melbourne bookstores were selling it almost twice the price of overseas bookstores. Here it was selling around $120; overseas you could get copies for around $60 and $70. Add a couple of dollars in postage and it’s kinda obvious what choice I was going to make.

    One argument against easing parallel import restrictions is that it will hurt local bookstores. That’s patently bullshit: the PI restrictions push up prices so much that local bookstores simply can’t be competitive. So, they lose business and perhaps a few of them have to shut down. So , too, local authors lose an important point of contact between them and the community ; big online stores like Amazon or Book Depository are hardly likely to be sympathetic to the cause of ‘local Australian authors’. Oh, and there’s that other little matter of readers – given a choice between a relatively cheaply-sourced overseas book, and an expensively-sourced local book, do you seriously think they’re going to go for the local option? (This also impacts on literature at home: we’re always trying to encourage aspiring authors to read widely; then to continue on with parallel import restrictions which push up the price of books locally acts as a perverse disincentive to this same activity).

    Getting rid of parallel import restrictions will be unquestionably good for the industry. I hope the Turnbull Government has the guts to do this that the Rudd Government

    1. Yes. And I always liked Bob Carr’s argument that the cheaper books are the more people will buy them and the more they will read. Books are expensive here in Australia (I live in Melbourne) so much so that they are more like ‘luxury’ items than anything else, and a whole fetishisation of ‘the book’ as a luxury item, as a precious object, an adornment (which I see everywhere in our local bookstores) is not good for reading. A book is meant to be read. It can be an education in itself. Indeed, you could spend years getting something out of a good book.

      1. …. and that’s why I prefer libraries to bookstores. Give more books to libraries, and sod your bloody book stores!

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