It was a grim federal budget for arts and culture on Tuesday night.
With the end of the Morrison government’s pandemic stimulus program for culture, the RISE fund, there will be a rapid withdrawal of federal support for cultural production.
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The arts portfolio budget line will contract by 19%, or around A$190 million, this year. A number of funding programs and cultural institutions are also seeing their funding reduced in the budget estimates. There are cuts to programs for regional arts, community broadcasting, contemporary music, Screen Australia and the National Library of Australia.
No love for literature
In such an austere environment, it should come as no surprise that there is no love for publishing or literature in the budget. There were no new announcements to support the writing. Funding is increasing slightly for the Australian Arts Council and the crucial Public Lending Right grant, which supports authors and publishers whose works are borrowed from libraries and schools. However, these small increases are well below inflation, which is expected to be 4.25% this year, which amounts to reductions in real terms.
The cuts to the National Library of Australia in the 2022 budget are quite significant. The Library is dropping from $61 million in funding this year to just $47 million in 2025-26. The National Library is a cornerstone of the Australian public sphere. It contains priceless artifacts, letters and documents. It is required by law to collect all books published in Australia. It also supports valuable research infrastructure, such as its award-winning Trove database, which served 18 million browsers in 2021. These reductions will inevitably erode the library’s capacity and likely lead to job losses for librarians. in the years to come.
But the National Library’s treatment is consistent with a history of continued neglect for written culture in Australia. When it comes to public funding, literature has long been the poor cousin of the arts.
Unlike the performing arts, which receives a dedicated funding stream within the Australian Council, literature receives very little federal support. In 2020-21, the Australia Council awarded just $4.7 million in literature grants, or 2.4% of the total funding pool last year. In contrast, major performing arts organizations received $120 million.
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Falling funding for writing and publishing
Funding for writing and publishing isn’t just low, it’s also shrinking. In 2014, the Australia Council’s funding for literature was $8.9 million, almost double what it is this year. That year, Get Reading!, a $1.6 million program (originally called Books Alive!) dedicated to promoting reading, especially among children, was dropped. Industry observers point to the demise of the Australia Council’s art forms boards after the Gillard government reforms in 2013, which saw the agency’s Specialized Literature Council disbanded. There was no dedicated literature funding program to replace it.
Federal lending rights regimes are important. They will distribute $23 million this year, a valuable grant for authors and publishers. But the program is slowly losing relevance because – surprisingly – it doesn’t cover e-lending or e-book borrowing. The Australian Society of Authors and Publishers wants the scheme extended to digital lending.
Political neglect like this is a long-standing problem for the literary industry. During the Coalition’s first term, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to establish a special body to support and fund Australian publishing, called the Book Council of Australia, with an initial budget of $6 million per year.
But the new agency was never created. With the Book Council killed off at the proposal stage, promised publishing funding never materialized either, fading in a puff of smoke in the 2015 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
In 2018, as part of the Turnbull government’s media reforms, Senate MPs reached an agreement to secure $60 million in funding for regional publishers and media organizations. Of this amount, $16 million went to small regional media under the Innovation Fund for Small Regional Publishers. Like Get Reading, this fund also ended and there was no similar program for Australian literary and non-fiction publishers.
Arts Minister Paul Fletcher’s RISE fund has provided some help. There was funding for publishers and booksellers, such as an innovative voucher system for Australian books. But RISE will also be dissolved at the end of this exercise.
The result is a writing sector that faces crushing austerity. A recent survey of authors by the Australian Society of Authors revealed understandable pessimism among its members, who include some of Australia’s best-known novelists, poets and non-fiction writers. “Our members are feeling very flat on funding,” ASA’s Olivia Lanchester told me in a message. “We are the least funded of the major art forms through the Australian Council despite high reading participation rates.”
The precarious situation of Australian writers was graphically highlighted in late 2020, in House of Representatives testimony by prominent Australian novelists Charlotte Wood and Christos Tsiolkas.
Wood told a House of Representatives inquiry into Australia’s cultural sector that “writers themselves are in dire economic straits”. She cited figures that the annual income of literary writers from their books was only $4,000 a year. “This work is piecemeal, independent, poorly paid and highly unstable.” Wood pointed out that “COVID is destroying the livelihoods of writers in many ways” and explained that the pandemic is “eviscerating three main sources of income for writers outside of their books, which are public speaking, l University Teaching and Freelance Writing”.
Tsiolkas told the inquest that the young writers he had recently spent time with faced “desperate real-life situations – how they will pay their rent and how they will take care of their young children”.
Read more: Gail Jones: Australian literature is chronically underfunded — here’s how to help it thrive
Australia doesn’t need to treat its readers and writers like that. We are a wealthy nation with a federal budget of half a trillion dollars. Even a dramatic increase in funding, for all aspects of Australian culture, would be a rounding error in the context of other budget priorities, such as nuclear submarines or ‘phase-one’ income tax cuts. 3″ coming in 2024.
Australian writing is extremely popular. Australian stories are central to how we understand ourselves as citizens and as a nation. Australian-authored books sell well, as anyone who has attended a Trent Dalton Bookstore event can attest. Data from the Australia Council tells us that 72% of the population read regularly for pleasure. More than four million Australians visited a writers’ festival or literary event in 2019.
Like other art forms in this country, literature has struggled to make itself heard among the cacophony of special interests in Canberra. But literature is not a particular interest: it is a constituent component of our national identity, and a deep source of pleasure for millions of citizens. Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. If anyone should be able to understand this, it is our politicians.