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The Health Wrap: from the arts to the Olympics, some deep diving

The Federal Government’s lack of support for the arts sector during the COVID pandemic follows longstanding funding cuts and policy neglect, reports Associate Professor Lesley Russell in her latest edition of The Health Wrap.

And yet the pandemic has underscored the importance of the arts for our wellbeing in so many ways – in lifting our spirits, providing insights and contributing materially to the pandemic response through effective communications.

Russell also reports on a review of the National Medicines Policy and shares some observations from the couch, including reflections on what it might take to make the Brisbane Olympics a health-promoting event.


Lesley Russell writes:

This edition of The Health Wrap is taking a deep dive into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Australian arts sector.

This is not an area where I have any expertise; I’m just a consumer of a wide array of the arts. Like many, I have really missed live performances and visits to museums and art galleries. I have rejoiced in the few occasions when I have been able to enjoy these in between lockdowns, and I have participated in a range of arts activities online.

I’ve found comfort and inspiration and solace in all this and in the amazing array of arts initiatives that are tweeted around.

Arts and the pandemic

Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultural traditions on the planet, and some of the world’s most renowned actors, musicians and artists. The sector provides enormous economic value and social prestige to the nation.

The Whitlam Government promoted the idea of arts as a public good with a strong role for government in funding and promoting it. That era created norms – still widely held among Australian people – about the centrality and importance of the arts to Australia’s identity.

However, this has since eroded. Now, by international standards, Australia ranks low in its funding support for the arts and culture. The OECD average for government expenditure on the cultural sector is 1.2 percent of annual GDP; Australia contributes just 0.9 percent.

The arts and cultural activities have always served as inspirational and unifying forces, and so this has proved during the pandemic. We need the arts in a time of crisis, and the sector is making important contributions to mental health, community resilience, and the nation’s future economic recovery.

So it’s shocking to realise it took over 100 days from the onset of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns before the Prime Minister mentioned the word “arts” as it related to any meaningful financial support package, or any kind of rhetoric as a show of support for a sector that was one of the hardest hit.

A timeline

Just days after Australia went into lockdown in March 2020, the Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher convened a meeting with state arts ministers to talk about the dire situation facing thousands of unemployed arts workers.

A $27 million package was announced in April 2020 for regional artists, Indigenous visual arts organisations and Support Act which provides financial support and counselling to artists and crew who have seen their work and livelihoods dry up.

But it was not until June 2020 that the Prime Minister, accompanied by Guy Sebastian,  announced a $250 million Creative Economy Jobmaker Package.

This package was seen as preferencing larger events, organisations included in the major performing arts framework, and film and television production. It was estimated to deliver $417 per arts sector worker. But many artists and arts workers were ineligible for both this scheme and JobKeeper.

On 17 July 2020, the Government announced an additional $400 million for the Location Incentive to attract large budget international film and television productions to Australia over the next seven years.

In August 2020 the Morrison Government established the Creative Economy Taskforce to assist with the implementation of JobMaker Package.

But it was also reported that guidelines were awaiting the Minister’s sign off (that was eventually done on 31 August) and that money would not begin to flow for some eight to 12 weeks after that. That was optimistic!

And it turns out the taskforce was only providing strategic advice on the $75m Rise (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) fund siting within the $250m package, and it would not be party to decisions made over where the money would go. Those decisions would remain with the Minister.

In September 2020 the Government announced $22.9 million for major cultural institutions:

  • $2.3 million for the Australian Film Television and Radio School
  • $2.0 million for the Australian National Maritime Museum
  • $2.5 million for the National Film and Sound Archive
  • $4.5 million for the National Gallery of Australia
  • $5.4 million for the National Library of Australia
  • $3.9 million for the National Museum of Australia
  • $1.2 million for the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, and
  • $1.1 million for Screen Australia.

In early October 2020 Minister Fletcher claimed some of the $250 million emergency arts funding package had finally started flowing.

But at Senate Estimates later that month senior department officials confirmed that only $49.5 million of the rescue package had so far been allocated, to underwrite the film industry which was facing an insurance crisis.

Guy Sebastian, who had been pilloried by some for his previous involvement, asked Morrison for a “please explain”.

I believe that the money from JobMaker finally started to flow in November. Here’s what I have been able to determine:

  • The Show Starter Loan Scheme was re-announced and finally launched in December 2020. It is now closed.
  • All of the $50 million for the Temporary Interruption Fund was administered by Screen Australia. On 11 April 2021, it was announced the TIF would be extended for a further six months, without further funding.
  • The first grants under the $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund were made in December 2020. Since then, three more funding rounds have been made, totalling around 250 grants. You can see who received funding here. In March 2021 a $125 million extension of the fund until 31 December 2021 was announced. The website indicates that $60 million in funds remain.
  • The $35 million Arts Sustainability Fund is targeted to “significant Australian Government funded arts organisations” to help them remain solvent. The first funding announcements were made in February 2021. You can see what has been funded
  • Crisis relief cash grants of $2000 ($2700 for families with dependent children) are available through Support Act. In March 2021 a further $10 million was provided for this effort.

In line with these findings, the chief executive of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), Paul Murphy, recently stated that Federal Government support for the arts is “woefully inadequate and too slow coming”.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn from the Morrison government’s poor response is that it does not understand the nature of employment in the arts sector, and it does not value the enormous contribution the sector makes,” he said.

What research shows

The Keeping Creative report from researchers at the University of South Australia looked at federal and state responses to the impact of the pandemic on arts and culture during 2020.

It makes a pretty damning assessment of the federal response, finding that the Morrison Government has failed to recognise that approximately 81 percent of all artists in Australia are not “salaried employees” but often have precarious and intermittent work patterns.

“Given the level of outcry from arts and cultural organisations and advocacy bodies around the exclusionary nature of the eligibility criteria, coupled with the longer history of defunding, it was widely assumed this was less about a lack of understanding and more an ideological decision,” the report states.

Among the states, the report found that Victoria performed the best with a mix of strategies for supporting both cultural and creative workers and large, medium and small-scale cultural infrastructure and enterprises.

However, overall state funding for the arts “reveals a general trend towards large-scale arts and cultural infrastructure, rather than direct-to-artist grant funding”.

The Keeping Creative report called on all levels of Australian governments not to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, or over-focus on large organisations when formulating support for the arts.

If big companies and productions are struggling through these times – and they are – how much worse it is for small arts companies and businesses and individuals artists and support staff?

Beyond the pandemic – creativity in crisis

Like healthcare and education, the arts sector has hopes that, as the pandemic recedes, a “new deal” might emerge that would redress over a decade of funding cuts and an accelerating decline in public policy worth for the sector.

But the future looks increasingly uncertain.

A recent report from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, commissioned by the MEAA, warns that the arts and entertainment industry faces serious, long-term damage from the pandemic, without a new, ambitious, sustained program of public investment in the arts.

Entitled “Creativity in Crisis: Rebooting Australia’s Arts and Entertainment Sector After COVID”, the report found that the pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already endemic in the sector.

The report (read the article mentioned in the tweet above here) makes a number of policy recommendations which are backed up by supporting economic data.

The Keeping Creative report outlines three main principles that should underpin good arts policy-making. These are:

  • Vocal and positive government support and taking a strong position that arts and culture work is “real work”, of substantive public value
  • A more precise understanding of the sub-sectors that comprise the cultural workforce (particularly the actual numbers of freelance, casual and gig-work employed)
  • Funding that is strategically directed and provides real, positive and ongoing financial safeguards that deliver security without compromising artistic integrity and creative vision.

As a junior ministry, the Arts has never been its own standalone department, but has rather been shunted around various parent bodies depending on the whim of the government of the day.

It currently sits within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. No wonder it is lost from government view!


National Medicines Policy under review

A review of the National Medicines Policy (NMP) will begin this month. This was first announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt back in October 2019.

It’s interesting that there has been little, if any, public acknowledgement that this review – where consumer and patient involvement will be so important – is finally beginning. Hunt made the announcement at a Medicines Australia event in Parliament House.

The review committee and the terms of reference are here.

Such a review is timely given that the current NMP is now over two decades old. The NMP was first launched in 1999.  It has four policy objectives around the needs of government, the pharmaceutical industry and consumers:

  • Timely access to the medicines that Australians need, at a cost individuals and the community can afford
  • Medicines meeting appropriate standards of quality, safety and efficacy
  • Quality use of medicines, and
  • Maintaining a responsible and viable medicines industry.

Experts in the area have been calling for a broad review of the NMP and its progress in achieving its objectives for some time.

An article in The Medical Journal of Australia in 2019 called for such a review, on the basis that, “Even if the four pillars in the original policy stand the test of time, the issues around them have evolved.”

The authors suggested some issues to include in the review:

  • Pharmaceutical waste disposal and environmental protection
  • Management and disposal of unsafe and unwanted medicines
  • Antimicrobial resistance and antibiotics
  • Information technology, data analysis, web-based systems; electronic media
  • Patient responsibility and health literacy
  • Health workforce planning and development
  • Intellectual property, and
  • Globalisation, international cooperation and global health issues.

Another article published in February 2020 also laid out a similar list of the issues that must be considered for NMP 2.0. These include:

  • A patient-centred focus – especially for vulnerable populations
  • Medication safety – systems to monitor this and alignment with the WHO Global Patent Safety Challenge: Medication without harm
  • Cost and access – out-of-pocket costs, addressing supply shortages
  • Digital health – e-health records, electronic medication management, better use of health data
  • Stakeholder partnerships and collaboration – to support policy implementation, and
  • Legislation – updated regulatory frameworks to support the increasing complexity of therapeutic interventions.

On the Olympic Games

The Sydney lockdown has provided me and many others with the perfect excuse to spend hours watching the Olympic sports.

I’ve always been a bit of an Olympic Games nut (I still have my childhood scrapbooks from 1956 and 1960). Even after seeing behind the scenes, up close and personal, during my tenure as Director of Communications on the Sydney Organising Committee (which meant interactions with the IOC and the AOC), I remain enthusiastic for the sports, if not the organising.

I’ve really loved the sportsmanship and courage on display, on so many ways, this year.

Will all the excitement and drama turn couch potatoes into exercise enthusiasts?

A paper from a team headed by Professor Adrian Bauman at the University of Sydney published in The Lancet in July, looked at the impact of the Olympic Games on population levels of physical activity (the paper is behind a paywall but there’s a good abstract).

Sadly they found that the Olympic Games have not improved population-wide physical activity – but they see this as an important missed public health opportunity that could be addressed with partnerships across the Olympic organisations, sports bodies, and public health agencies.

Would we/could we see this in Brisbane in 2032?

One thing we really do not want to see in Brisbane is the sort of blatant advertising of unhealthy products that seem to be a regular feature of major sporting events.

As an article on the PHAA Intouch Public Health blog (republished by Croakey) states: Junk food companies have no place on the Olympic sponsorship podium.

One good thing to emerge from the Tokyo Games is a better recognition of the impacts of mental health stress (abetted in some cases by physical and sexual abuse from coaches and people in positions of trust and too often not helped by mainstream and social media commentary).

An opinion piece in the BMJ looks at how Simone Biles’ bravery is a lesson in leadership for everyone, showing the courage it takes to step back and the vulnerability is not a failure. It looks at what doctors might learn from her actions.

The author writes:

Accepting imperfection is hard and something that, like athletes, doctors are famously bad at…

We are cultivated in a medical school environment that is a fertile ground for competition, pitting us against one another, creating a partisan world of winners and losers…

This method…significantly limits us from being “good doctors” – to our patients, to our colleagues, but arguably most importantly, to ourselves.

When faced with the inevitable failure that doctoring brings, we are all too often woefully unprepared for the emotional fall out this brings, and the realisation that we are flawed, imperfect humans who will make mistakes.”

Finally, there are lots of heroes and lots of stories around the Olympics – and we haven’t even got to the Paralympics yet.

How about Matt Stutzman, an armless archer who shoots with his feet? This video is pretty amazing.


The best of Croakey

Don’t miss reading about how member organisations of South East Queensland’s Institute for Urban Indigenous Health have been instrumental in keeping their communities safe, as described by CEO Adrian Carson.


The good news story

I have to be topical, and present all those feel-good stories from the Olympic Games.

Here is just a selection, as chosen by others:

And the Paralympic Games are coming up August 24 – September 5.


Croakey thanks and acknowledges Dr Lesley Russell for providing this column as a probono service to our readers. Follow her on Twitter at @LRussellWolpe.

Previous editions of The Health Wrap can be read here.


See Croakey’s archive of stories on healthcare and health reform.

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