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Cultural policy submission

At risk of boring my remaining blog readers with bureaucratese, I’m sharing my submission to the National Cultural Policy below. I thought about screwing it up and chucking it in the Vintage bag that serves as my rubbish bin – since I just got a grant, there can be nothing wrong with the system, right? Wrong. Financially, 2011 has been the toughest year of my career, and while I have a certain amount of pride about doing it the hard way, I also have a few ideas about how things could be improved so other writers don’t have to live off dandelions and foraged fruit through the winter. Please add your comments, as I will probably make changes before I submit this tomorrow.

I have been a full-time writer since 2007. I have mainly worked freelance to support myself, but I have been assisted by two Australia Council grants. I have published two novels in three years, with a book of short stories due out next year, and undertaken international and cross-platform residencies in Europe and China. I have recently moved to regional South Australia after five years in Alice Springs. The following are my suggestions regarding a National Cultural Policy.

Diversity

It is vital that the arts reflect the diversity of voices in this country, rural, regional and urban, Indigenous, queer, and multicultural. I think this is already being done well in Australia but should certainly form part of a National Policy. In light of the National Indigenous Languages policy, our cultural policy should also reflect the rich diversity of languages in this country and form a part of language revitalisation efforts.

Issues of sustainability and income in a career in the arts

At present, literature is the worst paid industry in Australia, with writers earning the lowest mean and median creative incomes as surveyed by the Australia Council in its report, ‘Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia’ (Throsby and Zednick, 2010). Women still earn significantly less than men. Our incomes should be protected by legislation as much as any other worker’s.

Protecting our incomes will prevent us becoming a drain on the public system as we age. The above report states “a substantial majority of artists face an insecure working environment for their primary creative work, forgoing the sorts of benefits that employees customarily enjoy such as sick leave, maternity leave, employer’s superannuation contributions, holiday pay, and so on… Considering the large numbers of artists working on a freelance/self-employed basis, the future financial security of artists is a matter of considerable concern.”

More support should be apportioned to individual artists across all platforms. Only six percent of arts funding goes to individual practitioners. More funding goes to Opera Australia than all individual arts grants combined. Direct funding is far more important in a person’s career than institutional support, which tends to feed institutions. These are vital but (with the exception of performance arts, which nevertheless still require fresh writing) they are not where the work is made. Individual assistance should be a bigger priority. The report found that “professional artists in Australia endure considerable economic hardship in order to produce the art that so enriches our society.” We are rarely the ones who profit from our work.

Federally funded institutions (including national broadcasters) should be compelled to pay artists and writers fairly for their work as a condition of funding. Most organisations work on a tight budget and too often paying artists and writers appropriately is the first thing to fall by the wayside. This creates a cycle of exploitation, where even mid-career writers are expected to accept payment in ‘exposure.’ A policy which recognised our work as having inherent value and compelled institutions to pay fairly for the work they use would save us many headaches and hungry days and ensure that federal funding is not absorbed by self-serving bureaucracies.

New Work grants for emerging writers have been undergoing some upheaval and I have recently read they will be scrapped. A degree of support to emerging writers should be guaranteed by policy. Whether this comes from the Australia Council or other institutions is not important. It is vital that people are supported early in their careers when the support can do the most good and encourage younger artists and writers to stay in Australia rather than leave for countries where it is easier to be a full-time artist or writer.

A recognition of creative work across all disciplines by Centrelink would be an enormous help to people in their early career. It is generally assumed that for the first five years of a writing career we should expect to work for free. In no other industry is this exploitation expected or normalised. I believe this situation could be ameliorated by recognising creative work as work for the purposes of Centrelink payments, so that artists, writers and musicians do not have to look for work or undergo the humiliating torture of job-readiness training on top of their existing labours. Some manage to do this via the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS), but it would be more appropriate to simply recognise the unpaid labour that people are already doing. The Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment (PACE) scheme in New Zealand is an example of this being successfully applied. I seem to recall Arts Minister Peter Garrett considering this in 2007, but it disappeared from the table.

Collaboration, innovation and technology

The Government should support and encourage connections between the arts and other industries. It should facilitate collaboration between science, research, environment and arts. A policy could open the way for embedding artists in cities, universities, research laboratories, national parks, or even Federal politics. Innovation breeds innovation and all industries should be supporting creativity. Similarly, cultural institutions should be supported to adapt to new technologies. The ‘Geeks in residence’ program was a good example of how this might be done.

The Government is doing many things well, and I applaud the fact of this consultation. I hope it is an opportunity to stimulate further democratic participation across the arts. A policy which acknowledges the need for more regular input from artists and cultural organisations will be a more adaptable and resilient one.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I consent to this submission being made publicly available on www.culture.arts.gov.au.

Jennifer Mills

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