A Storm Is Brewing

Today, I write on a subject, about which I am extremely and profoundly passionate: Australia and Australians in the Arts.

No, this is not a ‘patriotism’ column. I’m not about to hark on about singing the national anthem at every theatrical event (although, kudos to Kookaburra for giving that idea a red hot go). I am proud to be an Australian. I am proud to be an Australian involved in the Arts. I love seeing new Australian work developed and showcased to the world. What I am writing about it making sure Australian jobs stay available for Australian actors.

equity meeting chalmers street
Performers gather at Equity’s Sydney offices to show their concern about the Government’s proposed changes to the Foreign Actor Certification Scheme Guidelines. Photo by Peter Ross

Australians such as Baz Lurhmann have taken cinematography and film making to a new level with films like Australia and Moulin Rouge. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert began as an Australian film and is now a Broadway smash hit musical. Offspring, Underbelly, The Secret Life of Us – all fabulous Australian television shows which have employed Australian actors and allowed Australians the opportunity to work in an industry which is unforgiving at the best of times.

All very lovey-dovey thus far. Here comes the outrage:

I am shocked and appalled at a recent proposal in government policy which would strip the rights, and work opportunities for Australian performers in film and television. Recently, the Australian Government proposed what has been described by the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (Actor’s Equity Union) as “radical, sweeping changes to the existing laws which ensure Australian performers have a fair chance of landing jobs in Australian-made productions, financed by Australian taxpayers.”

I’m sorry? Producers would be allowed to give overseas actors lead roles in Australian productions, filmed here, and paid for by the Australian taxpayers? Yes, you read that correctly.

For two decades, rules have been in place to protect the rights of Australian performers in Australian productions that are funded by the government or protected by local content laws.

Under the current rule book, productions like the film Australia – which was supported by the Australian Tax System – need a minimum of 30% foreign finance in order to allow one overseas lead actor, one supporting actor and one cameo. Under the proposed new laws, (however ludicrous it may sound for a film such as Australia), there would be absolutely no restrictions on importing overseas actors for any role, should the production team insist.

Sorry, Hugh Jackman – we’re getting Brad Pitt in to play the Australian drover. He’s just got more box office appeal.

Let’s look at television series’, such as Home and Away, Neighbours, and Packed to The Rafters. Where producers would have been rarely, if ever, allowed to import actors, under the new scheme there would be no restrictions at all.

What I am harping on about is the need to protect jobs for Australians. Our film, television and theatre industries are difficult to find work in already, but at least under the current rules, even foreign films like The Matrix which were filmed in Australia, must provide opportunities for Australian performers. If the proposed changes go ahead, no Australian actors need be hired at all.

The draft proposal to change our Foreign Actor Certification Scheme Guidelines came out in May, and the government allowed Equity only one week to respond. Not only is this a ludicrous amount of time in which to go over a document fully with the necessary amount of detail, it is insulting to Australian performers. A change like this would affect our lives and livelihoods so drastically, it is completely unreasonable for the government to expect the entire Arts community to:

a) learn about the changes, discuss them, agree on them and/or voice our opinions
b) accept such radical changes one week after the document was issued without so much as a dialogue between the union and the government.

I spoke with an equity spokesperson yesterday about what we can do to help the situation:

“We had a very successful meeting in Sydney where more than 100 performers turned up, and that had a very positive impact on the [Equity] campaign”, the spokesperson said. “At that meeting, the Office of the Arts said wider consultation was needed and they would work with Equity to make this happen”

Basically, they hadn’t done enough research before submitting the draft. The existing rules have been in place for twenty years. Why is the government about to change them? The answer is, quite simply, that we don’t know. There was no consultation with Equity before they proposed the change.

Simon Whipp, Director of Equity has said that: “Where the Australian government is providing funding, or local content regulations exist, the production should be providing jobs for Australian workers.”

Doesn’t this seem like an absolute no-brainer? Would this ever happen in other work sectors across the country? Would the Government decide to fund the construction of a building and then allow the developers to import a construction crew of their choice? Of course not. It is unacceptable in that situation and it is unacceptable here.

We need to show the government how concerned we are about these changes. Yes ,the rules are going to be redrafted, but we need to make sure that they are redrafted with performers’ best interests in mind.

“If productions are funded by our government, they must provide opportunities for our Australian workers”, said Simon Whipp.

“This is a very reasonable request and similar rules apply in the USA and UK”, he said.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in order to bring about change, we need to demonstrate that we, as a community, care enough to stand up for what we believe in. Other countries protect their workers in the Arts, and so should we. Meetings have taken place in Sydney already (see picture) about this issue. There will be a meeting on Sunday 10 July in Melbourne and another on Sunday 17 July in Sydney.

I, for one, don’t want to see Australian actors left with the bit parts, in shows filmed in our own backyard. I certainly don’t want to see Australians losing job opportunities. I want change, but not this kind of change. A storm is brewing, and if we do nothing, the arts industry will change forever.

For more information visit http://www.aussiefaces.org.au/ where you can sign a petition and write to Arts Minister Simon Crean.

Erin James

Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *