‘A calculated insult’: Industry reacts to government axing Department of Communications and the Arts

Late last week, Scott Morrison’s federal government announced it would be abolishing the Department of Communications and the Arts in a bid to create more “efficiency”. Communications will now be housed along with Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, while the ‘Arts’ doesn’t appear to have a departmental home. Mumbrella’s editor Vivienne Kelly speaks to - well, attempts to speak to - industry leaders to figure out what it all means.

Beyond people catching public transport and using infrastructure to attend key moments in our cities’ and regions’ arts and cultural offerings, few people could immediately digest why the Department of Communications and the Arts will now sit alongside Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.

Sure, infrastructure and communications tools like the NBN – should it do what it’s supposed to – could help the regions develop into business, cultural and population hubs. But with the ‘Arts’ no longer being named in a Federal government department, chatter seemed to be that this important societal backbone would be lost in a sea of “super departments” and a government obsessed by jobs and growth.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new structure will drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges.

“Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people,” he said in the announcement.

Morrison: ‘Busting congestion’

In a press conference about the changes, SBS reported the PM as saying, “in [the] area of communications, [we’ll get] a strong synergy between what’s happening in communications policies, communications, infrastructure delivery and regional Australia.” But he did not mention the arts.

The Australian Writers’ Guild immediately spoke out. It is dismayed by the decision, with the arts said to generate $111.7bn in economic activity per year. The body said the move shows a lack of respect and appreciation for the arts, which is “deeply concerning”.

Jane Caro, founder of Jara Consulting and former copywriter for FCB, Saatchi & Saatchi and The Campaign Palace, went further, saying it’s a calculated insult.

“My overwhelming impression of the move by the PM to fold arts and communication in with roads and transport (not to mention education with employment, and environment – while NSW chokes on smoke – into energy) is what a calculated insult it is,” she tells Mumbrella.

“It is a sneer of epic proportions. It reminds me of Tony Abbott making himself Minister for Women – also an unequivocal statement about who he regarded with contempt. Whatever the practical repercussions there will be – and none of them will be good – it is the blow to the morale of all the people in all these sectors (many of them women) that will be felt first and have long-term consequences.

Caro: ‘It’s a sneer of epic proportions’

“A society that does not value arts, communication, education and the environment is not a society that will create anything of any worth.”

Few others within the media, marketing, advertising and PR sector, however, have been willing to come out swinging, or even make some kind of measured movement.

Seven West Media said it was “not concerned” by the move, while Screen Australia, WPP AUNZ, Australian Radio Network, Nine and at least 20 senior industry leaders declined to comment. Southern Cross Austereo, Nova, and Ten didn’t respond to comment requests.

Seven’s head of regulatory and government affairs, Justine McCarthy, did, however, use it as an opportunity to advocate for a different kind of change.

“SWM is not concerned with the merging of the Department of Communications into the Department of Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Administrative public service determinations such as these are matters for the government.

“What we are concerned about is the urgent need for real policy reform in the communications sector, including acting on the recommendations of the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report, and reform to Australian Content regulation.”

Various other MDs, CEOs and leaders declined to comment with reasons varying from the abrupt “this is not something I will comment on”, to the honest “I don’t have a strong point of view about it”, and the more optimistic “In general I don’t think the value of our industry depends on government department shifts or changes. It comes from how well we can help clients grow and have an impact”.

Matt Holmes, the co-founder and executive creative director of Poem, was also aware the full effects of the changes are yet to play out, but concedes it’s hard not to get emotional about it.

Holmes: The emotional vs the rational

“The emotional part of me is certainly concerned to hear of the decision to lump Communications and Arts in with the likes of Roads and Rail,” he says. “For me, creative communications ideas are born from culture which is also vital in attracting the best talent to the industry.

“The rational says to wait for more information about the implications, but that’s in part caused by how poorly this has been communicated by the government in initial statements. As an ex-pat who has made a life here being part of championing the creative industry and punching above our weight, I’ll defer to Sir Winston Churchill who was a leader that understood the power of communications and importance of the arts: ‘The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them’.

“I’d love to see more not less focus on inspiring curious minds of all kinds in the next generation through creativity, innovation and education.”

Dan Stinton, managing director of The Guardian Australia, is similarly unsure how it will play out.

“It sends a bad signal that arts is no longer part of the department name, but it’s difficult to know the practical implications on the arts and communications industries at this time. We will need further information from the government to determine whether the efficiencies and improvements that are being claimed bear any fruit,” he says.

While Soraya Calavassy, director and co-founder of Neon Black, can hear some alarm bells ringing.

Calavassy wants the industry to flourish

“It’s certainly going to be a balancing act for the government to roll these very different departments into one unified group under the guise of efficiency. This announcement shows a clear set of priorities and raises alarm bells, with communications seemingly an add-on to the department, and arts removed altogether. My hope is that this new department doesn’t remove vital resourcing and funding for Communications and Arts and continues to give our industry the opportunity to grow, innovate and flourish.”

While the noise from the industry may thus far be quiet, as it waits to digest what it actually means beyond bureaucracy, another figure who was willing to lend his voice to the dissent was – perhaps unsurprisingly – the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s (MEAA) chief executive Paul Murphy.

“This government’s disdain for the arts has reached a new low. It did not release an arts policy at this year’s federal election, and its attitude has been cut, cut, cut,” he says via a statement.

“The arts also play a fundamental role in telling stories about contemporary Australia. But as we have seen with the erosion of the public’s right to know and attacks on press freedom, this is a government that is intent on silencing the storytellers, particularly those who confront it with on issues it would rather keep hidden.”


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