Why do arts and culture matter to Australia? You may as well ask about the meaning of life

Esther Anatolitis
·4 min read

What do arts and culture mean to Australia – and to our economy?

It’s an awkward way to ask about the meaning of life. It’s also the question at the heart of a parliamentary inquiry that closed for submissions on Thursday. Politicians and bureaucrats are working their way through many hundreds of contributions on how much we value our own culture – and what they should do about it.

Because right now Covid-19 is causing the most perilous disruption to our cultural life in generations. We can’t get to the shows and the gigs and the festivals that invigorate us, and everyone who makes them faces an uncertain future.

Last week’s ABS payroll data release reinforced what the industry’s been saying all year: arts and recreation services remain in the top two first- and worst-hit industries, with payroll jobs down 12.9% and total wages down 7.9% since the start of the pandemic.

Related: The arts sector is already suffering. This year's budget just pours salt on the wound | Leya Reid

Add to that the exclusion of local government and universities from income support, the collapse of arts education, skyrocketing humanities education fees, the removal of Australian TV content quotas, and the months-long delays in spending the $160m committed to redress Australia’s $111.7bn creative and cultural activity crisis, and we begin to see just how valuable this inquiry will be to key political decision-makers.

So what will they be hearing that adds to these urgent accounts?

Submissions from local governments such as the city of Darwin and regional Victoria’s Latrobe city council emphasise the leading role they play: local government is Australia’s biggest investor in arts and culture; that investment has a “multiplying effect” across the economy, in hospitality, retail, tourism – even construction, logistics and services.

The regional tourism effects alone are critical to the economy as we work through Covid’s damage. Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism & Transport Forum, says the arts are “probably the top-of-the-list reason why you get return visitors to a whole range of destinations”.

The ways we live, work and connect have been destabilised perilously; strengthening culture is the way forward

Back on the couch, games have been a go-to for millions during the pandemic. And yet, as the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association outlines in its submission, games receive no federal funding nor any tax offsets, despite employing many designers, visual artists, musicians and writers – and despite being part of a $200bn global industry in which Australians spent $3.6bn in 2019.

Speaking of writers, the submission of renowned author Kate Grenville laments the decline in support for literature, despite “an army of others employed [behind every published writer] as a result of what they produce: publishers, editors, typesetters, printers, distributors, delivery truckies, warehouse landlords, journalists, teachers, the actors and technicians who make audio books, and booksellers large and small”.

Powering that army, the job-making strength of the arts could become the government’s greatest hidden weapon: there are nine jobs for every $1m turnover in arts and entertainment as opposed to just one in construction, for example.

We need steady jobs in construction as much as we need steady jobs and growth in the creative industries: to inspire a confident Australian culture that’s ready to face an uncertain future.

The ways we live, work and connect with one another have been destabilised perilously; strengthening the ways we create our culture is the way forward. And we need to be prepared to take a new route this time.

As Adelaide-based arts advocate Kate Larsen puts it: “We don’t want to go back to the way things were before, which was less flexible, less accessible, less diverse, less productive, and less compatible with other areas of our lives.”

Related: Netflix has been getting a free ride from Australia. It's time for them to stump up | Trent Zimmerman

The questions posed by the inquiry are on measurable economic and non-economic benefits, but as the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA’s submission argues: “The reality is that cultural policy also involves a strong dose of politics.”

We need to be able to have the tough, upfront conversations about what it is we value as a culture and as a nation.

While the inquiry has closed, the conversations continue: the committee will publish submissions across coming weeks, and two days of public hearings have been scheduled.

For many of us, these questions are as close to our hearts as questions about the meaning of life. As summer warms us and we begin to reconnect, let’s keep that conversation wide open.

• Esther Anatolitis is honorary Associate Prof at RMIT school of art and deputy chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts