Could Australia try a basic income for artists?

Two of the key figures involved in Ireland’s post-pandemic pilot of a universal basic income for artists are in Adelaide this week to discuss the scheme, prompting the question: Could it also be a viable way to help Australian artists and cultural workers forge sustainable careers?

Nov 01, 2023, updated Nov 01, 2023
Post-COVID, artists were caught between a slowly reviving sector and the collapse in income subsidy. Photo: Daian Gan / Pexels

Post-COVID, artists were caught between a slowly reviving sector and the collapse in income subsidy. Photo: Daian Gan / Pexels

Most people prefer to forget the dark times of COVID, and with good reason. Other urgencies now occupy our attention, as we doom scroll through the newsfeeds. But it would be a mistake to forget the most recent past so easily.

Remember that sense of not going back to business as usual? How the pandemic revealed deep flaws in our socio-economic arrangements, such as under-investment in social and health care, or precarious and low pay for those workers who – we now remembered – were essential to social survival.

How governments previously committed to “necessary austerity” suddenly found the capacity to support citizens. How those on welfare, so recently hounded by Robodebt, had their payments doubled and mutual obligations decreased. Or the millions on JobKeeper payments who suddenly had both secure income and lots of free time to care for family or community, learn a new skill, or pick up a new hobby.

Although many missed out on these experiences, or had to do that hard essential graft to keep communities going, there was a brief glimpse of another possible world.

The pandemic boosted the popularity of an idea that has been around for a long time: Universal Basic Income, or UBI. Give people enough money to live modestly. Everyone, no obligations. Get a job if you want to earn more, but otherwise devote yourself to volunteering, care work, creative fulfilment, or just sitting around.

UBI is passionately promoted and hotly contested, but for arts and cultural workers it represented a new approach to public funding, and to the sustainability of creative work.

The pandemic was a catastrophe for arts and cultural workers, especially those who depended on audiences or visitors, as the sector was almost immediately shut down. The shock was made worse when it became clear that many did not qualify for JobKeeper. They were freelancers, seasonal workers or sub-contractors, not employees. Their treatment affirmed both their long-standing precarity and sense of being of marginal concern to government. This was a pattern repeated across the globe.

Others who did qualify for JobKeeper experienced a new feeling of security. No longer forced into writing endless grant applications, or the onerous task of reporting current ones, they now had time. With rent and income covered, they could just work, create, take creative risks, replenish the reservoir of reading, looking, thinking.

the return of the real hit the cultural sector hard

Whatever the pros and cons of UBI, a basic income scheme for artists seemed to offer two things. It provided a basic level of income to artists who had seen their incomes decline as quickly as the conditions of their employment. And it provided money to artists without the complex and onerous bureaucracy of a grant system, with its ever-expanding questions, metrics and gatekeeping mechanisms. It might even be cheaper!

As JobKeeper died off, the return of the real hit the cultural sector hard. Artists were caught between a slowly reviving sector and the collapse in income subsidy. Other countries experienced similar ­– in the UK, workers left the sector in droves – although the impact was softened in places like Germany, which kept an artist income scheme going until this month.

Rather than a return to the bad old business-as-usual of precarious labour, are there better ways to allow artists and cultural workers make sustainable careers? Certainly better legislation and regulation, as promised in the Labor Government’s Revive national cultural policy, with Creative Workplaces now established under the auspices of Creative Australia.

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The South Australian Government will be setting up a taskforce by the end of the year, focussing specifically on this space. A parliamentary initiative has just been progressed this week in the European Union to adopt a legislative framework to improve the conditions of arts and cultural workers across all member states.

But could Australia try a Basic Income for Artists, too? The federal and state governments give it a flat bat, as if it is well outside the bounds of possibility. But in Ireland, coming off the back of the pandemic – which, as here, devastated an already-precarious sector – there was a successful campaign to at least pilot such a scheme.

The Irish Minister for Culture convened an Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce to make recommendations on how the sector could adapt and recover from the damage caused by the pandemic. Its report was published in 2020 with a primary recommendation to set up a pilot UBI scheme for three years and, backed by a vigorous campaign by the cultural sector,  the scheme began in October 2022.

The pilot paid a weekly income of €325 ($A540) to 2000 artists and arts workers, selected on a ballot with some eligibility criteria. The only obligation would be that the participants would undertake regular surveys so that the outcomes could be evaluated. The three-year pilot is just entering its second year and first reports from the research program are due to be released.

What needed to happen for the pilot to become a reality? How has it been received? Is it producing the expected outcomes? Is it a viable model here?

These questions will be discussed this week when two of the key figures of the Irish pilot scheme speak at the Bodies of Work symposium being held in Port Adelaide. Angela Dorgan was the chair of the National Campaign for the Arts that led the grassroots campaign for a BIA pilot and she is also the chief executive of the national music development body First Music Contact. Sharon Barry was instrumental in the process of policy implementation and now heads up Culture Ireland, a government agency that promotes Irish arts internationally.

Both Angela and Sharon will discuss the campaign, process, implementation and findings at the Symposium on Thursday morning. In addition, the full three-day program includes some of Australia’s leading practitioners, commentators and thinkers, who will discuss how all this fits into the wider question around artists as workers.

Bodies of Work is at the Waterside Workers Hall in Port Adelaide from November 1-3.

Justin O’Connor is Professor of Cultural Economy at the University of South Australia and Tully Barnett is a senior lecturer in Creative Arts at Flinders University. They have co-curated Bodies of Work alongside Vitalstatistix artistic director and co-CEO Emma Webb. 

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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