Australia’s screen industry craft guilds have decried the Federal Government’s abrupt decision to fold the Department of Communications and the Arts into a new super ministry, omitting the Arts, as an insult to the industry.
They say the removal of ‘Arts’ from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications signals a fundamental disregard for the arts and arts education in Australia and a lack of respect for the vital role a federal Arts department plays in maintaining a national arts policy and supporting creative industries.
Stressing the sector’s economic value, they point out the screen industry generates more than $3 billion a year and employs more than 40,000 people.
Noting the industry is struggling with ongoing funding cuts, threats to Australian children’s content across broadcast platforms and no requirement on streaming platforms to provide significant Australian content, the guilds fear the move signals further funding cuts, despite assurances from Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.
“The effects of cuts will not just be felt by those employed to make Australian content; Australians audiences will also be disadvantaged. With fewer Australian dramas and documentaries on our screens our unique stories, cultural perspective and identities are greatly diminished,” according to a statement issued on behalf of the writers, directors, screen editors, screen composers, production designers, casting agents, screen sound and cinematographers guilds, WIFT Australia and Australia Independent Documentary.
Screen Producers Australia is a significant omission from signatories to the statement. The guilds’ declaration coincides with a #SaveTheArts petition run by Change.org.
In turn, the government insists there are no changes to its strong commitment to the arts, funding committed to the arts portfolio – $749 million in 2019-2020 – or to the role and funding of the Australia Council, Screen Australia or other key arts and cultural institutions.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts said: “The dedicated and committed officials working on arts policy will move across from the former department to the new department and they continue to have the same responsibilities and the same resources.
“They will continue to be accountable to the Commonwealth Minister for the Arts Paul Fletcher – there has been no change to his ministerial title or responsibilities and arts policy continues to be the responsibility of a Cabinet Minister.”
On a related matter, the government is expected to deliver its response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s report following the digital platforms inquiry before the end of the year, contrary to media speculation this will be delayed until next year.
The above assurances may not satisfy the guilds, who are asking the government to:
• Reinstate the name Arts Department.
• Make a binding public commitment that there will be no reduction in funding to any of the Arts, Culture and Communications budgets now or in the future.
• That all commitments already made to arts bodies are fulfilled and carried forward into the future.
• That there will be no re-direction of funds to other areas in the new portfolio, or other departments.
• That if any changes are mooted to the Arts/Communications portfolio, that extensive, broad industry consultation is carried out prior with stakeholders and arts practitioners.
WIFT Australia chair Katrina Irawati Graham warns that any minimisation to the arts portfolio will disproportionately affect all types of women and non-binary screen practitioners.
“Women are less represented in key creative roles across the industry. We are more likely to struggle with maintaining a career while caring for family. When we are working we frequently do so on smaller budgeted work for less pay. This is an issue of gender economic equality,” she says.
Diana Burnett, executive director of the Australian Directors’ Guild, says: “Momentum will be lost with the abolition of the Arts portfolio along with ongoing dilution of funding for the screen agencies, ABC and SBS.
“What message are we sending to Australians and the world? No more brilliant TV like Total Control or iconic shows like Home and Away? No more world-renowned movies like Lion? Just when quality screen content is being consumed at a record rate. High-quality, Australian stories must continue to be in the mix for local and international audiences.”
Australian Screen Editors president Fiona Strain observes that editors are accustomed to their work being undervalued and there is not a lot of understanding or recognition of the vital role they play in bringing distinct, memorable and emotive stories to the screen.
“It is often a struggle to earn a living wage and the hours are long but editors are passionate about their work,” she says. “Now the whole industry is being cast in the shadows.
“This is a collaborative industry and editors stand together with other film practitioners in asking that the Federal Government do not devalue the Australian screen industry and arts in general by removing acknowledgement of the Arts from its department portfolio.”
On behalf of the Casting Guild of Australia, Kirsty McGregor and David Newman said: “To imperil the future of the arts sector by reducing its voice in government is shortsighted and ill advised. It sends an unfortunate and negative message to young Australians in particular, about the place of the arts and artistic expressions in the lives of Australians.”
Australian Writers’ Guild president Shane Brennan says the loss of the Arts Department title is a further sign that the government does not understand or value the industry, observing: “Australia has the talent and opportunity to become a genuine content provider to the world but this will be lost if the government doesn’t recognise and adequately support our creative practitioners.”
Ron Johanson, national president of the Australian Cinematographers Society, said his members are astounded the government could even consider taking these steps and downgrading the importance of the arts ministry.
“Where do these decisions, that obviously directly affect the erosion of the cultural foundation of our country come from?” he asked.
Echoing the wider industry’s concerns is this blunt message from Natalie Miller Fellowship president Sue Maslin: “No Department of the Arts. No cultural policy. No respect. This government has failed to understand what millions of ordinary Australians understand – that music, films, art, performance, interactive games and storytelling are the very things that give us joy and make life worth living.
“How is it possible to extol the virtues of innovation while systematically debasing the importance of creativity?”