In the lead up to Christmas and the new year, those in the Australian arts sector have been left disheartened by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to restructure federal departments.
On Thursday, December 5, Morrison announced that the government’s Department of Communications and the Arts will be eliminated and will form part of a new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications.
Morrison defended this move and explained, “Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people.”
Australia’s federal departments will decrease from 18 to 14 and Mike Mrdak, federal secretary of the portfolio, will lose his job when the changes are implemented in February 2020.
The concerns of the arts community are legitimised in light of the arts becoming a part of the same portfolio that includes poorly-managed entities such as the National Broadband Network. Having fewer departments ultimately means that each minister will be responsible for more portfolio entities.
There were 17 portfolio entities at the end of the 2019 financial year. Among them, the Australian Postal Corporation (Australia Post); Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); NBN Co Limited (NBN Co); Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS); and Australia Council. The full portfolio can be found here.
One can only imagine the congested portfolio when the entities therein combine with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development.
The arts community has been outraged by the removal of the arts from the department name. It is yet another move that sends a message to artists that they are undervalued by their government despite the intrinsic and economic benefits that the arts bring to Australia.
The Adelaide Fringe, the largest open-access festival in the Southern Hemisphere, generated a record $95.1 million in gross economic expenditure for South Australia in 2019. A major report, Cultural and creative activity in Australia 2008–09 to 2016–17, showed that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.713 billion to the economy in 2016–17.
In the same financial year Simon Birmingham, then Minister for Education, shook up the Vocational Education and Training sector when he cut funding to 57 creative courses, referring to them as ‘lifestyle choices’ that shouldn’t be funded by taxpayer dollars.
Three years after Birmingham’s course cuts, the government is measuring success in a numbers game. One of their performance outcomes for creative courses include 800 or more students successfully completing courses in one of the elite performing arts training organisations known as the Arts8. They reported that they had met their targets when 1056 students successfully completed creative arts courses in the 2019 financial year.
The Morrison Government announced their plan for a stronger economy in April 2019 which included investing an extra $393.7 million to strengthen Australia’s communications, music, regional media and cultural institutions. It is unclear how much of that funding will be distributed to arts organisations and arts course providers. Perhaps time will reveal the rationale behind removing the arts, at least in name, among the federal departments.
What is clear is the solidarity amongst people in the Australian arts industry. Over 30,000 signatures have been added to a petition on change.org calling for an independent federal arts department. It is a bitter sweet end to a decade for artists and arts workers alike.