The Australian Greens announced last week the addition of a Liveable Income Guarantee to their election platform. The Guarantee proposes to raise all federal government income supports to $88 a day to put them above the Henderson poverty line, and to ensure they remain above that line. It’s a serious response to the urgent need for an increase in social support payments such as JobSeeker. Proposing to remove much of the onerous burden of mutual obligations is being touted as a step towards a Basic Income.
When it comes to Centrelink payments, the sash seems to be broken on the Overton window, so this is an encouraging move. Ambitious, too; as leading economist John Quiggin pointed out in The Conversation, the Liveable Income Guarantee is a policy idea that won’t be embraced by either of the major parties. At best, it will encourage one or both to commit to a more modest increase to payments like JobSeeker, which has remained pretty much static for two decades while rents and food prices have soared.
Even if this policy was implemented, artists and creative workers wouldn’t be eligible for the Liveable Income Guarantee. The proposal doesn’t challenge the current means testing requirements for accessing social support, and would only go to those already receiving payments.
A 2020 policy paper by Quiggin, Klein, Dunlop, Henderson and Goodall proposed a Liveable Income Guarantee and outlined some ways in which participation criteria could be expanded to acknowledge the extent of unpaid work in the community. Their report envisioned the Guarantee as payment for care work, volunteer work (including firefighting and rescue services), ecological labour and care for country, study, and artistic and creative activity.
I’m not sure why the Greens have chosen not to expand their eligibility criteria to include creative or volunteer work. Perhaps it’s for the sake of simplifying debate. But I’m disappointed, because it feels like a missed opportunity to challenge some of our assumptions about who deserves support in our society, and to reframe the value of creative work—and indeed, all work.
In Ireland right now, writers, painters, musicians, and other creative workers are getting ready to take part in a trial of a Basic Income for the Arts. Last year’s budget allocated €25 million to the first year of the pilot, which is expected to last three years. It’s a response to appeals from a sector decimated by pandemic shutdowns, increasing precarity, and lost income. Submissions to the recent public consultation on the Basic Income for the Arts Pilot Scheme were overwhelmingly positive, and now the final details are being refined before applications open. The trial will involve a payment of around €325/week, equivalent to a 31-hour week at Ireland’s minimum wage.
This could easily happen here. Political economist Dr Troy Henderson even costed it for us: a small-scale trial of a thousand artists paid at around the maximum basic Age Pension rate for individuals of $25,000 a year for three years makes a total cost of $75 million, or $25 million a year. That’s only about 4 per cent of the projected cost of Adelaide’s canned Riverbank Arena. It’s half what Angus Taylor just casually tossed at a few gas companies to boost their infrastructure.
The Irish scheme makes it clear that it is not designed as a social support measure. Visual Artists Ireland explains: ‘Basic Income for the Arts is NOT a Universal Basic Income. This is a sectoral intervention to support practicing artists and creative arts workers to focus on their creative practice.’
I’m troubled by this urge to distance support for the arts from other forms of social support. Are artists a special category of workers who deserve specific assistance because of what we do? Maybe. Or maybe we have more in common with other workers than we think.
The way our society values work is at a crossroads. The pandemic continues to teach us that the most essential workers, like those in health and care professions, education, transport, cleaning, and the production and distribution of food, are often the lowest paid. There seems to be no relationship between remuneration for work and its social value, a phenomenon gleefully investigated by the late David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs.
Catastrophes like the recent widespread flooding on the east coast show that questions about who gets help and who does what work will be paramount in the years to come, especially if existing inequalities are allowed to be exacerbated by compounding crises. As the climate emergency unrolls, we are forced to recognise that the ‘free gifts of nature’ that underpin the economy are not free, and that ‘externalities’ such as ecosystem damage and landscape collapse are not at all external.
Encouragingly, we are also seeing a resurgence of mutual aid. Care work and rescue work are often voluntary and communitarian. Unpaid, life-sustaining labour rises to the challenge, while at the other end of town, we struggle to find a mechanism to make fossil fuel companies pay for the damage they are doing.
We need to reimagine work and value in more fundamental ways than a simple increase to current payments can provide.
As artists, we are often called upon to justify our worth. In the increasing competition for funding, we claim status as a special category of workers that deserve to get public money for making something that is a public good. But the culture we’re in doesn’t see culture as a public good in itself—we have to demonstrate that culture is having some other positive effect.
Artists usually leave this to the administrators, because it’s very boring. They argue that art is good for people’s mental health, or good for social cohesion. It has measurable benefits such as increased participation, education, and wellbeing. But none of these measures really explain or clarify what art is for or why we do it. It sometimes feels like we’re stuck in a performance, misrepresenting the nature of what we do in order to secure a few dollars from people who don’t believe us.
Campaigns like Fund The Arts are necessary and urgent. Artists and arts organisations need increased funding desperately. But at the same time, arguing that the arts are important is tiring and repetitive. It enacts a hope that if we prove our usefulness, we will attract fair payment. This puts us in a similar position to the ‘deserving poor’ in the current model of mutual-obligation welfare. It also operates on an assumption that the society we live in divides up the money depending on who is most useful, when in fact, the opposite is often true.
Meanwhile, a second model even more hostile to art-work is being constructed around us. The Australia Council emails me regularly about the latest ‘investment opportunities’, seemingly without irony. The neoliberalisation of arts funding is visible in its increasingly entrepreneurial language. The government announces support for ‘creative industries’, a category so broad as to be meaningless. Actual arts funding is tiny—the Australia Council’s grants budget is about the same as the Arts Council of Ireland’s, but serves a population five times the size—and goes overwhelmingly to the big companies. Governments like to fund success stories: the touring spectacles, the festival shows, the big budget stuff. But most of art, like most of science, is an interesting failure that might never generate a cent.
The framing of ‘creative industries’ and ‘investment’, and indeed ‘emerging’, assumes that an artist will eventually generate money if successful. Unfortunately for artists, most of this money goes to other people: our record labels, publishing houses, or landlords. Requests for increased funding can insist all they like on our contribution to GDP, but individual artist incomes are still falling. When we do produce an income, artists are mostly producing it for other areas of the economy.
It’s important to recognise that art is work, because it’s important to get paid fairly for the labour of it. And I don’t think we should abandon the argument from public value—far from it. However, artists are in a position to look more radically at how and why we work the way we do. Maybe art is useful in various ways, but maybe it also isn’t work in important ways. Sometimes it’s play, and sometimes it’s contemplation. Sometimes it looks like doing nothing, and that’s okay.
The most common argument against a UBI is that people will be paid to do nothing. Against a Basic Income for artists, there is a version of this that says: ‘but then anyone could claim to be an artist!’ Instead of distancing ourselves from the idle and undeserving, artists should celebrate the promise of abundance concealed within these threats. The notion that anyone can be an artist is exciting.
Doing what you love, chasing your curiosities, finding community and collaborating—these human needs should be available to all of us. And that includes doing nothing. The relationship between art and leisure is more complex than the dole-bludger image hinted at above, but there is a relationship. Artists already carve out an existence between money-work and what I call Work-work, the stuff that means something. Being an artist means making daily intricate decisions about the value of your labour, and doing so autonomously. What if everyone had that capacity?
I’m struck by whistleblower Andrew McIntosh’s characterisation of the billion-dollar failure of Australia’s carbon credit scheme as ‘welfare payments for the undeserving’. It’s not that our current leaders don’t believe in welfare, or the redistribution of wealth. They just have a very different idea of its direction of travel.
The proposed Liveable Income Guarantee is a strong step towards eradicating poverty, and artists should support it. Poverty sucks, and besides, the more people that can afford to buy books and art, come to shows, and make work, the better. But we need to be more imaginative, more ambitious. We can and should be calling for a massive and urgent restructuring of our social priorities, the ways we measure value, and the way everybody works. I think artists should demand a Basic Income for the Arts, not just to help ourselves, but because looking closely at creative work and how to support it might reveal ways to liberate work for everybody.
Image by TJ Dragotta