The arts sector is already suffering. This year's budget just pours salt on the wound

The Coalition has demonstrated its lack of interest in helping a job-rich industry hit hard by COVID-19.

Image: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivering the 2020-2021 Budget with Scott Morrison and Ken Wyatt in background at Australian Parliament House, Canberra. Screenshot from ABC News 2020.

On Tuesday evening the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, promised “jobs, jobs and jobs” and signalled a new fiscal strategy – one that for the first time was not focused on budget surplus. The arts sector dared to imagine this could mean increased support targeted at the hardest-hit, job-rich sectors with the most spare capacity. The added incentive of close to zero interest rates gave us hope for extra stimulus to fill the hole in the arts and culture sector left by Covid-19.

Disappointingly, Tuesday’s budget speech provided yet another blow to a sector that is already struggling to survive the pandemic. The cultural and creative sector contributes $111.7bn to Australia’s economy (based on figures for 2016-17). But, since coming to power in 2013, Liberal-National Coalition governments have repeatedly delivered budgets that lack meaningful and substantial funding for arts and culture.

It is important to acknowledge the aspects of the budget that have the potential to trickle down to artists and organisations indirectly: commitments to improved mental health support, the youth employment initiative, business asset write-offs, individual tax cuts, and increased assistance for artists living with disabilities, through the NDIS. This is where the extent of the potential impacts on the arts sector ends.

The creative industries were ignored altogether in Frydenberg’s budget speech. Increases to the funding of national cultural institutions, where they have been granted, are so small as to be entirely meaningless once adjusted for inflation.

Research from the Australia Institute shows that every million dollars invested in the arts creates nine jobs. In construction, that same investment generates just 0.9 to 1.3 jobs. Rather than investing in sectors with the greatest potential to support jobs and the return to work, the budget has instead committed to indirect job creation. The government has provided unprecedented support for private business, a decision that relies on the assumption and hope that businesses will retain and hire new staff amid an economic crisis.

The budget commitments demonstrate the Morrison government’s lack of interest in redressing the debilitating impacts of Covid-19 on the arts sector. Despite the arts sector being the first and worst hit sector, and likely the last to recover, the budget fails to provide a roadmap for the sector based on bold, strategic vision and long-term recovery.

Urgent investment in the arts has been ignored despite clear, consistent and united calls from the sector.

The $250m committed this year – none of which has been spent – will do little to rebuild the arts sector, which is already weakened by exclusions from existing income support measures, cuts to local content quotas for Australian TV, and the increase of arts and humanities degree fees.

The income tax cuts package will benefit high-income earners the most – and for longer – with a permanent $2,430 cut. Lower-income and middle-income earners (between $48,000 and $90,000) will receive a $1,080 tax cut for just one year. These cuts will have little to no impact on most artists, whose average income for their creative work alone is well below the poverty line: a mere $18,100, according to research by Australia Council for the Arts.

Urgent investment in the arts has been ignored despite clear, consistent and united calls from the sector. The National Association for the Visual Arts’ submission before the budget was clear about what was needed to redress the long-term decline in funding that is damaging the arts industry, and making it harder for artists to sustain careers. We outlined the need for strategic investment to address the sector’s structural challenges concerning declines in artists’ incomes and career prospects, and worsening prospects for organisations’ sustainability.

Calls for additional investment in the arts – $25m a year for the Australia Council and $2.5m a year for the regional arts fund – have also been ignored, when both have consistently been advocated by industry leaders and major cultural institutions including Regional Arts Australia.

Moreover, the budget neglects the preferences of the majority of Australians (63% of us) who believe that arts and culture should be financially supported.

The arts, alongside hospitality and tourism, will remain significant contributors to the economy after the pandemic and these sectors should not be left to falter without adequate government support during it. Those anxious about being left behind as JobKeeper and other COVID-19 supplements phase back will join the thousands of artists and arts workers who have disproportionately been excluded from the wage subsidy.

The budget, even more so in times of a recession, should inspire confidence vital for post-pandemic recovery.

The 2020-21 budget has highlighted the urgent need for a creative roadmap to restore and grow the sector, maximise its cultural and economic impact, and inspire confidence in our next generation of artists, audiences and critical thinkers to create our future.

This article first appeared as The arts sector is already suffering. This year's budget just pours salt on the wound in The Guardian.