Time to give back to our creative workers

AAR Tony Burke MPThe last time Australia faced a crisis, our arts community helped bring the nation together in support of people doing it tough. As our country burned over the summer, our artists and entertainers used their talents and time to raise money for people who had lost loved ones, livelihoods and homes – and for the brave volunteers who fought the flames.

Musicians played for free at fundraising concerts, from the huge Fire Fight Australia to smaller gigs all over the country. Writers used social media to auction off their work to raise money for firefighters. Comedian Celeste Barber raised tens of millions of dollars through her extraordinary appeal. Countless others donated proceeds and income.

It was an inspirational reminder of just how much our local artists and entertainers care about our country and contribute to our social fabric. They enrich our lives and our nation. A few short months later, they’re facing their own crisis.

The coronavirus will be a wrecking ball through their industry, particularly for those who rely on live performance. Most performers are quite literally “gig workers”: no show means no income. The same goes for the people who help put their shows together.

So the rolling cancellations we’re seeing won’t just hurt musicians, comedians and theatre actors. They will hurt everyone who works behind the scenes too: producers, roadies, technical crew, managers, publicists, security guards, venue and hospitality staff. The cancellations will hurt orchestras, galleries and festival organisers. They will send some venues to the brink.

Already an estimated 20,000 events have been cancelled across the country. According to the website I Lost My Gig – set up to track the impact of this rolling crisis – those cancellations have affected about 380,000 jobs and 65,000 gigs, robbing people of $150m in income. That’s from just the first couple of weeks of this crisis, which could go on for many months.

Live Performance Australia predicts that over the next three months the industry will lose $500m in revenue and thousands of jobs will be shed. This would be nothing short of catastrophic for this industry.

Normally when this industry goes through tough times, people turn to work in the hospitality sector. For many that won’t be possible this time, as that industry, too, faces enormous challenges as the crisis takes hold.

There are some things you can do to help. If you’ve had an event cancelled, think about spending your refund, or some of it at least, on some merchandise from the Australian band or artist you were going to see. It could be many months until they’re able to perform again – meaning it could be many months until they get paid again. Try to buy directly from the artist to avoid rip-offs.

If you’re spending time at home self-isolating or practicing social distancing, make sure you stream Australian music. Watch Australian movies. Buy and read Australian books. You can also donate to an organisation such as Support Act, a terrific non-profit that supports artists and crew who are doing it tough.

I urge all Australians to do what they can. But the stark reality is this: whatever ordinary Australians do, it won’t be enough. The Morrison government has to step in.

Australia’s arts sector was already fragile before the coronavirus crisis after nearly seven years of cuts and neglect. This is, after all, the same government that just a month ago downgraded arts policy and moved it into the same department responsible for regional development and transport.

When the government announced its first stimulus package last week it included specific measures for the tourism industry – which is undoubtedly on the frontlines of this crisis and needs all the help it can get. But so does our arts and entertainment industry.

Thanks in part to the government’s cuts, many performing arts companies have wafer-thin margins. They don’t have the buffer to ride this crisis out. We welcome the decision by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher to meet on Wednesday with industry representatives. But we need action, not just talk.

The government should follow the lead of Germany and Britain, both of which have announced specific support for their arts sectors. Without a plan, this is an industry that could be brought to the brink within weeks. It’s an industry critical to our national identity, which we can’t afford to lose. It needs certainty and support urgently.

Time to give back to our creative workers
Tony Burke MP – Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations; Shadow Minister for the Arts; Manager of Opposition Business; and Member for Watson

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Thursday 19 March 2020

Image: Tony Burke MP (supplied)