Bill Shorten is running an idea up the flagpole: long-service leave for artists and musicians.

“I’m going to ask the House of Representatives to investigate the remuneration of performing artists with practical reference to long-service leave,” the Labor minister told Crikey, confirming his intention to introduce a brief to a parliamentary committee. “It’s been brought to my attention by people like [composer] Paul Grabowsky. It’s very unusual for a performing artist or musician to work in one place for 15 years.”

As a result, many musicians, actors and music teachers don’t receive long-service leave, which the Fair Work Act’s National Employment Standards legally entitles them to. “One of the conditions which working Australians have had factored in is long-service leave,” Shorten said.

But the structure of the arts means most of its employment is short term, contract, or undertaken as a micro-business. That’s the thinking behind portable long-service leave, which would accrue to an individual, rather than with a particular employer.

“One possible model is that after 15 years in an industry you become eligible for long-service leave,” Shorten said, estimating the scheme would amount to only four extra days’ pay every year. “An employer would pay a small portion, it would be administered by a super fund, and that money is invested, so it’s a bit of a nest egg.”

Those eligible would receive the equivalent of 13 weeks’ pay after 15 years in their career, which Shorten indicated could be cashed out. “But,” he cautioned, “it has a cost, so that always has to be factored.”

He stressed such a scheme would not apply to freelance artists working as sole traders or businesses: “And it may be that many performing artists are small businesses, in which case it would not apply to them.”

Shorten argued there will be benefits from the scheme in terms of career longevity: “What’s the cost of artists burning out?

“The arts are about people. Not everyone can be Geoffrey Rush or Cate Blanchett. You need a whole lot of people and it’s about recognising the importance of all the people working in the arts.”

Shorten says his motivation stems from a personal interest in music education.

“I’ve noticed how dedicated music teachers are,” he said. “Australia has been well served by Australia’s music teachers, but I note that performing artists haven’t been well-served by Australia.”

He said of music teachers: “They love their vocation, but they have to give up and do other things because of the instability of their income.”

Arts industry lobby groups are cautiously receptive to the idea, but raise concerns about who exactly will be eligible and how it would be funded.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Christopher Warren sees the scheme as an “exciting opportunity” for artists to finally receive “the entitlements … that have been denied them because of the very casualised, contingent nature of the working relationship”. That said, Warren stresses such a scheme will need to be funded through a mixture of employer contributions and government engagement to ensure its continued viability.

According to Warren, the scheme has the potential to strengthen artists’ craft and careers, and in turn to strengthen Australia’s creative industries.

“It can also be thought of as kind of like a sabbatical,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the people who have those kind of long-term careers in one of the creative industries … to have a break from the need to find regular work and instead can apply it to thinking about their future.”

However, he warned that traditional hour-based measurements for long-service leave may not adequately gauge work done by practitioners in the media and arts sector: “In this industry, the remunerated hours can actually be quite small, or … the remuneration might not be tied to hours of work at all.”

Warren would like to see the proposal expanded to cover all MEAA’s members, including writers and journalists. This sentiment is echoed by Bethwyn Serow, the newly appointed executive director of major performing arts lobby group AMPAG. Serow describes Shorten’s focus upon musicians over other artists as “problematic”.

“If it’s for musicians, and then up on stage are some of the chorus or the dancers, and you’ve got musicians all having government policy building their long-term security and not others, that’s fairly unjust,” she said. “You want it to be balanced and fair, because they’re all in it together.”

AMPAG wants to hear more about the specifics of the proposal. “Would it deliver the outcomes intended? And how do we structure it? And what’re the responsibilities required by all the parties?” Serow asks. “Nothing’s been put out for us to really look at or circulate, and examine how it works for members.”

But according to Tamara Winikoff, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, this is only a baby step in addressing ongoing issues of precarious work and job instability facing Australian artists.

“It’s a fantastic idea,” she stressed, while pointing out it won’t apply to those working as sole traders and small business people. “While I can see that it would be of great benefit to people working within the arts who are employed, we’re still faced with a shortfall for people who are self-employed and that applies to most of the visual and media arts, craft and design sector.”

Winikoff argues very few artists would actually prove eligible for the scheme.

“The problem for most people working as creators in the arts is that they earn such low amounts of money from their arts practice that there isn’t any fat to put away for their old age,” she told Crikey. “They’re really struggling to survive day-to-day. So what I would say is that really the government need to take a much more comprehensive look at how to support its creators across their lifetime and into their old age particularly.

“The large proportion of people working within the visual arts, craft, design and media areas wouldn’t really gain much benefit from a scheme like this.”

The proposal by Shorten comes as speculation mounts over the forthcoming release of Simon Crean’s National Cultural Policy. The policy, which has spent more than three years in consultation and development, has been scheduled for release before or with this year’s federal budget in early May.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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