Victim of the Liberal government: the arts

The Morrison Government’s decision to abolish the Department of Communication and the Arts and merge it into a super department called the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications has been met with widespread dismay.

— Opening paragraph of Richard Watts’ Disappearing arts department: politicians respond.

When I think of the arts medium (music, writing, visual arts, etc.), I don’t tend to lob it into the same category of transport or infrastructure. Communications, maybe, but strung within the whopping merger the Morrison government facilitated (the Department of ITRDC — evidently, someone needs to work on their acronyms), it hardly represents creativity. Context matters, after all.

The purpose of the federal department merger? According to Morrison, it will “bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people”. I’m sure this would come in handy, if only it were merged into a significantly more appropriate department. Imagine the lead team of ITRDC, used to receiving notes and orders based on their work with building and transport, suddenly receiving copious amounts of communiques regarding Forever Marilyn. I’m sure there are already suitable processes in place for white collars wearing blue tradie undershirts, but such thoughts hardly inspire the confidence of the arts community of Australia. Especially when no one in the government even bothered to consult Secretary of the once-Department of Communications and the Arts Mr Mike Mrdak on the change — given his AO, perhaps he would have been worth keeping as Secretary of ITRDC.

It feels like the arts are under attack again. Government officials are adamant that no change to funding or commitment to the arts will occur. But this is the same group that, according to Richard Watts, “failed to release a detailed arts policy in the lead-up to the 2019 Federal election; nor did they present an arts policy at the two Federal elections prior.”

The thought occurred to me that these changes seemingly spark only at the end of the year, as students leave their secondary colleges or TAFE ready to head to university or vocational education and join the workforce. Somewhat ironically, it was around this time three years ago I wrote a young, naïve, and desperate email to my local MP Lisa Chesters just weeks after completing my VCE. My blood had turned to ice when I’d learned my then-future in music was in danger because suddenly my then-musical future was little more than a “lifestyle choice” in the eyes of my country’s government. Behold; my anxiety-ridden letter to Ms Chesters, circa-2016:

Hello my local MP,

I was browsing my Twitter feed today as one usually does whilst waiting for my individual music lessons when I stumble across a link posted by Benjamin Law – a screenwriter whose work on Family Law I had grown interested in. It was a retweet of a Sydney Morning Herald article. Imagine my surprise when I find out the article is about how my government had decided that my career interests were no longer worth their financial assistance. That my interests in both music and writing were “lifestyle choices”, as SMH so lovingly put it:

I have just completed a repeat of year 12 to pull a respectable ATAR score for these university courses. The end result? I’ve not personally seen my friends in the flesh for weeks. When I graduated I nearly fainted. Three anxious and torturous years – quite possibly the worst of my life – as a member of financially struggling family. I am Bendigo Senior Secondary College’s Musician of the Year, through hard work and sweat and a whole lot of finger crossing because that is what one has to do in VCE. The job sector does not want to hire an 18 year old with little experience, so I work as a function DJ whenever a job crops up and share the position with my father – and I still must live with my parents, as I don’t have a stable enough job that I could keep paying for rent. When my family were at rock bottom with finances, and I applied for youth allowance, Centrelink took two months (two months!) to tell me that they didn’t find me eligible and instead found it preferable that we reduce our standard of living even further than it is to compensate for costs of my Year 12 public education. But we persevered, because where were we supposed to find help? The Australian government seems to be under the impression that we’re rich.

So now I’ve finally come to the finish line of this year of hell. I’m supposed to be celebrating, completing my exams with a smile because I had a future. But you know what I find, not even a week after graduation? The courses I’ve applied for, and am most likely to place into, no longer have government fee help on the date the courses start (or just before). Because the career I’ve put nine years of my life into preparing for is suddenly no longer a viable career option that generates enough money back to my government. And because my family and I are not as prosperous as these educational institutions would like us to be, I will not be able to take a diploma course that would give me the assist into a bachelor – since my skills without the diploma will be admittedly far from acceptable for the bachelor itself.

Forcing me to choose a career, stick to it, make me go through hell for it, and then slam a door into my face for all my trouble is far from fair treatment to all of us now left in the dark. I hate to break it to you, Ms Chesters, but my family and I can hardly pay for my brothers education (public school fees now cost an arm and a leg, and he’s not even in Year 9!). We cannot simply pull over $5000 from thin air to pay an upfront fee for me to continue studying for what I want to be. I hardly earn enough in a week to pay to run my car, phone and whatever finances my parents need me to give to them, let alone fork out that amount. As it is, my pay coming this Tuesday is going directly to my father. I won’t see a cent of it. 

My government, of whom I’m supposed to trust and support, are now treating me like this. Treating all my fellow Year 12s like this, and likely countless more Creative Arts mature age students. You would force me out of my ambitions and deem my choice of career as a “lifestyle”? I beg of you – push for them to revert this decision! Rethink what you’re doing to us! The fact that this has all happened under our noses is far from acceptable. Year 12s should have been the first informed in a decision much earlier in the year.

Do not treat your next generation like this. 

To my 18yo-self’s surprise, she responded with her concern for the issues. But I was lucky — though I’d never respond to Chesters, I successfully enrolled in a Bachelor of Music Performance at Collarts, Melbourne, with the help of HECS — which is separate from VET. The most problematic cost of my two-trimester venture with Collarts was travel and my mental health. Though I love to sing and was a solid performer, I lacked any motivation to come up with anything original, and I failed to connect with the musical language. Looking back on the letter I sent to Chesters, I really needn’t have been worried at all. All those looking to go into the Diploma, though? VET was lost, and it took two years to even partially get it back.

I would feel the impact of the choice by the Liberals when I signed on for the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE: they’d lost their VET funding, and only regained it the month I walked in for my interview for the Cert IV, of January 2019. Course instructors encouraged me to go into the Diploma, during the interview. I was one of five active diploma students. (Possibly because Bendigo TAFE’s management were uninterested in running the course and seemingly decided against actively promoting the Diploma. Maybe when I actually have my Diploma in hand, I’ll be brave and compose something about the ongoing war between Bendigo TAFE’s management and arts departments. But only when they finally give me the damn thing.)

But in December 2019, with the arts again singled out by the Morrison government, I close this blog post with an important sentiment from my local MP in her letter back to the anxiety-riddled 18yo in 2016, used in regards to our art conundrum now, today:

Unfortunately, this is another example of the Liberals singling out the arts and creative industries.

Lisa Chesters, MP (Bendigo)

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