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Writers miss out on election handouts

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Typewriter'Australian artists would be justified in believing that the Coalition harbours a latent, sometimes visible, hostility to them and their calling.' After a series of gaffes Peter Garrett, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts, wasn't holding back when responding exclusively for this piece on the major parties' policies towards literature and publishing.

He appeared to have a point when he claimed, 'Sportspeople are often lauded by the Prime Minister and his senior team — but can you remember the last time they made a positive arts analogy?' Consider this: the Coalition groups Arts and Sport under one Minister, Senator George Brandis. Google his website and you'll find dozens of funding announcements for sport but barely a mention of the Arts, let alone literature.

Despite numerous phone calls and emails the Minister's minder, Travis Bell, was unwilling or unable to respond to specific queries about Coalition policies in these areas — apparently they stand on their record.

The Government spends over $1.3 billion per annum on the Arts. Of that only around $24 million goes to major literary initiatives — the PLR, ELR, the Literature Board and Books Alive. Yet both parties rush to throw millions at the TV and movie industry. Last year the Government invested around $110 million in our film industry, which generated only $40 million at the box office. Bookshops sell $750 million worth of Australian published books, all with GST. Yet the written arts receive less than a quarter of the filmed arts' subsidies.

Both parties have failed writers and the publishing industry for decades. Australia gives some of the lowest support to the literary fields of any developed country. Australian publishers annually generate about 430 titles per million people — one-eighth of that of New Zealand! We have a large and vibrant group of published and unpublished writers in mainstream literature, genre fiction and non-fiction, but most are published overseas.

So far in the election campaign neither party has made specific commitments to writing, writers or publishing. Labor 'supports' an extension to the Educational Lending Rights scheme but ignores the more important Public Lending Rights scheme. They are also 'committed' to lifting the very low average income of 'artists', although it is unclear whether all types of artists are being regarded equally.

Garrett indicated Labor would examine overseas experience to determine ways to 'better equip artists for future work so that people might rely less on the welfare system to feed their families and continue their writer careers'. That's economically dry and not very promising.

And the Coalition — well, a deathly silence.

Governments of both persuasions have been happy to pander to the film industry and force property developers into some truly horrible examples of public art, while largely ignoring writers.

Garrett argues this is a mistake. 'Writers set up the national narrative; they set up the reflective foundations that a lot of creative endeavour can spring from ... that work is just absolutely core and innately valuable to our national identity.' He seems to be hearkening back to the Whitlam era, when new investment in the writing arts and public debate harnessed to rapid social change invigorated Australian literature.

Another such burst of creative investment is overdue. The 1970s cultural debate helped form the new Australian identity — Australians as a distinct society rather than daughter of Mother England. Today's writers, given voice, could establish a deeper cultural independence, truly engaged not only with America and England, but also with Asia and the broader world community.

To help achieve this there are several promises politicians, in the national interest, should make to the literary industry.

Funding across the board should be at least 10 per cent of the Arts Budget and no less than that provided to the film industry. This should include an immediate increase in funding for the ELR and PLR schemes.

Writers of genre fiction should be given financial support. Australia has world-leading writers of science fiction, graphic novels, horror and fantasy, but they receive almost no support from local publishing houses. The Literature Board needs restructuring to include genre groups with proper funding, including for Executive Officers.

Our highly-successful book festivals should receive more funding and the Books Alive campaign be extended to cover specific areas, including children's fiction and short stories.

Publishers should be offered project based funding through tax rebates, as offered to the film industry. One hundred writers could be offered a two-year living wage 'scholarship' for around $5 million per annum. An accredited and subsidised training scheme for editors is well overdue.

And Australia needs broadly-based prizes along the lines of America's National Book Awards. It is particularly indefensible that Australia does not have a major prize for non-fiction.

All of these proposals will help build the 'future' Howard and Rudd both espouse. A strong literary culture helps define a Nation. It invigorates and defends free speech. And it encourages the debate about what type of country, and what type of individuals Australians wish to be.

Rocky WoodRocky Wood is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. His new book is Stephen King: The Non-Fiction.



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Australians are mainly culture consumers, rather than culture producers. Unless our writers, literary magazines and editors receive adequate funding, Australians will not develop a voice of its own.

Joyce Parkes | 18 November 2007  

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