This is a difficult week for literary ninjas in Australia. I’d been planning to blog about Sydney’s cultural life until I watched the Liberal Government unveil their first Federal budget. Vast cuts are being levelled at the poorest and most vulnerable in Australian society. Cuts to the arts of more than $80 million make me angry; cuts of billions of dollars to vital services for those that cannot afford them make me feel physically ill, and in a state of shock. This is no longer the country of opportunity I chose to move to. In one fell swoop, and taking effect with near-immediacy, this country will change. University fees have been deregulated. Medicare will no longer be free. Many mental health services will be axed, the national broadcaster has been castrated and The Mint is to be privatised. There was no mention of funds for renewable energy or water security, and foreign aid was crushed. The payoff? Australia will have wider roads, increased defence spending, a $20 million levy for medical research linked to those Medicare payments, and a reduced deficit that is already minimal in global terms.
If you are under 30 and out of work, without the funds for Uni or further training, then you’re done. After six months of working 25 hours a week on ‘workplace skills’ in return for benefits, your dole will be cut to zero. Zero. No money. No way to eat, or pay rent, or have the confidence or time to seek work.
Coupled with the reductions in child benefit, I felt the need to reread Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay ‘A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public.’ Read it here.
At the intersection of the arts and education exists literacy – the essential skill to make yourself heard and to engage with the world around you. A 2010 report on social mobility found that 47% of Australians face literacy challenges. That’s almost half the population (yes, my maths are that good thanks to my free Scottish education.) At a time when the UK is increasing the profile of reading projects like World Book Night, Australia’s Get Reading! campaign will be closed down from 1 July. Without celebration of books and stories on a visible national stage, accompanied by the infrastructure to gain skills, we will never be certain of a literate population, let alone a country that can tell the stories of all its diverse inhabitants and histories. Tell These Stories Never have the arts been more important: we must tell the stories of this country, of the lost and disenfranchised, of the nation that now stares at the weakest people at the bottom of the heap and steps on them. If I make it back to Sydney in 10 years for a comparative trip, then these are the stories that I hope to see. Not because they’re the stories Australia deserves to have, or that they are the only stories that exist, but because the artists and writers of this country will be standing up to tell these truths on behalf of those that this budget has ensured will never have a voice. Creative culture exists to express our identity, and help us find our place in the world. I’m sadly reminded of the need a few years ago for the UK campaign in defence of the arts, summed up so well by David Shrigley’s well-considered and entertaining animation. A farmer explains to his son, Anthony, the importance of the arts:
Good luck, Australia. We’re going to need it.