As the first minister to ever hold the joint portfolios of arts, and employment and workplace relations, Tony Burke is promising to use government policy to tackle sexual harassment allegations within Australia’s cultural industries.
Speaking to Guardian Australia just prior to announcing the start of a seven-week national consultation period on Friday, Burke said he had closely followed mounting controversies over the treatment of women in the performing arts industries, while in opposition.
“I want to make sure that national cultural policy speaks to the particular challenges in arts industries and within this policy there needs to be assurances of a safe workplace for women,” he said.
He cited allegations of systemic sexual harassment and assault within Australia’s music industry, including those revealed by singer Jaguar Jonze, and the criticisms of the historical workplace culture at Sony Music which resulted in its long-serving CEO Denis Handlin being removed last year after more than 25 years. Burke also referred to the allegations of inappropriate behaviour made by actor Eryn-Jean Norvill against Geoffrey Rush, the airing of which lead to Rush winning a defamation case against the Daily Telegraph. Burke said all were evidence of an industry marred by a workplace culture in need of serious overhaul.
The reforms to workplace culture sit within one of the five pillars of the new government’s cultural policy blueprint, which takes as its starting point Labor’s short-lived Creative Australia plan, formed under the Gillard government, in which Burke briefly served as arts minister.
That previous experience, along with the added urgency Covid-19 has brought to a sector particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, convinced Burke there was no time to create a new policy from scratch.
Artists learned the hard way during the pandemic, he said, that the government and large sections of the community and media saw them as nonessential. The terms and conditions of the Coalition government’s jobkeeper scheme meant the majority of performing artists, largely reliant on short-term contracts or freelance payments, did not qualify for income support during lockdowns.
While the nation’s peak arts and cultural institutions were kept afloat by the Morrison government’s $2bn Rise (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) fund, many individual artists were left without income or a safety net when the pandemic hit.
While supporting the country’s cultural institutions – both public and commercial – Labor will resurrect the concept of the centrality of the individual artist, as articulated in the previous Gillard policy, with First Nations artists taking top priority.
First Nations art and cultural practice will be the foundation of the government’s new arts policy, Burke said, which will also see the end of ministerial discretion and a return to the principles of arm’s length decision-making when it comes to divvying up funds.
“There was never any transparency or due process which would explain how some of the projects were funded and how others weren’t under Rise,” Burke said.
“I’m not necessarily critical of individual funding decisions, but I am massively critical of the process that was used to arrive at them. While Australia Council decisions will always receive criticism, I think we’re in a situation where, for all the challenges arm’s length funding poses, every other process is worse.”
The minister is also promising to corral the states and territories to put in place stronger legislation to regulate ticket resales.
“There are a lot of problems with what resellers are doing,” he said. “They sell fake tickets, which trashes confidence in the whole industry; they remove the direct relationship between the artist and and the ticket buyer; and they rip people off.
“I have neither time nor respect for businesses like Viagogo and I want to look at what we can do to make sure that the ticket price that is advertised becomes the ticket price that is paid.”
In 2020 the ACCC successfully prosecuted Viagogo and the ticket reselling platform was ordered to pay a $7m fine.
The government’s consultation will close on 22 August. Burke said he expected to have a fully drafted national arts and culture policy by the end of the year.