You’ve had a long and tiring day at work. You catch the train home and take out your phone to watch a movie, but they killed off the script writers and set designers so it’s like watching charades when you’re drunk. You get home. You switch the kettle on for a cuppa and load up your laptop to play a game, but the coders have been sent home. On the TV, there’s only the news. The newsreader is monotonous because the speechwriters were sacked. You flick through a magazine. The photos look like something you might have taken when you were eight and the page layout reminds you of your gran’s scrapbook. You think about picking up a novel, but the writers were the first to go, because they were the most outspoken. There are no longer any novels. You sigh, sit on the floor with your tea and pick at the carpet.
Welcome to a world without creativity. The one which our Liberal government is engineering.
Those of you who follow happenings in the arts might have realised that things have been kind of awful over the past few years. The fact that I’ve had to write two submissions to public inquiries in under twelve months signals that artists and writers are under siege.
Last year I protested against the savage cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts, the national funding body for artists, and the establishment of the National Program for Excellent in the Arts, which wasted money by duplicating administration and has definitely not made its decisions with transparency, as with the Australia Council. The effects of these cuts have meant that many arts organisations, particularly those that are small, are struggling to remain viable. From little things, big things grow, but we’re never going to have the next Cate Blanchett or Patrick White if there are no fertile plots of earth from which to spring.
And this time I have written a submission on the Productivity Commission’s draft report on copyright.
The Productivity Commission is arguing that we should remove Parallel Import Restrictions. Currently, books are published in Australia by Australian publishing houses. If this restriction is removed, this means that cheaper editions by international publishers can be imported and sold alongside the Australian editions.
What’s wrong with that? I hear people asking. Surely cheaper books means more readers?
The problem is that it means less money for Australian publishers, which means they can’t afford to support as many Australian writers, which means fewer Australian stories. This has already happened in New Zealand – they removed PIR a few years ago and their literary industry has been decimated. The UK and the USA have, unsurprisingly, not gone down this route.
Fewer Australian stories also means less diversity. Over the twenty years that I’ve been writing, not only have I seen writers’ incomes dwindle (my own included), but publishers have become increasingly conservative and averse to risk. This often means that voices which are not mainstream are missing out.
Why should we care?
I have read time and time again how children love to see themselves reflected in books, particularly if they have a disability, are queer, or Indigenous, or have a migrant background. Melina Marchetta, author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca explains this situation well (and her whole blog post on this issue is worth reading too):
If these copyright rules are changed, kids today are back in a world similar to the one I grew up in; reading fantastic novels about places over there, but needing something more. I wrote Looking For Alibrandi from a selfish place. I wanted to see me on the pages of a book, because I loved reading and I loved film, but I never felt that I counted outside my extended family and my high school friends. I wanted to be part of a bigger identity.
Imagine if this situation is replicated on a larger scale, and Australians can’t even see themselves in their books at all. If we want Australian stories, we need to nurture Australian authors.
And now I hear a people clamouring to ask: why should taxpayers pay for artists? To which I reply: give me an industry which is not supported by the government in some way – what of mining, farming and manufacturing, for example? The investment in artists is miniscule (the Australia Council granted approximately $200 million in 2013/14), but the payoffs are huge: the GDP of the creative sector was valued at $86 billion in 2014. I appreciate that artists and writers are not the whole of the creative sector, but they make a significant contribution, and their prizes, grants and training are taxed, unlike sportspeople who also contribute to the entertainment industry, but get a free ride.
These cuts are indicative of a wider contempt for freedom of speech and expression. As I watch the Liberal government in action, I keep returning to novelist Anna Funder’s words when she accepted the Miles Franklin award for All That I Am (a novel about the encroachment of Nazism) the same day that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman axed the state’s literary awards: ‘I have spent my professional life studying totalitarian regimes and the brave people who speak out against them, and the first thing that someone with dictatorial inclinations does is to silence the writers and the journalists.’
Tellingly, in the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts there was no mention of funding for writers, and the cuts to the Australia Council are already having ramifications. In the recent UNESCO report on climate change, every mention of Australia (and the appalling state of the Great Barrier Reef) was excised. Journalists are referred to the police, and doctors and teachers are gagged, for speaking about asylum seekers and detention centres.
It isn’t difficult to join up the dots. In this current political climate, writers and readers are threats. As Richard Flanagan said in his speech at the Australian Book Industry Awards on 19th May 2016, ‘Who benefits from ignorance and silence other than the most powerful and the richest?’
A person who reads is a person who is informed. A person who is informed is a person who can challenge and argue. A person who challenges is a person who participates in democracy. Quelle surprise, then, that Turnbull, who has retreated miserably from his bold pitch for ideas and innovation, is invested in killing off the people who provide differing viewpoints: Australia’s writers.
The answer, as Richard Flanagan said, is simple: ‘If you care at all about books don’t vote Liberal at this election. If you care at all about what books mean, don’t vote Liberal. If you value how books can enrich lives, don’t vote Liberal. If you think Australian books matter to an Australian society, don’t vote Liberal.’
I will be voting for the Arts Party, even though I usually vote Greens. The party was set up in 2013 to support the arts industry & has the endorsement of luminaries such as Bryan Brown. Australia's writers have also spoken out angrily against the threats to our industry, and have the support of huge international names such as Jonathon Franzen and Jeanette Winterson.
Above all, though, we need to continue to read and to buy Australian books and support Australia’s authors. As Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things, said in her acceptance speech for the Stella Prize:
It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age – an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies. I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness: it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know.
Read. Think. Speak. Vote.