Arts industry could wait three more months for Coalition's $250m Covid-19 rescue package

Ben Eltham
·4-min read

The Morrison government’s long-awaited $250m arts package, announced in June, has not been spent yet – and it could take more than three months for the money to start flowing.

In June, after months of calls for government support, Scott Morrison announced a quarter billion-dollar package of federal funding to help the struggling cultural sector – one of the first and hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement included measures such as $90m in commonwealth loan guarantees for cultural businesses; $75m for a program to restart halted tours and productions; $50m in screen funding; and $35m for the Australia Council. The arts minister, Paul Fletcher, has also committed to setting up a creative economy taskforce “to partner with the government and the Australia Council to implement the jobmaker plan for the creative economy”.

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The announcement was welcomed by many but, six weeks on, no help has come. Draft guidelines have been submitted but are awaiting Fletcher’s approval.

“This government was dragged kicking and screaming into announcing a package for the arts after stubbornly insisting – for more than 100 days – that there was no need for it,” Labor’s arts spokesman, Tony Burke, said on Friday.

“While Scott Morrison and Paul Fletcher have moved on to other things, Australia’s creative workers don’t even know whether they are eligible to apply for grants or concessional loans.”

No part of Morrison’s announcement on 25 June appears to have progressed, with none of the funding package available yet. Nor has the Australia Council distributed any of the $35m promised for arts organisations.

Facing questions from the Senate select committee on Covid-19, the first assistant secretary for the arts, Stephen Arnott, told Labor’s Katy Gallagher that the guidelines had been given to Fletcher and were waiting for his ministerial sign-off.

Arnott added that it would be at least “eight to 12 weeks” after the funding guidelines were published before money would flow to the sector – stretching the timeline for the rescue package as late as November.

No one has been appointed to Fletcher’s creative economy taskforce either.

When asked about the status of the package, a spokesperson for Fletcher told Guardian Australia that “the guidelines and processes for the grant and loan programs under the Creative Economy JobMaker package will be released as soon as practicable and are currently well progressed through standard whole of government processes in place relating to spending of public money”.

The slow start to the package comes as Victoria faces a second wave of Covid-19 infections. Senior figures in the performing arts in Melbourne concede it is unlikely theatres, galleries and performing arts venues will reopen before December.

Melbourne Theatre Company co-chief executive Virginia Lovett was forced to cancel months of performances in March, when the first wave of the pandemic hit. The second wave has scotched tentative plans to reopen with performances of As You Like It later this year.

“It’s been a seismic crisis,” she told Guardian Australia. “I don’t know how many scenarios I’ve modelled. Particularly with this new state of disaster announced … The not knowing is very difficult.”

Nicole Beyer from Theatre Network Australia, which represents the stage industry, said her members were worried about when the money would arrive.

“TNA members – whether they are independent artists or large institutions – are waiting anxiously to hear about the guidelines for the various support programs,” she said. “Some organisations are getting close to being insolvent, and this support, which is very welcome, could be the difference between surviving or not. We hope the government will announce timelines very soon, even if the programs aren’t opening yet.”

Jon Perring is the co-owner of Melbourne live music venues Bar Open and The Tote. He is grateful for the support the government has offered so far but is unsure how long the industry can stay afloat.

“All of the government initiatives are saving our bacon right now,” he said. “It’s not just jobkeeper – the Victorian government has come out with the live venues fund, and we’re all applying for that now.

“But how long it keeps us alive for is difficult to say. So many businesses are just not going to make it over the line.”

Perring wants to see the details of the government’s loan guarantees, which are yet to be released. “Where people own substantial assets and they have the ability to refinance, that could be really useful, but we don’t know how the mechanics will work.”

Esther Anatolitis of the National Association for the Visual Arts said that she was “deeply concerned to learn that it is going to take months for that urgently needed stimulus to get to our hard-hit sector.”

“Since March the industry’s been united and clear on what’s needed – that’s nearly five months ago – and the Victorian situation heightens that urgency.”