Australia's Music Biz Reacts to Government's Disappearing Arts Department

Sydney, Australia
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Sydney, Australia

It’s hot as hell in Australia right now. Summer officially arrived last week, but in truth it’s been here for months. The continent is dry.  

Sydneysiders and visitors today are posting pictures of the great city, obscured, unrecognizable as smoke blankets its landmarks. Not for the first time. Where there’s smoke, there’s bushfire. For weeks, firefighters have battled blazes in New South Wales and north in Queensland.  

Australia’s forests aren’t its only precious asset gone up in smoke. There’s concern in these parts that the arts sector just got torched. Late last week, the Morrison government restructured the public service by trimming the number of departments from 18 to 14, a move the prime minister says would “improve decision-making” and “ultimately deliver better services” for Australians.

As part of those seismic changes, the arts portfolio would be folded into a super-department that will also oversee roads and rail. With effect from February 2020, the creative sectors will operate under the new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

The Australian music industry is still digesting the news, which comes less than six months after a cabinet reshuffle that saw Paul Fletcher appointed as Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. 

One of the big surprises of the prime minister’s latest sweeping changes, music industry leaders say, is the great disappearing act of the words “arts” or “culture” from the departmental title. It’s “an unfortunate oversight for an industry which provides considerable economic value to the nation and definition to the lives of everyday Australians,” says Live Performance Australia CEO Evelyn Richardson in a statement. 

“We expect that post the departmental restructure,” adds Richardson, “the government will continue to focus on the economic, cultural and artistic contribution of our industry.”  

Richardson, who leads the trade association for the live entertainment industry, says LPA has been advised that the arts function remains in the new structure and funding and resources won’t be reduced due to Scott Morrison’s changes. Fletcher is said to remain as cabinet minister with responsibility for arts policy.

The loss of “arts” from the department title is “disappointing,” notes APRA AMCOS CEO Dean Ormston. However, the PRO's management remain upbeat on opportunities for the creative sector.

“A whole of government approach is the only real way for Australian music to really reach its potential,” he continues. “We will continue to prosecute the enormous opportunity of music as a driver of employment, exports, local economic rejuvenation, tourism, hospitality, entertainment, youth development and health across regional, remote and metropolitan Australia, and around the globe.”

The Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) isn't so optimistic. The trade body's reps say they're "deeply concerned" with the PM’s planned restructuring, warning the changes “devalues the $111 billion arts industry that is so important in the lives of everyday Australians.”

AMPAG chair Mary Jo Capps also pointed to the loss of senior counsel with “deep sector knowledge,” such as outgoing Secretary, Department of Communications and the Arts Mike Mrdak, who was apparently sacked without consulting the department or the sector, as indication of "disregard for the importance of the arts for Australians."

Labels trade body ARIA declined to comment.

Speaking to reporters this week, Midnight Oil frontman and former federal arts minister Peter Garrett described the federal changes as an “intolerable slap in the face to Australia's arts community".

He continued, "It really sends the strongest of signals that the current government doesn’t value the arts – how could it be [interpreted] any other way?" 

Reps for Morrison attempted to douse the flames. "There is no change to the Morrison Government's strong commitment to the Arts following the Departmental restructures,” a spokesperson says. “There is no change in the funding committed to the arts portfolio – some $749 million in 2019-20. There is no change to the role and funding of the Australia Council, Screen Australia or other important arts and cultural institutions.”

The creative sector will want a much clearer picture of the changes and where culture and the arts sit in the reorganized public sector by February, the official end of the long, hot summer. 


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