Express to nowhere
The defunding of Express Media and Voiceworks will destroy a good part of our country’s literary future
It takes a certain kind of young person to want to volunteer weeknights and half their weekends to the running of a literary magazine. Perhaps, one might venture, the kind of young person who dearly wants to be a writer, or an editor, or a designer; who dreams of making a serious contribution to Australia’s literary culture.
Voiceworks magazine, run by the not-for-profit youth arts organisation Express Media, has long been a project to draw in such dreamers. It is the only magazine in the country run by and for writers and artists under 25 years of age. Voiceworks is published quarterly, and celebrated its 100th issue in 2015. All aspects of the magazine, from article selection to editing to proofreading, are decided by a volunteer editorial committee in conjunction with an editor, and all of these people are young.
Express Media is one of 62 arts organisation to lose funding in the latest round of Australia Council grants, announced this morning. These four-year funding grants are for operational costs, and many of the organisations that have missed out will now struggle to keep functioning. After $105 million was cut from the Australia Council in the 2015 Federal Budget, there is not enough money to go around, not even after $32 million was returned to the Council by Senator Mitch Fifield, who succeeded Senator George Brandis as Federal Arts Minister.
Thinking back 11 years to the days and evenings I spent at the modest, gently cluttered office of Voiceworks, then in North Melbourne, I recall some of my fellow editorial committee members: Romy Ash, whose 2013 novel Floundering was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize; Anna Krien, who in 2014 became only the second woman to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for her book Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport; Tom Doig, then Voiceworks editor, who last year won the inaugural Oral History Victoria Education Innovation Award for The Coal Face, his investigation into the Hazelwood mine fires. There were others: Justin Heazlewood, Josephine Rowe, Liam Pieper, Ben Gook – all now published authors, some with multiple books to their name. And that was just my generation, so to speak, of Voiceworks volunteers. There were plenty before, and plenty after, and now maybe there will be no more.
This is not an accident. The federal funding that ensured the survival of Express Media and of Voiceworks did not just disappear – it was removed by the current Liberal government. Australian governments both Federal and State have had a habit of treating young people and young artists in this country very badly. In a healthier democracy, perhaps we wouldn’t need a magazine especially dedicated to young writers and artists. Perhaps we could accept and value their voices in the mainstream, as if young adults, too, were legitimate contributors to our cultural and political life. But instead, our governments tend towards paternalistic aggression: jobless people under the age of 25 are now told that they must work for what amounts to $4 an hour in youth “internships”; city nightlife and entertainment is subject to draconian restrictions; the deregulation of university fees remains government policy, and, despite a stagnating economy and youth unemployment running at 12%, a chorus of establishment voices deride young people as entitled and lazy.
And yet the existence of organisations like Express Media speaks to a different truth: that young people in this country care deeply about the country’s future, so much so that they will volunteer –in between their own study or work commitments or both – for the production of a not-for-profit magazine, or participate in the Emerging Writers’ Festival, which Express Media helped to establish, or otherwise give their time, passion and developing skills to help to foster the voices of their peers.
I remember the first time that I was published in Voiceworks magazine – how thrilled I felt, and how honoured to know that my work had been chosen on its merits: not because of my name, which meant nothing to anyone, or my industry contacts, which I didn’t have. It felt serious. It felt like the glimmer of a future. And I am devastated to know that this feeling – and this possibility – may have been taken away from our young writers to come. If Express Media is destroyed then a good part of our country’s literary future is destroyed with it. It’s that simple.