A meeting of Australia’s arts ministers ended in a stalemate after the federal government blocked a push from the states to broaden the jobkeeper wage subsidy to help the struggling cultural sector.
Details of the tense meeting came to light as the federal government said it was working on a package to help the arts, entertainment and screen sectors. This could include providing some up-front capital towards new festivals, productions or exhibitions.
A proposed communique, drafted by the states but never published, said the teleconference of the nation’s arts and cultural ministers on Tuesday last week “discussed the significant potential benefit for the sector, from jobkeeper being extended beyond the program’s current expiry date” of September.
The document – seen by Guardian Australia – said ministers also discussed benefits “from its eligibility rules being broadened to support the significant number of organisations, freelance and casual artists and arts workers, and employees of publicly owned or operated arts and cultural facilities that have been unable to access the program”.
The draft also pointed to a potential role for the federal government “in sharing the financial risk” of a staged return to operations for arts and cultural sector organisations, given the challenges presented by physical distancing measures that remained in place.
But the communique was never issued. The Australian Financial Review, which first reported the contents of the leaked draft, said the document went further than what the arts minister, Paul Fletcher, wanted to publish and the meeting ended in a standoff.
The South Australian Liberal premier, Steven Marshall, who was one of the attendees, later took up the issue with Scott Morrison at the national cabinet meeting on Friday, the AFR reported.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, seized on the reports of the ministerial council being unable to produce a communique, saying “the arts and entertainment sector are distraught at them being ignored by this government”.
A spokesperson for Fletcher confirmed the government was currently looking beyond the broad strokes of the jobkeeper and jobseeker schemes to consider sectors – such as the arts, entertainment and screen sectors – which might need longer term support.
Fletcher was “in regular dialogue with the arts, entertainment and screen sectors, to build the government’s understanding of the specific hurdles these sectors may face and pathways for restarting these businesses”.
The spokesperson said the government understood many businesses and organisations had drawn down on their capital reserves during a period of no performances and no revenue.
“When you are putting on a new festival or a new production or a new exhibition, you need to invest substantial capital up front – so a shortage of capital will make it hard to get things started again,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“So we are looking closely at these sorts of hurdles the industry faces as the economy starts to reopen. Getting the industry open again doesn’t just mean jobs for performers or artists, it would mean jobs for crew, for front of house, for people in ticketing and security and marketing and promotions.
“And when people go to shows they go to bars and restaurants and they might well book a hotel room if they have travelled to see the show – so there are spin offs into activity and jobs in sectors like hospitality and travel.”
So far, the federal government’s emergency relief for the arts has consisted of a $27m package announced in April directed to regional organisations, Indigenous organisations and music industry outreach outfit Support Act, and the Australia Council’s repurposing of $5m in existing funding for small, quick-release grants.
The states, meanwhile, have announced arts support packages of various sizes, with Victoria having committed more than $51m across the sector and the New South Wales government recently announcing a $50m “rescue and restart” package.
The government has long resisted calls to expand the eligibility for jobkeeper, even after revelations last month that the six-month wage subsidy scheme was likely to cost $60bn less than originally forecast. Sole traders are eligible for the scheme, but not casuals who have had less than 12 months with the same employer – leaving a large portion of the arts and entertainment sector excluded.
Labor’s arts spokesman, Tony Burke, said the exclusion of many people from jobkeeper had “created some devastation for the last three months” and a lot was riding on the shape of the support package to be announced by the federal government soon. He hoped there would be support for both businesses and workers.
“For three months they’ve been denying that there was a problem here. And if they’re going to do a turnaround that’s a good thing,” Burke told Sky News.
The NSW Liberal premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who has taken on responsibility for arts following the resignation of Don Harwin as minister in April, did not join last week’s Meeting of Cultural Ministers but sent a parliamentary secretary as her representative. Other states and territories were represented by their arts or creative industries ministers. New Zealand was also represented.