The defining term of recent economic debate is “innovation”. Endlessly repeated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it is a bland piece of economic jargon, which vaguely alludes to the creation of wealth through the development and implementation of new ideas. Everyone from Silicon Valley to the CSIRO to annoyingly professional Commerce students are bandying it around.
Underscoring the political class’ excessive use of the term, there is actually a real economic narrative being told. Developed economies used to revolve around manufacturing, but low-skill manufacturing jobs have long since migrated to developing countries or been replaced by machinery and computers. Australia coasted along by digging more and more resources out of the ground, and selling these resources to the countries doing the manufacturing, such as China. However, the price of iron ore, coal and other minerals are currently plummeting. Whist some mineral prices may bounce back, coal, which Australia is particularly dependent upon, clearly does not have a place in future green economies that draw their energy from renewable sources.
So how can we make money in the future? Australia needs to become less dependent on extracting minerals from the earth, and more easily able to extract revenue from the resource between one’s two ears. Since technology is going to render most menial, automatable jobs redundant, humans need to establish our competitive advantage and specialise in what computers can’t do. Firstly, computers can’t program themselves, so people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills will be continue to be highly sought after in the job market. More interestingly for a numerically-illiterate Arts student who dropped maths and science at the end of Year Ten like myself, the other vital skill in the economy of tomorrow will be creativity. A computer cannot determine the aesthetic worth of a graphic design concept, or determine the wittiness of a paragraph of text, or direct an arthouse film for that matter. Creativity is an indispensable ingredient in our economic recipe, which we must maximise to drive economic growth.
So you would think that Malcolm would be singing the praises of creative people, and investing heavily in the arts and cultural sectors, right? Sadly, you would be mistaken. On 13th May, funding cuts to the arts and creative sectors were handed down which can only be described as callously savage. Fifty-three small to medium sized arts organisations had their next four-year funding application rejected. Government grants to individual artists and projects have also fallen 70% since 2013-14. Overall, 128 companies now have to share $28 million per year. Once you do the math, it is a rather small financial pie, cut into extraordinarily small slices. All of this emanates from Abbott government funding cuts to the Australia Council, the independent body which determines which artists are worthy of government funding. With an ever-decreasing budget, the process of acquiring a grant from the Australia Council is becoming increasingly difficult.
One organisation to have its funding application rejected was Express Media, the publisher of magazine Voiceworks. Voiceworks is a literary magazine that publishes work by writers under twenty-five years old, providing an important platform for young writers who otherwise struggle to make their first steps in a volatile industry. Also on the chopping block was Meanjin, a literary journal published since 1940 which has fostered a “who’s who” of great Australian writers – Patrick White, David Malouf, Peter Carey and Clive James to name a few. These publications do not only enrich Australia’s cultural landscape, they provide a vital leg-up for future writers and creative people.
Back when Malcolm was new and shiny, a jubilant visionary not yet emasculated by the constraints of the modern political melee and the omnipotent spectre of his conservative colleagues, the creative sector had cause for optimism. Turnbull is an art collector and benefactor himself, famously owning work by controversial photographer Bill Henson. If innovation was the new slogan, then surely they had much to gain. Innovating or, in plainer terms, creating stuff is kinda exactly what creatives do. Arguably, the most innovative act of all is to create something extraordinary out of very few resources – perhaps some paint and brushes, a script or a stage.
Yet, despite embodying the very definition of innovation, the arts and creative sectors are rarely considered innovative. In an era where the predilections of conservative commentators have become pervasive, it has become a widespread belief that creativity is not a serious pursuit. High school students are told to drop their creative subjects if they hope to attain a high ATAR score. Maths = good, drama = bad, OK? The creative industries are associated with indulgence, decadence and unproductivity, whilst areas such as finance, mining and business are associated with thrift, prudence and responsibility.
It is a testament to the absolute hypocrisy of conservative political ideology that the arts sector does not rate a mention in their economic discourse, yet they sing the praises of outdated industries like coal mining. The “free market” view of the economy which conservatives purport to uphold posits that industries should be independent and not reliant on cash from the government. Yet, the amount of government subsidies received by the mining industry make arts funding look like loose change. The Australia Institute estimates that the fossil fuel industry alone accrues over $10 billion in government subsidies each year – conversely, the federal government will spend just $28 million on theatre, visual art and dance.
Or, in another puzzling comparison, the federal government is spending $600 million on commemorating the ANZAC centenary. Of course, fallen soldiers deserve our upmost respect and deserve to be duly commemorated. But as Guardian columnist Paul Daley notes, “The Australian war dead… are already appropriately memorialised. What a difference that money could make to the living.”
Whilst politicians like Turnbull may paint eloquent verbal pictures of their economic vision, using terms like innovation, free markets and the ironic “jobs and growth”, the proof is always in the pudding. It matters little what politicians say – what they actually do is far more important, especially if the former does not match the latter. With increasingly limited funds to work with, how governments choose to spend money gives us a window into their worldview and shows us what they deem important. Turnbull might say he likes public transport, trees and artwork, but he is funding coal mines, detention centres and corporate tax cuts.
In fact, the only thing truly innovative about Malcolm Turnbull is his use of the term “innovation”. He has quite creatively stripped the word of all of its meaning, casting aside the part which refers to creativity and rebranding it as “basically the same old shit with more smartphone apps.” Thankfully, Labor has committed to restore funding to the Arts Council and other initiatives totalling $138.5 million, whilst the Greens have proposed a $270 million package. But if we are to fulfil our creative potential in this country, we will need more than increased funding. We need to change long held cultural assumptions that creativity and economic viability are mutually exclusive. There is nothing innovative about telling a Year Eleven student to drop Studio Arts and pick up Business Management. There is no economic advantage in suppressing creativity.