December 2020 – January 2021


And now for something completely indifferent

By George Megalogenis
Image of Guy Sebastian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, June, 2020

Guy Sebastian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, June, 2020. © Matt Blyth / Getty Images

The Morrison government is yet to fully realise that sidelining the arts hurts the economy

There was no time to recover in 2020. The first three months felt like three years, and the remainder of 2020 a monumental decade. 

The respite between the crises of fire, flood and global pandemic was too brief to mitigate our collective sense of dread. There was no room for any other stories.

Fire still consumed large parts of our country when the first group of coronavirus cases was announced on January 25. Nature attacked again in February with days of torrential rain and mad bursts of hail, while the pathogen appeared to be in check. But COVID-19 kept coming and by March it had our undivided attention.

The pandemic squeezed Australia’s culture – politics, the arts and sport – into one claustrophobic space where only politics could be heard. It was an inevitable function of lockdown. The live theatres and stadiums, the cinemas and galleries, where cultural memory is formed and shared, were off limits. Although streaming services filled some of the void, and the football codes managed to complete their seasons, the arts did not stand a chance. In 2020, politics had first call on our devices and television sets.

It wasn’t always this way. Consider the 1970s, an intensely political decade in Australia. We remember it for its trinity of egos: Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. But the culture was vibrant. The Opera House had opened for business. Blue Poles was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. And Australian literature, film and music had finally found an independent voice. Politics was happy to be granted a cameo in this storyline. Gough and Margaret Whitlam received Barry McKenzie and his aunt Edna Everage in the closing credits of the second Barry McKenzie movie. Fraser as prime minister introduced an episode of Countdown, with a line he borrowed from Monty Python: “And now for something completely different…” Hawke, then president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, was given the right of reply, and final word on the episode: “Not completely different. But not bad. See you next week.”

In 2020, the arts, like every other sector, had to come to politics to plead for help. The irony is that the year of disasters began with the arts community leading the relief effort. Authors collected donations for fireys, and the genres and generations of the music industry gathered in Sydney in February for the national bushfire relief concert, one of the last mass events before lockdown. The pandemic erased the arts so thoroughly that these details seem to belong to another age.

At each inflection point of emergency in 2020, our mood was determined by statistics. We scrolled for the latest fire warnings, air pollution readings and flood alerts. Those tense rituals of summer prepared us for autumn’s crash course in epidemiology.

The first lockdown in March isolated and separated the nation, as the international border was closed to all foreigners, and the states and territories shut their internal borders to their fellow Australians. Yet the hindsight of Victoria’s second lockdown told us that March and April were the only months of the pandemic when there was a unity of experience. We faced roughly the same level of restrictions on our movement and had our eye on the one graph: the national infection curve. Bend it, and we could tell ourselves that we had contained the virus.

Once the numbers took off again in Victoria, and the state was again separated from the rest of the country, and Melbourne from the rest of the state, all news became local. Every state watched their own premier and chief medical officer, and did a quick mental check with the alternative universe of Victoria. A good day in Sydney was one or two new cases, with all contacts traced. The new normal in Melbourne was hundreds of new cases per day, and a backlog of many more so-called mystery cases.

Early in the first wave, when the virus was overwhelming the health systems of Europe and the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump was telling Americans it would magically go away, the Financial Times held up Australia as a role model. On its website, readers were invited to track the coronavirus around the world. You clicked onto an interactive chart and added the countries you wanted to compare, across a range of benchmarks.

“In Australia,” the FT pointed out to users, “an early lockdown has kept daily death tolls from ever reaching double digits.”

They pulled down that quote at the end of July, when double digits became numbingly routine in Victoria. Through August and into September, the state averaged more than 100 deaths per week, most of them in aged-care centres in Melbourne.

Scott Morrison had been the singular voice of the first wave. His press conferences began with a stream of consciousness – impressive in their level of detail, but distracting in their imprecision. Clichés and platitudes were plucked seemingly at random. It was easy to lose the thread of his argument, but viewing was compulsory. He was setting the boundaries for the next day of our lives, where we could go, who we could see.

The second wave belonged to the premiers and chief ministers. In Victoria, Daniel Andrews delivered 120 press conferences in a row from July 3 to October 30. He’d start with a monotone of numbers and maintain that headmaster pitch as he answered every question. The apocalypse was the only show in town. The prime minister would interrupt the program from time to time to attack the premier. The only other face on our screen was a chief medical officer: Dr Brendan Murphy in Canberra, Dr Brett Sutton in Melbourne. I can’t think of another moment in our history when an entire year was mediated by the prime minister, the premiers and their respective health advisers.

Initially, Morrison thought the lockdown would run for six months and the economy would snap back by September. That created a false sense of flexibility, that he could pick and choose the sectors deserving of support, while leaving others to fend for themselves, confident that they could survive until the reopening.

The safety net he improvised in March contained two tiers of assistance. Full-time workers, permanent part-time workers and sole traders were given the wage subsidy known as JobKeeper. Universities qualified under the original rules, but the government kept changing the rules until the sector was excluded. For the academics and staff laid off because of this distinction there was the consolation of the new, elevated dole payment called JobSeeker. But that handout had its own barriers to entry. The one million Australians who had casual work were in; migrants on temporary visas were out. The calculations seemed political. But Morrison said lines had to be drawn somewhere. The cost of JobKeeper to the budget was $101 billion. JobSeeker drained another $14 billion.

The burden of lockdown fell disproportionately on tourism and hospitality, restaurants and cafes, and the arts. The early data showed that up to a third of workers in these sectors were laid off in March and April, or had their hours reduced to zero. Morrison understood this. He had been treasurer for two years under Malcolm Turnbull, and had a full working model of the economy in his head. But he did not see the arts as an integral part of it, at least not at first.

He had telegraphed his world view the previous December, when he streamlined the Commonwealth public service to give each department a sharper economic edge. It was the last major announcement he made in 2019 before taking his family on holiday to Hawaii.

The total number of departments was reduced from 18 to 14. The mergers and demotions sent a clear message to the public service to focus on job creation. Education was paired with employment, while energy and the environment was broken up, downgrading climate change as a policy concern. The arts were relocated to the blokiest part of the bureaucracy, through the merger of the Department of Communications and the Arts with the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities. There wasn’t room in the letterhead for all these portfolios. So the arts and cities were left off the new name, symbolically disenfranchising the 80 per cent of Australians who go to an arts or cultural event each year, and the 68 per cent of Australia who live in the capital cities. You have to go back to William McMahon’s government in the early 1970s for a more unlikely home for the arts sector, when it was located in the short-lived Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts.

One of the aims of the merger, as Morrison explained it, was to improve the delivery of services to the regions. “Infrastructure, communications… they are the same thing these days,” he said. 

This was not a calculated snub to the arts, merely the repetition of indifference to a sector the Coalition has long misidentified as a political enemy. If the prime minister had wanted to punish the arts, he would have removed it from the ministry as well, which he chose not to do.

But he hurt the sector by neglect in the early months of lockdown. To his credit, he had acknowledged this by June with the announcement of a $250 million support package of loans and grants. Interestingly, he made an economic argument for the arts in explaining the measures, and came as close as any Liberal prime minister I’ve covered to conceding that he had underestimated the value of the sector.

“There’s been a lot of listening going on,” he said. He appreciated “the serious business of entertainment and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are here”.

Singer Guy Sebastian was at the prime minister’s side that day, a literal inversion of the relationship in the 1970s, when the politicians made their guest appearances in the arts. Sebastian’s Twitter feed, usually filled with love from his fans, was spammed by political obsessives accusing him of selling out. He replied that he had no political ties: “My only objective in getting involved was to be a mouthpiece for my peers, to provide perspective, [and] to help get funds into the hands of those who need it.” That statement of the obvious, unnecessary in any other era, demonstrated how deeply political our conversations are now. Everything is seen through a tribal lens.

Morrison would have noted the employment statistics. More than 600,000 people were working in the sector before the lockdown. The figure is slightly larger than the number of jobs directly attributed to tourism, the sector Morrison represented before he entered politics.

The Bureau of Communications, Arts and Regional Research, which sits within the new mega department of infrastructure, found the arts sector was responsible for just over 6 per cent of economic activity before the pandemic. This is based on the official definition of cultural and creative activities, which covers everything from the performing arts, film, media and music to computer design and fashion. Although not strictly comparable with the main industry definitions the Australian Bureau of Statistics uses in the national accounts, it is fair to say that before the lockdown the arts created more economic activity than manufacturing. Both sectors had seen their share of gross domestic product fall over the past decade, as mining and health expanded. But manufacturing was shrinking much faster and was contributing less than the arts by 2017–18; a historic shift on any measure.

Nonetheless, 6 per cent of GDP for the arts is a significant figure. Mining and financial services, the two largest parts of the economy, although small employers in their own right, each accounted for 9 per cent of the economy before the lockdown, health was at 8 per cent, and construction 7 per cent. Perhaps Morrison should have called it the Department of Infrastructure and the Arts, in recognition of the two key profit-makers in the portfolio: construction and culture. But these numbers games can quickly lose their meaning if the point is just the dollars. What matters is the cultural contribution, the community, the creators and their audiences. The arts is the most persuasive, comforting, entertaining, challenging and confronting forum for national storytelling.

By October, as the second wave of virus receded in Victoria and the state began reporting doughnuts – zero new cases and deaths – the Morrison government published a new road map to reopen the economy. It identified the sectors “critically at risk from COVID-19 restrictions”. To underline the point, the words “critically at risk” were in all-caps and a red font. The first group of workers mentioned on the danger list were in arts, sports and entertainment. The government said that “126,000 are expected to lose their jobs”.

The catch is that not a dollar of the promised funding had reached the arts by October. Morrison had yet to translate his epiphany on the sector into meaningful support on the ground. The budget released that same month was unashamedly pro-business. But once again, the government did not see the arts as worthy of additional help, or encouragement.

Perhaps the value of the sector is best understood by its absence and loss in 2020. Without the arts, all we had to make sense of a year in lockdown was politics.

George Megalogenis

George Megalogenis is a journalist and author of books including The Longest Decade, The Australian Moment and The Football Solution.

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