The federal government has announced the cessation and defunding of the Book Council of Australia in its 2015-16 Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).
The Book Council’s previously allocated funding of $6m over three years, which was taken from the Australia Council budget, has not been returned to the Australia Council but will instead be used for budget savings and ‘policy priorities’.
In a statement Arts minister Mitch Fifield said he ‘will be consulting widely with the literary community about alternative sector-led mechanisms for representation and promotion’.
Australian Booksellers Association CEO Joel Becker told Books+Publishing he had a brief discussion with Fifield prior to the announcement and was told the government is still interested in ‘some form of a book council’. ‘It’s really important to have a body that represents the whole sector, from writing to reading,’ said Becker. ‘I’m looking forward to meeting with the minister in December or January about what the future of a book council could look like.’
Australian Society of Authors president David Day told Books+Publishing a meeting between the government and industry bodies has been proposed for January, adding that it was ‘good to see the government encouraging the industry to establish a council of its own design’.
‘After more than twelve months of dithering, it is good to see the proposed book council finally being canned,’ said Day. ‘A Book Council that was to be a virtual arm of the Arts Ministry was not the sort of council that the industry wanted or needed.’
However, Day said he was ‘dismayed’ to learn the $6m taken from the Australia Council to fund the Book Council had not been returned. ‘The arts in Australia will be that much poorer,’ said Day. ‘Apparently, the government’s vision for an agile and innovative society is so blinkered that the creative industries do not fit within it.’
In total, $52.5m will be cut from the Communications and Arts portfolio over four years, with the Australia Council spared further funding cuts. In addition to $9.6m of cuts to the Book Council and ‘a number of arts programmes’, $36.8m will be taken from government-run galleries and museums, and a further $6m from departmental spending.
However, the government also announced it will provide $47.3m over two years for the local production of two films, Alien: Covenant and Thor: Ragnarok. The funding comes from portfolio savings in the 2015-16 MYEFO and from ‘divestment of land’ from within the Communications and Arts portfolio.
The Communications and Arts portfolio will contribute a total of $12m in savings to the budget over four years.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the formation of the Book Council at the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards on 8 December last year. Its handling has been criticised by members of the literary sector and by a recent senate committee report, which noted ‘it was difficult for the committee to obtain evidence on stakeholders’ views about it’ because of ‘the lack of information available for many months after it was announced’.
Hundreds of Australian writers and book industry professionals also signed an open letter to Abbott calling for the Book Council to come under the auspices of the Australia Council and criticising the selection of inaugural chair Louise Adler.
As reported by Books+Publishing in October, the individuals and organisations invited to sit on the Book Council had confirmed their acceptance, although several had not heard from the government since receiving their invitation the previous month.