2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have taught Australians a lot about ourselves.

If there’s one thing the pandemic affirmed, it is that Australians want and need Australian stories to reaffirm their culture and their place in the world, including on our screens.

And for that, we need a strong and secure domestic screen industry.

The past year has been very tough for the sector. But the challenges it presented need not have been so many, had the government done its job in time.

While COVID-19 forced the stoppage of many productions, due to lockdowns and border closures, the uncertainty around the screen policy settings made things worse.

As businesses scrambled to pivot, ensure the safety of staff and navigate new protocols, the Minister dropped a reform consultation on their desks which, by his own admission, was “long overdue”, as parliament literally shut its doors.

Many screen sector workers faced initial challenges in accessing support programs such as JobKeeper, while the lack of a nationally coordinated impact analysis from the Federal Government left it to the states and territories to piece together assessments and practical help.

Industry responded with ingenuity and resilience as productions found a way forward to continue to make content, against the odds.

The sector was quick to flag that Australia could capitalise on our relative success in suppressing the spread of COVID, and overseas productions have been able to come to Australia to shoot in the relative safety of our shores.

Australia benefits from cultural, business and trade connections all around the world, and long may that continue, grow and expand.

But the lesson staring us in the face, surely, is this is not enough on its own.

It’s well and good for the Minister to retweet messages of support from overseas talent and producers.

It’s great The Rock could realise his dream of filming his life story here in Australia.

But where was the Minister’s support for our local children’s producers, and their dreams, when the government suspended the screen content quotas during the pandemic? 

Where was his support when he effectively abolished children’s content quotas in the midst of a recession?

Where was his support when he decided to make it that much harder to get an Australian feature film financed?

The Minister should acknowledge and encourage our home-grown creatives too. The Australians working on local stories and projects, generating IP, creating jobs and running small businesses as they tell our stories; stories that must be told.

The government’s new local content sub-quotas give broadcasters more flexibility but permit significant reductions in output overall. 

It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the local production ecosystem – but the early preview is worrying.

The upfronts in 2021 are the legacy of previous policy settings; the upfronts in 2022 and 2023 will begin to tell the real story.

So what makes up the difference?

Even if you account for the $30 million announced for the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, that’s only a two year commitment that will have run out by the time today’s toddlers are in primary school.

Meanwhile it remains to be seen whether and how streaming services will contribute.

While the Minister talks a big game about regulating dominant US-based digital platforms for the news media, he doesn’t have the same steel in his spine when it comes to the screen sector.

The ongoing regulatory disparity between broadcasters and streaming services persists.

It’s coming up to two years since Labor committed to Make It Australian, yet this government continues to stall – kicking it into the long grass with a Green Paper – as it removes safeguards for Australian content.

The Morrison Government’s announced changes to the Producer and PDV Offsets present significant challenges for people trying to put Australian stories on our screens.

Labor is concerned about the long-term impact this could have on the domestic screen industry, and we will examine the legislation closely once it is released.

Australian taxpayer investment in international inbound productions supports temporary jobs, which helps support industry infrastructure, but delivers no cultural dividend.

It would cost relatively little to keep the Producer Offset going at 40 per cent for Australian productions with a budget of under $30 million, for a far greater cultural return on investment.

Most Australian films are touch-and-go as to whether the finance comes together. A 10 per cent cut to the offset means a whole lot of Australians will never be told.

This is a direct cultural cut to the number of Australian stories we’ll see on screen.

Meanwhile $400 million in funding to extend the Location Incentive program may be welcome news, but let’s not kid ourselves – it squarely admits that the Location Offset isn’t globally competitive.

This short-term sugar hit may be sweet but it leaves the cultural ecosystem malnourished and hungry.

Just as there is no certainty around our cultural safeguards or long-term policy settings, nor is there any certainty around the fate of COVID support measures beyond June this year.

As JobKeeper is withdrawn, there’s no confirmation as to whether insurance backup under the Temporary Interruption Fund will be extended.

Overall, this government’s response – whether a short-term COVID response or long-term cultural policy settings – has been thin gruel for Australian producers working on Australian stories.

Structurally, the fundamentals have not been nailed down to guarantee a strong domestic sector into the future; one that faces a challenging market with confidence.

Next month will mark one year since the Australian screen sector largely shut down in response to COVID.

We hope the next year doesn’t mark further shut downs, of the permanent kind, in response to the Minister’s policy failures.

Instead of being blinded by the bright lights of Hollywood, the Minister needs to do his job and produce a long-term, sustainable plan for Australia’s screen industry. 

This opinion piece was first published by InFilm on Tuesday, 16 February 2021.