Transport and art not expendable over debt

29 June 2016

I respect the fact that the Federal Government has a major budget deficit to deal with, and that spending needs to be reduced in many areas.  But we’ll argue forever over what sort of public spending is necessary and what is unnecessary.

However, I nominate a few things which, in my opinion, shouldn’t have to live with reduced public funding – transport and art.

I’ve long been a strong believer in expanding transport links, especially public transport links in major cities.  Public transport isn’t as attractive to private investors as tolled motorways.  You can see where your money comes from on a tolled motorway, namely via what used to be a toll booth and is now a mounted electronic device, under which drivers hear electronic tags beep on their vehicles as they pass through, taking money from registered accounts whenever they use the tollway.  On the other hand, where you get your money from investing in public transport isn’t so clear, at least directly.

The benefits of public transport aren’t measured simply by how much money goes into some investor’s pocket when people use it.  Instead, the benefits come in the form of fewer cars on roads, less traffic gridlock, less environmental pollution, faster travel times, and less time away from work or home or both.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I saw a major newspaper run a story with an actual price tag on the economic cost of inadequate public transport.  This story said that traffic gridlock in Sydney alone cost the economy about $1.5 billion per month, or $18 billion per annum, in lost productivity.  When you consider that governments have long been scared of spending a few billion dollars on building new public transport links, because of the prospect of budget deficits and the appearance of being clumsy economic managers, I’d argue that keeping people stuck in their cars for the sake of maintaining a budget surplus is counterproductive.  A budget surplus built on refraining from spending on public transport, thus keeping people stuck in gridlock when they could be working, is a mirage and a fraud.

I could go on about the kind of public transport that Sydney really needs in order to reduce its car dependence and subsequent traffic gridlock.  But just a handful of projects, albeit not of the sort that the NSW Premier is building, would do more to reduce the gridlock than any motorway or road tunnel.  Economic productivity is only boosted when you get people and goods and services from one place to another in a quicker time, and the short-term cost of such spending on public transport is more than worthwhile.

On the other hand, it’s arguable what benefits lie in public spending on arts.  But I’m in favour of such spending, as long as it’s productive, and I oppose recent reductions in spending on arts and on bodies funding them.

It’s true that art can be something of a lottery.  Artists can create incredible works, and they need ideal environments in which to show them off.  Naturally, not all art ends up appealing to wider audiences as artists might expect, but how often have we heard stories of artistic works actually winning people over despite being written off as boring in the eyes of experts?

Over time, many art festivals have become popular enough to attract commercial sponsorship, but a lack of popularity doesn’t necessarily mean that some festival should stripped of funding altogether.  Sometimes, especially when people are doing it tough financially and don’t have as much to spend on tickets to cinemas or theatres, they might be tempted to visit a local art exhibition if, as a result of a public grant, entry is free, or maybe costing only a dollar or two dollars – the equivalent of a gold-coin donation.  Not all art exhibitions or programs will pull in masses of people, but sometimes they succeed in ways that few expect.

Of course, countless organisations function with their members’ money, rather than public money.  I’ve been involved for years with community theatre groups, whose people perform on stage for the love of it, and I’ve been playing with a concert band full of people who love playing musical instruments – they don’t necessarily seek public grants to survive, although they just need decent facilities, be they community halls or the like, to store their equipment and practice for performances.  I know of such organisations being relocated because of the cost of facilities or because someone else is prepared to pay big money to take their premises.

But I see nothing wrong with public funding for touring theatre groups or community bands or simple organisations inviting people to paint or build things.  It’d be great if they could rely on commercial sponsors to survive and thrive, but an inability to attract such private sponsorship shouldn’t disqualify them from support.

These facts make me consider transport and art not expendable over paying off debt.  It’s not worth cutting spending on everything, for any reason.



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