Why call our best and brightest 'unemployed'?

Australians involved in the arts often spend periods of time in unemployment but they also make significant contributions to national culture, and they pay a good deal of tax when working.

The Abbott government’s work-for-the-dole reforms are copping criticism from nearly every corner -- from the Business Council and the Council of Small Business of Australia, to the Australian Council of Social Service.

A central thread of the criticisms is the blunt nature of the reforms which treat workers as ‘employed’ one minute and generically ‘unemployed’ the next.

That means having to put in 15 to 25 hours a week on work-for-the-dole projects, while at the same time sending off 40 job applications a month. 

The philosophy behind the scheme treats unemployment benefits as a gift from the broader community, rather than a form of national insurance that the previously employed taxpayer may have contributed to for years -- in sharp contrast to welfare in the UK, US and many European nations.

As long as benefits here are seen as a gift, it’s relatively easy to cast highly skilled workers, and major contributors to the economy as parasites, when quite the opposite may be true. 

The old slogan ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ will for some be a ‘hand down’ under the more stringent work-for-the-dole requirements.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cultural industries -- the arts -- which the ABS estimates contributed $86 billion to the economy in its first major survey of the sector in 2008 -- around 8 per cent of GDP.

Discussing the arts is always problematic. For one thing, the cultural industries are home to both highly-skilled, hard-working professionals and, well, hangers-on who not only don’t ‘make it’, but don’t make much at all.

The latter group, who may use unemployment benefits to help fund their ‘creative’ pursuits, are arguably a legitimate target of the Coalition’s reforms. 

But in the process of chasing a few indolent bohemians out of inner-city pubs, there is great danger in tarring all musicians, fine artists, performers and so on with the same brush. 

Back in 2003, the Australia Council released a report, Don’t give up your day job: an economic study of professional artists in Australia.

It found, among other things, that:

– There [were] about 45,000 practising professional artists in Australia. 

– The biggest group is musicians with about 12,000 members; the second largest group, with about 9,000, is visual artists. Dancers make up the smallest group, with less than 1,500. 

– As with other professionals, artists are a highly educated group. 

– About half of the artists in the survey had experienced some period of unemployment in the five years preceding the survey, and half of those had applied for unemployment relief. 

The difficulty in discussing professional artists is that for most people an awful lot of art is, well, awful.  

It is strongly analogous to advertising -- people hate ads they’re not interested in, but once in a while an ad comes along with exactly what the consumer wants. Suddenly, they love the ad.

There is a level of hypocrisy involved in adoring a select few cultural products -- music albums, a local film or TV show, a celebrated painting -- while at the same time dismissing the people who created them as ‘unemployed’ between jobs. 

Stuart Page, a senior script writer on the ABC’s highly successful The Doctor Blake Mysteries series says his line of work is well paid, though it takes years to get to that level. 

Over the years required to hone his skills, Page says he had dozens of jobs, intermittent professional work, and a couple of periods on the dole.

And yet like many successful artists, Page pays a good deal of tax when he’s working on high-end productions. 

His profession is full of highs and lows, but audience numbers alone prove that other taxpayers value what he produces. 

However, when he loses his current role, he’ll just be ‘unemployed’.

This conundrum is dealt with quite differently overseas, with many European nations offering preferential national insurance-type schemes to bona fide practising professional artists. 

The Artists’ Social Fund established in Germany in 1983 is probably the most highly developed (and in typical German style only needs a single-word moniker --K√ľnstlersozialkasse).

Participants in the scheme are not wholly self-selecting -- they must meet stringent criteria to be deemed both professional and practising -- but once registered, and when earning, the artist pays a levy to be a normal member of Germany’s national social security system, as if their employment was never interrupted. 

Employers (or ‘engagers’) of the artist also pay a levy, and the government matches both payments. 

The combined payments allow the artist access to normal unemployment protection, public health insurance, and long-term care insurance -- the same things an ‘employed’ person enjoys. 

A report on the scheme published in 2010 by Hill Strategies Research noted that “More than 157,000 freelance artists and publicists are members of the statutory pension, health and long-term care programs via the KSK.”

Adjusted for the size of Australia’s population, a similar scheme here would have (uncannily enough) 45,000 registered practitioners. 

A follow-up study by the Australia Council found that between 2003 and 2009 the number of practising professional artists in Australia fell from 45,000 to 44,000.

But things could get much worse if the Abbott government welfare reforms cannot differentiate between a feckless youngster who needs to learn to get out of bed, and get along with colleagues and bosses, and a highly skilled creative person whose contribution to national culture, and the economy, is most often greater than any remuneration they receive. 

As the Australia Council’s 2009 report noted: “One third of artists put their artistic skills to use in other industries, whether they’re novelists who are also editors, actors who run corporate training, visual artists who design websites, or dancers who are also Pilates instructors. This is a very clear example of how the arts contribute to society and how creative talents nurtured through artistic practice are being used to build cultural industries and enhance communities and business.”

The Reference Group set up to consider the government’s interim report will take public submissions until Friday 8 August, and also “invited feedback on its Interim Report through targeted roundtable discussions and a closed online forum”.

In that process, it’s likely that Australia’s cultural industry workers will remain simply ‘unemployed’ between jobs, with all the ‘hand down’ that will entail.

Fair enough, perhaps? The age of entitlement is over. Why should artists be any different?

Perhaps because members of that Reference Group are likely to drive home of an evening, put their feet up, and get lost in an episode of The Doctor Blake Mysteries – oblivious to the unique characteristics of the industry of 'unemployed' people who produced it.

Disclosure: Stuart Page is a personal friend of the author.