I'd like to start by acknowledging the member for Moncrieff and the member for Higgins, who have been really important contributors to the work of this committee and were also important in shaping the report's title. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the outgoing chair, the member for Lyne, who made such an important contribution to this inquiry and made sure much of the work was concluded before ably handing over to the new chair, the member for Mallee.
This report recognises the role of the creative sector in Australian life and acknowledges the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the industry here in Australia—in communities across Australia, from big cities to regional towns and the bush. Over the past 18 months, many individuals and organisations have been forced to stop work or wind back—and some have closed for good—because of lockdown. Unfortunately, the support to the sector was, for some people, too late, and some were left out altogether.
We all know the important role that the arts play in all of our lives and in Australian society. I think many of us rediscovered the arts during lockdown; it was a bit of a silver lining to the experience. We escaped from the uncertainty all around us by listening to music or to a streaming service, watching the local news or reading a favourite book. Finding something creative to dive into was important for our mental health and wellbeing during this time. Unfortunately, so often, the artists who sit behind these works aren't properly recognised or remunerated in our society. Before the pandemic, many people in the arts sector were already struggling, particularly those in the performing arts.
The impacts of COVID-19 have been felt, as I said, all around Australia, including in regional communities like mine on the Central Coast of New South Wales. Theatres have been forced to close, sold-out shows have had to push back opening nights, and live music was brought to a halt altogether. Many of the local artists I spoke to had found themselves without a way to make a living. Being forced to rely on government support programs like JobKeeper or JobSeeker—while welcome—wasn't what they had hoped 2020 and 2021 would bring for them. Musicians and actors who rely on touring were left behind, and some people were ineligible for support altogether—people like Ben.
Ben is a musician studying a Bachelor of Music at the University of Newcastle. Before COVID, he supplemented his youth allowance with live performances. He told me: 'These lockdowns have made it extremely difficult for us to secure work and to keep ourselves financially stable, with limited government support available in our industry. When these lockdowns first came into force, our whole industry was essentially destroyed overnight. Gigs that were planned for several months down the track were all of a sudden cancelled. The effect these lockdowns have had on our industry will mean a slow recovery for the live music scene and will be felt for many years to come.'
I also heard from Josh. Josh is one of the founding members of Jopuka, the leading youth-arts body on the Central Coast. He said to me, 'The Central Coast region has suffered a significant loss to the arts and culture sector, with over 50 projects and events cancelled in this year alone.' He estimates that Jopuka has lost $170,000 in ticket sales since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite this, community arts workers and performers remain resilient and look forward to getting back on stage soon, and I think many others share Josh's optimism.
Thankfully, New South Wales is now emerging from lockdown, but, as Ben said, the effects of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come, and for some artists more than others. The Hunter Creative Alliance, which is based just north of my electorate on the Central Coast, surveyed local artists in April this year, when the regions weren't in lockdown, and found that 11 per cent of respondents were without work at the time. As we know, that is twice the unemployment rate of elsewhere in the region. The report also found that 80 per cent of young artists, aged 18 to 35, expressed an increase in stress, anxiety or depression as a result of COVID-19, which we've seen across Australia but especially in industries which have been most impacted by COVID. These findings are alarming but I suppose not surprising, and I have no doubt that artists across the Central Coast—and across Australia—have experienced something very similar. People in the arts feel that they've been overlooked during the pandemic, even though their industries have been some of the hardest hit, and they need proper support to get back on their feet, as Ben and Josh have said. They're optimistic about getting back on their feet, but they need the proper support to be able to do that.
In conclusion, while this report has bipartisan support and was a very constructive and productive process, there are a few more things that we think need to be done to protect and elevate the arts, as the member for Moncrieff has said. We need a restored department of the arts to properly elevate it to the standing that it has in Australian society and to make the representations for future wage subsidies, job creation and protection for people within the industry. An insurance fund for live events would also provide certainty to performers in case of future cancellations and lockdowns. We need to fully fund the ABC, particularly in regional and remote Australia and the bush, to properly support people living in those communities to get the information and advice they need. These are all vital creative and communication services in our community, and they need our help. The government has overlooked too many people in the arts sector, particularly those living outside of big cities. In communities like mine on the Central Coast, we need to see proper support for the arts and for the creative industries across Australia.