Communications and the Arts Committee

October 28, 2021

I feel a bit exasperated rising to speak on this topic, and it's not because the committee hasn't done terrific work in pulling together this report. But it does echo the recommendations that this government has received over many years about things that could be done to make a big difference to the arts sector. I fear that this is yet another report that they will largely ignore, cherry-picking only one or two recommendations for political expediency. I say this as a past member of this committee. And I see many parallels in this report and the one that we wrote from our 2017 inquiry into the sustainability of the film and television sector and then the 2018 inquiry into the music industry.

It is well known that I am a very mediocre violinist, married to a former musician, with an actor daughter and a musician son, so I am very heavily invested in the arts sector, personally, as is my community. The hills and plains of the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury are alive with the sound of music and dance. There are filmmakers, writers, performers, painters, sculptors—creators of all types, plus the people who make the final product a reality— producers, set makers, lighting experts, framers, the whole ecosystem that gets a creative idea out of someone's head and inspires and moves somebody else. And every dad who drops his son or daughter to ballet, every child who says, 'Mum, come and see me on the stage' and she goes, every family who listens to saxophone practice, who reads Possum Magic to their grandchild, who watches Bluey, who goes to the Hawkesbury Flood Relief Concert or a gig in Katoomba, who tosses a coin to the busker or at the Richmond food market, who puts an Australian painting on their wall is doing a terrific thing. You're doing it for yourselves, but you're also supporting the arts.

This report outlines a number of recommendations. I'm going to touch on a few of them. One of them is, of course, that we would like to see the name 'arts' in the department's name. This is a government that claims to put some sort of value in the arts, but it's removed that name from the department. I think it's a very sensible recommendation, and something that I have called for previously, to reinsert the word 'arts' into the name of the department. I know that it will make it even lengthier, but it will give acknowledgement not just to the sector per se but to the individuals whose work contributes to the local economy. It is an economic contributor. It isn't a drain on our society. They actually generate income that flows through economies, whether it's at a national level or in, say, the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury, at a local level. So I absolutely would support that recommendation.

What's also parallels the inquiries I've done and the reports that the committee I was part of wrote is the need for a greater emphasis on music in schools. Again, I have a personal connection. My mum was a high school music teacher. My son, the musician son, is about to start studying teaching—not that I think my mother would want him to inflict upon himself music teaching in high school; that's something she says is one of the hardest things you can do. However, those music teachers have inspired my son to want to go back and be part of the education system, where we should be seeing more music. Music isn't just something that makes you feel good—although, hey, that is pretty important. But we know it is also great from a brain development perspective. The research on it shows enormous benefits to health and wellbeing as well as to development. So seeing a greater emphasis on music in schools recommended in this report is very welcome.

There's also a recommendation that we mirror the program we have to encourage kids to be high achievers in sports and to make it possible for their families to fund those things, and that's the Local Sporting Champions program, which I know all of us would value very highly. I know it has certainly seen many of my amazing athletes and equestrians and rollerbladers go and achieve terrific things. Well, as this committee report recommends, it would be fantastic to see something that parallels that, for our creative kids—the kids for whom perhaps dancing on a stage is going to give a greater sense of achievement than running a marathon. So I also really encourage the government to take up that initiative.

I welcome the focus on Indigenous culture and art. We have the oldest living culture in the world, and the more we can do to really showcase the incredible depth of that work the better.

I also want to turn to some of the really practical things, like additional funding to digitise and preserve the National Archives. These are incredibly important things. It's important to preserve what we have. But we have a National Gallery where buckets have to go out to catch the drips from the ceiling when it rains, because the roof has leaks. Now, our institutions deserve to be funded so that they don't have to rely on buckets to capture rainwater.

There's also a recommendation that we get our kids to read more Australian books—a minimum threshold of Australian books—as they go through school. What a great idea. When I was young, it wasn't always easy to find great Australian books; in the sixties, we relied on lots of overseas things. Fortunately, the work that was done through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties, and then with Paul Keating's real revolution in how we do the arts, means now our kids have access to so many more Australian-born-and-bred novels.

There's a couple of other issues I really would like to touch on, and one of those is to do with streaming. There's been a real boom for one sector of the arts, and that's the streaming giants, during COVID. While everybody else has suffered unknown and uncountable deprivation in their sector, the streamers have done well. It is quoted in this report that subscription rates are up by more than 45 per cent. Now, I think it's very reasonable that those streamers be asked to contribute a certain percentage of Australian content. This was also recommended in the previous report by this committee, where 10 per cent was recommended. I note this report backs 20 per cent. I think it is well overdue for the government to bite the bullet and make a serious assessment of this, in terms of the impact that it will have on our Australian sector.

The other very important gaps that I can see in this report, though, are around things to help this sector get back on its feet after COVID. The committee heard evidence that the overall arts labour-market impact was enormous, just last year, with employment falling by 872,000—and that's not accounting for what happened this year. What they don't yet have is an insurance scheme that would allow people who are putting on performances to have a back-up should something happen. We hope we're through the worst, but there is no accounting for what can come, going forward. A sensible insurance scheme that would mean directors and producers can go with confidence, can employ the people they need, can make the commitments they need and can book the space they need and, if something goes wrong, there's an insurance scheme that can help cover those costs. This government's done it for the film sector. I just don't see why it won't do it for the broader performing arts sector.

Of course no discussion about the arts is complete without a reminder that we need to see proper funding for the ABC, which is one of the core Australian institutions that really helps Australian culture flourish—things that start there that go global; I'm thinking of Bluey. There is not a program on the ABC that doesn't have some value to Australian culture, and that's what we should be continuing to allow them to do. I extend that to SBS as well.

The final thing I'd like to say is that the gaming sector needs to be given much more credence by this government than it has been. We have had nearly nine years of wasted time in supporting a gaming sector. We are beaten by Finland and a whole lot of other countries, such as Canada, who have grasped this. It's a key part of the film and television ecosystem to be supporting gaming, and I'd really urge the government to stop sitting on its laurels, to stop thinking, 'She'll be right,' because it'll only be right if you act or if Labor gets into government.