Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the importance of the Arts industry and COVID recovery

28 October 2021

Ms STEGGALL (Warringah) (12:11): I rise to speak on the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts, titled Sculpting a national cultural plan: igniting a post-COVID economy for the arts. The arts explain who we were, who we are and who we want to be. They facilitate the exploration of human imagination, emotion and creativity. They give our life meaning. It's important to understand what the arts are. They are a very wide range of human practices, of creative expression, storytelling and cultural participation. They encompass diverse and plural modes of thinking across extremely broad ranges of media, from painting to sculpture to music to literature to theatre—so many. The arts can refer to a common, popular or everyday practice, as well as sophisticated and systematic ones.

Most people just don't realise that the arts are part of their day-to-day life in so many ways, from their kids' music lessons to the music they listen to, to the TV they watch, to the books they read. The arts are, let's be frank, what got us through lockdown. More directly, as this report notes, the arts give a benefit to our mental and our physical health. They are our social cohesion, our community-building, creative thinking and problem solving. Our society is richer and deeper because of the arts.

The arts community in Warringah is strong and vibrant, but they have been devastated by COVID-19. Before COVID-19, the arts contributed nearly $112 billion to our economy. That is 6.4 per cent of GDP. More than 193,600 Australians were employed in this sector. It's disappointing that we don't always hear members of the coalition rail and fight for those jobs the way they do for the jobs in the industries they like. To put it in perspective, employment in the arts is more than in the finance industry, more than in construction and four times as many as in the coalmining sector. But we don't hear about specific packages for these jobs or about stopping our economy or our progress. For every million dollars in turnover, the arts sector produces nine jobs. This is a job-rich sector.

The impact of the pandemic on this sector has been arguably harder than on any other. The arts were the first to shut down and the last out of restrictions. In Warringah, 6,400 people were employed in the arts sector at the height of its employment. In January of this year, that was down to 4,800 people. That's a 23.6 per cent drop in Warringah alone. In April last year only 47 to 65 per cent of businesses were operating. That's a huge drop. They've adapted, they've pivoted, they've embraced online platforms, they've discovered and embraced novel delivery mechanisms—and the report points to all of this—but the truth is that the sector and the people who work in it have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic, the lockdown restrictions and, I would say, the lack of love from the current government.

This report sets out how Australia can have a healthy, sustainable industry that will allow Australia's industries and institutions to emerge from COVID-19 better than ever and to soar to new heights. There are a number of recommendations in the report, and there won't be time to go through all of them. I encourage everyone to go through the list, to actually look at these recommendations. Recommendation 8 is a standout. I've often spoken in this place of the need to support our screen production sector, particularly children's TV production. I'm fortunate that in the Warringah electorate we have several producers: Cheeky Little, Kapow Pictures and Stick Pictures. They're putting out award-winning content like Bluey and Kangaroo Beach. But these producers are under threat from regulatory change in response to structural changes in the industry caused by streaming and digitisation. The government, unfortunately, is cutting quotas and other support, and what that means is that there's no backstop. These changes will lead to major employment losses in this industry and could jeopardise some of the iconic content that we and other nations have enjoyed, some of the stories our children have grown up with.

The report recommends that the government introduce legislation to require streaming and video-on-demand services to allocate 20 per cent of their local revenue to Australian content. I strongly support that recommendation, as it will allow our producers to continue to produce high-quality content.

Recommendation 10 is that the National Film and Sound Archive be funded to deal with their issues. They protect our memories; they inform who we are today. With the advent of digitisation, there is much work that needs to be done, and they really need more assistance.

We also need more opportunity. In Warringah we've suffered from a lack of creative arts during the pandemic. Pubs have been empty, theatres have been empty—everything has shut down—so we need programs to reinvigorate the sector. So I strongly support recommendation 20, which is for the elevation and celebration of the arts through a new 'local artistic champions program, akin to the existing Local Sporting Champions Program'. I think this would be very good.

In Warringah we have some fantastic projects developing. We've got the Brookvale Arts District. It has been delayed several times due to COVID, but I'm excited about the transformation that is planned for this industrial area of Brookvale in Warringah. What they have planned is really exciting. It will bring so many opportunities for our local artistic community.

We also have the proposal to convert the Manly council chambers to a music hall. Following the amalgamations that led to Northern Beaches Council, the historic Manly council chambers are underutilised and surplus to requirements. A proposal has been put forward for a project to convert this beautiful building, which is in an ideal location, into a live music venue. I strongly support the idea. It is in a central location, it is adaptable in size—it is an ideal venue and something we are really lacking in Manly. It will expand possibilities for local artists and existing festivals, such as the Manly jazz festival, which, sadly, in the last two years was cancelled due to lockdown measures.

The report is important. It outlines the extent to which the arts were devastated by COVID-19; importantly, it also outlines how the sector responded and pivoted and was kept on life support with online platforms and delivery method; and it also contains these 22 very important recommendations for bringing the sector back to life and ensuring it really does reach the heights it should. These recommendations—in particular, recommendations 8, 10, and 22—are so important. They strongly support the arts; in particular, for Warringah and some of the industries we already have established. The two new concepts for the electorate show great promise and they have my support. We have to recognise that the arts are the lifeblood of community and culture, and we would do well to remember that and provide our support in this place.

Finally, we do need to talk about making sure we have a strong national broadcaster. I do strongly support that there needs to be a recognition of the role that the ABC and SBS play in making sure that there is a platform where our stories are told, that we are not Americanised and that our content is not just from overseas. We need to make sure we tell the Australian stories. We hear a lot about our history curriculum from the government and that we should be celebrating Australian history, yet the government fails to implement policies that will ensure our artistic industries actually can create the content and can tell the stories that celebrate Australian history and culture. So I think there is a hypocritical double standard—as there is on a number of topics—that is advocated by the coalition. So I urge the government to implement the recommendations of this report and to fund the ABC and SBS to ensure we have a strong national broadcaster so that we can tell Australian stories.