Details of the federal government’s National Cultural Policy have been kept under wraps ahead of its unveiling at St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel on Monday morning, but expectations are high. It’s the first such overarching policy Australia has had in a decade, and everyone from authors to musicians to painters is hoping there’ll be something in it for them (and given the venue, the rockers should at least get some satisfaction).

But despite the lengthy consultation process, multiple working groups, a delayed launch (it was supposed to be delivered last December), and a soaring ambition to embed culture in all aspects of government policy, there’s a real chance Arts Minister Tony Burke’s long-awaited blueprint will be as notable for what’s not in it as what is.

Ayesha Madon as Amerie and Asher Yasbincek as Harper in Heartbreak High, a show Netflix made without quotas, but in full knowledge they could be coming.Credit:Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

Burke – who is also responsible for industrial relations, and has vowed to treat artists as both creators and workers – has been outspoken about the “decade of neglect” under successive Coalition governments that has left many of the nation’s major cultural institutions struggling with crumbling buildings and chronic staff shortages. But there will be no joy for them on Monday. They will have to hope and pray for salvation in the May budget.

Nor will the policy have anything to say on the topic of the incentives that have lured foreign productions to Australia in record numbers – more than $1.8 billion worth of Hollywood film and TV content has been made here in the last two years alone – despite the fact the $400 million location offset fund announced in July 2020 looks certain to be exhausted well before its end date of 2027.

“There’s a lot of jobs that come from that, there’s a lot of work that comes from that, but those stories are not necessarily Australian stories,” Burke told the crowd at Queensland’s Woodford Folk Festival on December 30. “They form more of a trade policy than a cultural policy.” As such, he added, they “won’t be part of the announcement on January 30”.

What will be revealed is the government’s stance on one of the most hotly contested pressure points in the Australian cultural landscape: a local content quota for streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+. But insiders suggest there’s a real chance even that won’t contain the most critical detail of all – a number.

Alyla Browne and Sigourney Weaver star in Amazon’s The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.Credit:Amazon Prime Video

Until now, the streamers have operated without regulation in Australia (unlike the commercial free-to-air broadcasters and Foxtel), meaning they are under no obligation to produce or even carry Australian content. By contrast, the European Union requires 30 per cent of titles in the large streamers’ libraries to be from European countries. Individual countries also impose local content levies of varying degrees, as high as 20 per cent of revenue in France and Italy, as low as 1.5 per cent in Greece.

Meanwhile, Australian scripted content on free to air dropped from 208 hours a year to 67 over the decade from 1999 to 2019, according to a 2021 academic study).

In opposition, Burke made it clear that he supported the idea of a local content quota being imposed on Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple and the others (including Stan, which, like this masthead, is owned by Nine), and that he leant towards a levy on Australian revenue rather than a percentage of library content.

He also made it clear that he thought the then Coalition government’s proposed figure of 5 per cent, coupled with a largely self-regulatory regime, was “too little too late”. But in government, some senior figures in the streaming sector suggest, the full complexity of the situation has become all too apparent.

Minister for Arts Tony Burke says Australia’s cultural institutions are in a state of disrepair.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“At one stage, I felt they were going to come out with an extremely high number tied to revenue – probably 20 per cent,” says one senior figure, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But in recent months it feels like they’ve realised it’s not that simple.”

Says another, who predicts Monday’s announcement will not include a number at all: “They don’t yet have the modelling to predict what the economic impact of a particular number will be, so they need to get that and then consult with the industry properly before they lock it in. I think they’re going to kick it down the road for at least another six months.”

What makes the question of a one-size-fits-all quota so vexed is that the streamers operate on vastly different models.

Stan and Paramount+ are owned by companies that also own free-to-air TV stations (Nine and 10 respectively), which are already subject to local content requirements (though these were watered down considerably under the Coalition), and they are understandably anxious to avoid double regulation.

Prime Video is just one part of the Amazon membership offering, the main purpose of which is to retain customers for the shopping experience; calculating revenues attributable to the streaming service alone would be extremely complicated, and open to contest. Apple+ is frequently offered as part of a bundle, and designed as an inducement to keep customers within the Apple ecosystem; how much of the company’s Australian revenue is due to subscription alone might be similarly opaque. Disney+ and Netflix are pure streaming plays, as are Britbox and AMC+ and a litany of others, though they operate at vastly different economies of scale.

Chris Hemsworth at the launch of Thor Ragnarok in Sydney in 2017. Disney has argued that the production of such movies should count towards any local content obligations.Credit:James Alcock

There are added complications too. Disney is a major producer in this country, and wants anything it spends on a Marvel movie, say, to count towards its obligations. Forcing all streamers to commit to Australian content could damage Stan by eliminating its point of difference, a focus on Australian-made productions. The recent financial troubles of Netflix (and Disney) have shown that streaming may not be the industry’s magic pudding after all.

Advocates of streaming quotas insist they are essential to guarantee a sustainable level of investment in Australian screen stories, and that seeing ourselves reflected on screen is critical to the health of our cultural life. Publicly at least, the streamers (and FTA broadcasters) agree with the latter part of that equation. They just don’t think they need to be forced to do it.

In their submissions to the review that has informed the development of Labor’s National Cultural Policy, Netflix and Amazon both cited the $628 million spent by the streamers on “Australian or Australian-related” content in 20121-22 as proof of their commitment. That was up from $268 million a year earlier, and it is about five times as much as the combined investment of the commercial free-to-air channels, Foxtel and Screen Australia in Australian drama, children’s and documentary, the genres currently subject to sub-quota obligations for non-streamers.

It should be noted that the streaming spend includes sports documentaries, comedy and reality programming, and if those were to be included across the board, the free-to-air and pay TV spend on Australian content would vastly eclipse that of streaming.

Australia is undeniably in the midst of a production boom. A record $2.29 billion was spent on scripted film and television in Australia last year (including foreign shows), up from the previous record of $1.94 billion set a year earlier.

“What exactly is the problem they’re trying to fix here?” asks one senior streaming figure, who adds that increased obligations will only lead to inflation in a sector already struggling with a shortage of crew and facilities.

The answer lies in the matter of trust.

There are those on the production side who believe the streamers have only ramped up spending in anticipation of regulation, to prove they are good citizens who need no more than a velvet touch to guide them.

There is also the question of sustainability. Lobby group Screen Producers Australia, which wants a 20 per cent quota, believes the current production boom is no more than a temporary blip “and therefore should not be the basis for any permanent policy development”.

This debate has been simmering and occasionally raging almost since the moment Netflix officially entered the Australian market in 2015. It has dragged on so long in part because of the complexities within the sector, its interrelatedness with FTA television, and the rapid evolution of technologies of delivery.

Everyone is expecting Tony Burke to reveal at least which streamers will be subject to a levy on Monday, and to lay down the principles underpinning the quota system his government will introduce. Not putting a number on it would no doubt be greeted with groans by the production sector, but given the complexities that lie ahead it might not be the worst idea in the world.

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

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