Four months on from an ’emergency’ COVID rescue package for the arts industry, announced alongside singer Guy Sebastian, most of the money has not been spent – and the live entertainment sector hasn’t received any.
In a heated Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday, department bureaucrats were initially unable to say how much of the $250 million fund had actually been allocated. It prompted a stunned reply from Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
“This is budget estimates. What did you expect I would be asking today?” she said to officials.
It was later revealed that money for the struggling live entertainment sector would not flow until at least November – some five months after the policy was announced, to much fanfare.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $250 million package for the arts in Sydney in June. He appeared alongside Australian Idol winner Mr Sebastian, to commit several streams of funding including grants and concessional loans. It also included a screen industry ‘temporary interruption fund’, to help productions get finance to begin filming again, with many insurers declining to offer insurance for COVID.
At the time, the money was welcomed, but was seen by some as falling short. Music industry organisations and festival promoters, for instance, told The New Daily that they too needed help with insurance, in order to run events.
Two recent surveys of the sector found 85 per cent of venues in NSW, and 70 per cent nationwide, claimed they faced imminent closure without immediate help.
Bureaucrats from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications – which houses the Office of the Arts – fronted the Senate hearing.
Senator Hanson-Young, the Greens’ spokesperson on communications and the arts, began asking about support for the entertainment industry.
Department secretary Simon Atkinson said the arts industry had received “very significant” assistance from the government through COVID. Senator Hanson-Young pressed the department officials how much of that $250 million had so far been spent.
Remember that fancy press conference @ScottMorrisonMP did with @GuySebastian promising money to help artists during Covid?
Well guess what? Still nothing has been spent, and no money has been given to save jobs in the arts. Nothing. pic.twitter.com/jgExSiYdLN
— 💚🌏 Sarah Hanson-Young (@sarahinthesen8) October 21, 2020
The department’s chief operating officer, Pip Spence, noted that an April announcement of $27 million for Indigenous arts organisations and music industry mental health group Support Act had been fully allocated. However, she was not able to immediately answer how much of the $250 million from June had actually been spent, saying that spending was still in progress.
“Work is under way to consider projects that have been put forward, to get the money out as quickly as possible,” Ms Spence said.
“The money will be rolled out over the next 12 months.”
However, Senator Hanson-Young pressed for an exact figure.
“This is the only money your government has put on the table for the arts and the entertainment sector, and you can’t tell me how much money has been spent?” she asked.
“Is it because it’s zero?”
This was the same package of funding which was criticised for delays in opening applications.
Later in the hearing, department officials came back to Senator Hanson-Young with more details on the entertainment funding, after seeking updates.
Ms Spence said $49.5 million had gone to the screen industry’s temporary interruption fund, to support 20 productions. However, she said the first tranches of cash spent under the restart funding and sustainability funding would not go out until November.
Following the hearing, Senator Hanson-Young was critical of the lack of action.
“The arts and entertainment industry was shutdown overnight in March and has been the second hardest hit with job losses, yet the PM didn’t even put money on the table for it until June and now still hasn’t spent a cent,” she said.
“It’s hardly coming to the rescue if eight months after being hit by COVID-19 restrictions the industry is still waiting for support. It’s like promising a struggling swimmer a lifebuoy and not throwing it out till they’re too weak to hold onto it.”