Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No.5) Bill 2021

House of Representatives 10/08/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (18:03): [by video link] I will be speaking to schedule 1 of the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 5) Bill 2021, as it is this schedule that directly impacts the screen industry, specifically the changes that the government are seeking to make to the producer offset, which will, in our view and in the industry’s view more broadly, have very negative impacts on the screen industry. That’s why we will be moving amendments to avoid these negative impacts. Specifically the government want to increase the qualifying expenditure threshold for the producer offset for smaller and lower budget films. They want to double the threshold from $500,000 to $1 million, so that effectively only larger productions would be able to access the producer offset, meaning it will be next to impossible to get smaller projects off the ground. Those rejected stories are pretty much as good as gone if this passes through. We’re talking largely about the documentary sector. Think of fantastic recent examples like In My Blood It Runs. Australian screen should be more than just Crocodile Dundee and Muriel’s Wedding. As great as they are, they’re big-budget projects. We need to tell our smaller stories too. They are equally important.

The government are also wanting to increase the threshold for the post-production sector, again doubling it, from half a million dollars to $1 million. This is a direct whack on the post-production sector in Australia. I’m talking about many of the animation and digital effects companies and how many jobs they actually create. We are one of the bigger hitters on post-production and digital effects globally, and yet many Australian companies will no longer be able to access this offset because it’s being doubled by the government. The shadow minister, Tony Burke, noted that the Australian Post & VFX Alliance estimates that 400 jobs are at stake if these changes go ahead.

Thirdly, as mentioned by previous speakers, the changes in schedule 1 go to removing what is known as the Gallipoli clause. The clause is called this because it has allowed producers to access the offset if they had to shoot some of their film on location overseas. If we think of a film like Lion, it’s an Australian film, but if they couldn’t film parts of it in India it would have been a lot less of a film than it actually was. Even a local TV project like Jack Irish, which I’m watching currently, wouldn’t be able to shoot in India or the Philippines. Again, we’re seeking to change this bill so that the clause can survive. This is because this is part of Australian storytelling—the telling of our multicultural stories.

There are some positives in this bill which we don’t seek to change. Originally, the government actually wanted to reduce the producer offset for feature films from 40 to 30 per cent, jacking up the cost of making Australian films by 10 per cent. A film like The Dry would not have been able to be made. Thankfully, the government have backed off. I’m not sure whether they backed off because of the coming together of many actors and producers—they descended on Canberra and all the Liberal and coalition members of parliament were able to take some selfies with them. That may have dissuaded them from making this change. It may also have been our campaign in opposition against this change. Whatever the reason for backing off, it certainly is welcome that they haven’t made this hit on the feature film industry.

Yet they still want to make those three changes I have outlined. As a hit on the arts sector during a pandemic it just beggars belief. Is it just a cost-cutting exercise? As a country, we are capable of making some great film and television—and not just the big-screen endeavours like Crocodile Dundee. It’s our smaller stories as well. Why is that? It’s important to hear our accents and to see and hear our stories on the big and small screens. There’s a public good at stake, as mentioned by the shadow minister, and that public good is the production of Australian film and television.

But why is it a public good? I think the answer lies in the fact that telling those Australian stories on the big or small screens, even if they’re not a commercial success, resonates with Australians in a way that a big Hollywood production cannot. That’s because those stories are our stories. Often, they’re not commercially viable, because our market is certainly much smaller than the US or even the UK markets. Therefore, Australian storytelling and content is at a competitive disadvantage. I recall, from when I worked at SBS prior to entering parliament, that the cost of producing an hour of Australian drama was north than half a million dollars if you wanted quality—it’s probably more now—whereas our programmers could actually buy content off the shelf, made overseas, for as little as $5,000 for an hour. That’s because the larger markets mean greater volume of content which we can’t compete with. So, if we don’t have these producer offsets and we don’t have these types of arrangements that support Australian content, we will lose something precious: the myriad ways of telling Australian stories on the small and big screens.

In my first speech to parliament, back in 2016, I spoke about the importance of arts in our society. A thriving arts sector is the heart and soul of any society. At a time of crisis, like the one we’re currently facing, the arts have never been more important in promoting a sense of solidarity and togetherness. I know this because I’ve experienced it—I think we all have. We’ve experienced that feeling when a creative work inspires you, moves you, makes you think about something in a different way or, even better, makes you stop thinking altogether and just reminds you to be in the moment. The arts give us something that’s almost indescribable—something fundamental to being human. It’s the interaction with the creative that makes our souls sing.

Many people will make an economic argument, something along the lines of ‘More people go to the NGV than go to the MCG annually.’ That’s the National Gallery of Victoria and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, for those outside Victoria. It’s certainly true that the arts sector generates over $100 billion, but it’s so much more than that commercial element of success. The arts have an inherent and intangible value to society that cannot be measured by economic metrics alone. We are all beneficiaries of a thriving arts sector, we are all beneficiaries of the inherent value of the arts and we are all beneficiaries of that which is intangible. The momentary joy in beauty and wonder, the sense of connectedness of our stories told well, a feeling of belonging in seeing our experiences and our lives reflected on our screens are especially so important in these times of lockdown, where our world has shrunk. We are escaping into or seeking some solace in the worlds created on our screens. Those stories that are told about who we are can keep us sane. They become central to our lives as we turn to those stories for both entertainment and enlightenment.

We take for granted the TV shows and movies on Netflix, the music that we can plug into our ears—arts and culture at a click. We consume it every day with little thought, but it is so important to all of us. That’s why, frankly, it beggars belief that this coalition government abandoned the arts and entertainment industries in their time of need. I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise; they have never been a friend of the arts. They’ve slashed and starved the sector. They have shown such disinterest in support that in 2019 the government actually abolished the Department of Communications and the Arts and merged it into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

In this crisis, the government have done next to nothing. At the beginning of this pandemic in March 2020, as shows and performances were cancelled en masse across the country, our shadow minister for the arts called for a major dedicated support package for the arts. Labor have continued to call for this since March 2020 and the government has just ignored our calls. We then called for a wage subsidy, which, eventually, the government agreed was a good idea. But when they go to it, they designed it in a way that excluded many arts and entertainment workers. This is a sector that is dominated by casuals, freelancers and short-term contracts with different companies and employers, many of them ineligible for JobKeeper.

Former finance minister Mathias Cormann rubbed salt into the wounds when he said they were missing out on JobKeeper because, ‘They can’t demonstrate they’ve had relevant falls in their revenue.’ Really? I say to the government: take a look at the empty theatres and concert halls across the nation, the art galleries that have closed down. Take a walk up Sydney Road in my electorate of Wills at night and hear the eerie silence where once there was a buzz of live music to be heard. Just listen to these sectors; their voices plead for help. They’re on their knees. But what this coalition government did instead was deliver a half-baked scheme for the arts, a $200 million package to support a $111 billion arts and entertainment industry. Of this, more than 30 per cent is in the form of concessional loans which will eventually have to be paid back. It fell way far short of that glossy announcement, when the arts minister, Paul Fletcher, confirmed weeks ago that the government had only delivered half of that package that was promised—more government incompetence, no surprises there. Guy Sebastian, who the government trotted out, said himself that the government’s efforts have been dismal. According to Guy, no-one seems to have followed through on their words. The artists, the musicians, the actors, dancers, singers, filmmakers of Australia deserve better than what this government is dishing up. They deserve more than a photo op.

These decisions impact local communities across the country, especially in my electorate of Wills, where the suburb of Brunswick, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of artists in Australia. I’ve been contacted by so many during this pandemic. One example from Brunswick is Jared, who owns a touring theatre company which continually falls through the cracks of the government’s support. He’s had to cancel tour after tour because of lockdowns in different states. All 11 of his casuals have been stood down without pay. His full-time staff are all working reduced hours.

In contrast to this, Labor will always support artists and the arts in Australia. We took policies to the last election that would do so. When the pandemic hit Australia in March last year, many of my colleagues and I campaigned for a targeted package for the events, entertainment and the arts sectors. It’s not too late to lend a hand. The government, as a matter of emergency, should set up a national COVID-19 insurance scheme for the arts, entertainment and events industry, similar to the temporary interruption fund for the film industry. Labor’s been calling for this now for six months, but the government has stubbornly refused to act.

Commercial insurance is no longer available for events against COVID-19. That means all the investments made into those events now being cancelled will be lost. Some businesses will now be assessing whether or not they can survive the other side of the current restrictions. We want people to invest in the arts, in the entertainment sector, in events in Australia, but how can they if they’re unable to insure against lockdowns in COVID restrictions? We know the devastating impact this pandemic is having on the huge arts sector in Australia. Whether it be musicians, actors, dancers or performers, all have had their gigs cancelled. Visual artists cannot hold exhibitions. Lighting technicians and theatre ushers are being stood down. There is no part of the arts sector that is unaffected.

Because of that passion I have for the arts and the background I have in it, and because it’s so important for us as a nation, as a society, I’ll always stand up for the arts and for artists in this parliament. The arts do matter. Australian stories matter. Our Australian content makes a difference to our lives. It’s somewhat intangible, difficult to measure, but it has such inherent value. So their work has to go through and go forward. They are not only vital to our economy but also to our society and to our culture. We cannot forget about them. We shouldn’t take them for granted. We must support the arts. I call on the government to backtrack from these changes in schedule 1.