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There is bipartisan agreement that the closure of the $111 billion (6.4% of GDP) arts and culture sector during COVID, with its extensive cancellation of events and performances, had an unprecedented impact. The closures effected the livelihoods of not only the artists but the workers in hospitality, production and venue management that support the arts and culture industry. Upward of 190,000 jobs, most of them casual positions held by women,are estimated to be impacted because of the shutdown*.

Women working in the arts not only face the same disadvantage as all other women who work or want to work, they are particularity vulnerable as the work is often part time and contract with a lack of standard employment benefits (including sick leave, annual leave) and safety nets. Many are juggling multiple jobs to earn a living wage, face rental stress, high costs of childcare, abuse and in many cases are ineligibility for superannuation payments.

Recent discussions and incidents within the sector have highlighted the heavy toll on mental health across all who work in the sector and how unsafe many, particularly women, feel in their workplace. These challenges are in addition to the ongoing systemic issues of gender inequity and under-representation of people of colour and those living with disabilities in governance structures, artistic leadership and other creative positions including directors, producers, designers, writers, and performers.

For example: 51% of gamers are women but only 19% of game developers are women; of eight national cultural institutions 44% of Board membership is female but only 25% are chaired by women. While The Australian Academy of Cinema and TV Arts Awards has recently announced that it will be mandatory for all entrants to detail how their film and TV programs promote diversity, their Ambassadors, Board, and CEO are all white and of the board only 44% are women.

There has been some progress in theatre. The Australia Council’s Women in Theatre report, released in 2012, revealed shocking numbers: in each year from 2001 at the Major Performing Arts companies, women had made up as little as 16 per cent of playwrights, and as little as 14 per cent of directors. However, because of sector outcry, in the decade since, something remarkable has happened. In 2019, women made up 47 per cent of playwrights and 58 per cent of directors on our mainstages — a radical turnaround from just the decades before. 


Successive Coalition Governments have failed to acknowledge that the arts and culture sector is at the heart of who we are as a nation. Australians in all their diversity want to listen to and see Australian stories and art. 98% of Australians participate in and enjoy the arts.

Compared with our international OECD peers, Australia has one of the lowest levels of expenditure on public culture; we are ranked 26 out of 33 members**. The sector drives so many elements of our country including perceptions of and interrogation of our history and culture, building generations of creative thinkers and innovation, improving learning outcomes for our precious children, tourism, health and wellbeing, recovery from natural disasters, and the creation of great liveable cities, towns, and communities.

Most importantly Coalition Governments have failed to recognise and support our First Nations Artists, who for over 60,000 years have been our greatest story tellers through art, music, dance, and storytelling.

In practical terms, this has meant no national cultural plan, under-funding of our national cultural institutions including the ABC, SBS, The Australia Council for the Arts, Screen Australia, and Institutions (including the National Gallery, Museum and Library, Australian Film and Television School and Screen Australia) - organisations that should be leading the national cultural conversation for which the Federal Government are responsible.

Reduced Federal funding and additional productivity funding cuts have seen less funding available to the Australia Council to support the key to our future artistic success – the independent artists and small to medium companies a drastic reduction in the number of small to medium funded companies. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Australia Council grants for individuals dropped by a staggering 70 per cent, from 1340 to 405 and, over 70 small to medium companies have been defunded.


Whilst the Federal Government's COVID recovery funding for the sector has been most welcome it has been slow to materialise, is not meeting demand, in many cases is underfunding carefully developed budgets. Similarly additional touring funds are not meeting demand which remains despite temporary interruption from COVID.

Responsibility for cultural expenditure is split more evenly between the levels of government than it was a decade ago. As a proportion of the total, the federal government now contributes 39.0 per cent, down from 45.7 per cent, while state and territory governments contribute 34.8 per cent, up from 31.9 per cent, and local governments contribute 26.2 per cent, up from 22.4 per cent. Between 2007 and 2018 there has been a modest 3.9 per cent per capita rise from state and territory governments and an 18.9 per cent reduction in per capita federal funding for cultural activity. **

And yet there is still no National Cultural Plan.

The 2021 Federal budget did not address the underfunding of the ABC, SBS and the Australia Council for the Arts which means they are at risk of not being able to fulfil their legislated role.

Most additional new funding for our National Cultural Institutions was for infrastructure and not programs.

The recognition of mental health issues within the sector with additional support for Support Act is also welcome but without a National Cultural Plan with a long-term commitment to the sector - the uncertainty which underpins these health issues will continue. The budget also fails to put in place policies that will ensure equity in terms of gender, cultural diversity, and disability representation at all levels across Federally funded organisations.

Despite women in the arts losing their jobs at almost twice the rate men the Coalition Government’s budget response did nothing to help these women.

At EMILY’s List we often talk about the impact of having women at the decision-making tables is a broader, more representative legislative program. The 2021 Federal budget is what happens when women’s safety and economic security is not seen as a priority. We need more progressive women representing us in our houses of parliament.  Are you able to support EMILY's List women to gain access to the corridors of power? Donate to EMILY’s List 


*Source: Philanthropy Australia. **Source: A New Approach 2019



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