Professor Carolyn Evans, Vice Chancellor and President, Griffith University
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to HOTA, Home of the Arts here on the magnificent Gold Coast. My name is Carolyn Evans. I’m the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, which is proud to be the cohost of this event, alongside our partner, HOTA. I begin by respectfully acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us. And for those of you joining us virtually, I recognize that traditional custodians across the many lands on which you are gathered. Could I also acknowledge Councillors of the Gold Coast City Council, William Owen-Jones and Glenn Tozer; Professor Emeritus Ned Pankhurst, Chair of the Board of Directors; Ms. Criena Gehrke, CEO of HOTA; and many other distinguished friends and guests who are here with us tonight. It’s such a pleasure to welcome you to the fifth in our event, Creating a Future for All series of conversations. The final event for 2020 we’re proud to once again be joined by master interviewer, Kerry O’Brien. Kerry has very clearly stamped his mark on this series of conversations. His unique style has brought out thought-provoking insights from our guests. So, we decided for the last time in 2020, we better challenge him a little, I asked him to facilitate a discussion with not one guest as we had previously, but three. It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is still of course top of mind for all of us. But what is increasingly clear is that people want to talk about the immediate – what is happening now, what are the challenges now – but also look beyond the threats and begin to consider the uncertainties, the complexities, and the promises of an unknown future. The questions we want to tackle tonight are sufficiently challenging that we brought three outstanding panel members to help cover them. The first joining us via the video link is Dr. Rebecca Huntley, an Australian social researcher and expert on social trends. She is an author and researcher who has been a regular columnist for The Business Review Weekly, a feature writer for Vogue and a radio presenter for Radio National. She regularly features on radio and TV. Also joining us here is Mr. Mick Auckland, who is the director of programming and presenting service with our value partner, HOTA. He’s a highly experienced senior leader at the major international events. He was the divisional head involved in the delivery of four ceremonies of the London 2020, yes, sorry, 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and was Head of Ceremony, Arts and Culture for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. And finally, Professor Nigel McMillan, a cancer biologist whose research has focused on viral causes of cancer. He’s deputy Head of the School of Medical Science, and program director in the Menzies Health Institute Queensland here at Griffith University, leading a team of 200 researchers here on the Gold Coast. Many of you though will know Nigel from his many television and radio appearances throughout COVID-19, having become one of Australia’s leading and most trusted voices on health aspects of the pandemic. As this is the last in conversation for 2020, could I take this opportunity to say thank you to everybody who has worked so hard to make the first five conversations a success, including my own great team at Griffith, particularly Philip, Julieanne, Nick, Mark, and Julie, and our wonderful colleagues at HOTA , with whom we’re looking forward to continuing this series in 2021. And so, for the last time in 2020, it’s my pleasure to hand over to Kerry to start the conversation.
Kerry O’Brien: The world has been living in a very real state of crisis for the best part of this year now, the extent of which was unthinkable until it happened. And today’s panel brings together three critical community voices reflecting science and medicine, arts and culture, and social and economic behavior to take stock of the world’s worst pandemic in a century, as it heads into the northern winter, how dramatically we reacted to it, what we’ve learned about ourselves and what’s to come. The timing of the virus has been truly remarkable, coinciding with a digital world of dramatic change and few certainties, great instability, polarization, and shaky democracy, where the very nature of truth has been systematically undermined, so not much to talk about. Nigel McMillan, things are okay in Australia at the moment. But the northern hemisphere is entering a winter from hell. With third waves threatening, which means none of us around The Woods until we have an effective vaccine. So, I’d like to start by getting the clearest possible picture of where we stand, with the three vaccines currently being touted. What do we know? And what more do we still need to know about whether those vaccines will in the pandemic?
Professor Nigel McMillan: Well, Kerry, 12 months ago, we knew nothing. We knew absolutely nothing about this particular virus. And in the short 11, and a bit months that we’ve been exposed to it, we’ve gone from that lack of knowledge to three vaccines, which are basically now finished human trials. And we’re starting to hear reports about the initial results, which suggests all three of them, the Moderna, the Pfizer, and the Oxford vaccine all seem to work fairly well in terms of preventing disease, and preventing infection, some a little better than others. And so, this gives us great hope that we will be able to get the vaccine out to people. Now what is that going to look like? These vaccines, we’re going to have a rather rushed approval process. But it’ll still be a thorough approval process through the TGA in Australia. And we’ll get that vaccine out to people, I believe in January, I think in America, they’re looking at it December.
O’Brien: You mean they’ll start getting it out.
McMillan: They’ll start getting it out. But we really won’t have that rollout, a full rollout until probably mid-year. And I think by the end of 2021, everyone who wants a vaccine should probably be able to get a vaccine. But this next year, I think it’s going to be a bit messy in terms of the logistics of getting these vaccines out, there’s going to be an interesting, interesting international game in terms of who’s at the front of the queue, and who’s second, and third. Many governments have invested a lot of money in these vaccines and pre bought them, it’s not clear how that distribution is going to occur. And so, by the end of 2021, Australia will be, I think, in a position to start becoming normal again. But I think we’re going to be playing that waiting game of trying to get the population vaccinated in the next 12 months.
O’Brien: So, two of these three vaccines require intense cold, don’t they? So, paint the picture of how they’re actually loaded and transported from the other side of the globe to Australia.
McMillan: So many things have changed in this pandemic, things that we didn’t think were possible, are possible. And one of those is the technology that two of these vaccines use. So, these are called mRNA vaccines. This is a brand-new technology that has never been in a vaccine before. Now mRNA is essentially a genetic instruction to the cell to make a protein. And it’s quite unstable, and it’s actually deliberately unstable because we don’t want them hanging around a long time. That means we have to store them at very cold temperatures. So, the vaccine from Pfizer, which essentially seems to be the front runner right now needs a temperature of minus 80 degrees. Now, in my laboratory, I have minus 80 freezes, most hospitals have minus 80 freezes. This is the temperature of dry ice, the Moderna vaccine claims to only need minus 20. So, that’s your household fridge freezer, you know, to sit in the freezer, that poses challenges is to actually getting this out through the cold chain to hospitals, GPs don’t have minus 80 clinics. So, how are we going to actually get this vaccine out to people? I suspect that every COVID clinic or hospital will become a COVID vaccine clinic and that’s the way they’ll do it. To be fair, Pfizer have taken on the responsibility of actually managing that cold chain for the government. And so, they feel that’s a problem solved, I suspect.
O’Brien: So they’ll be packing planes, over in America, they’ll be packing planes with dry ice.
McMillan: So, there’s a big plant in American and there’s a big plant in Germany, and they’ll be filling these big planes with big buckets of dry ice with thousands of vials of vaccine and flying them directly to us and all over the world.
O’Brien: Now you’ve actually used that same process with flying drugs to Australia. How well is that gone?
McMillan: Yeah, it’s a bit of a hit and miss process in my own experience. So, we often get materials, research materials, over from Europe and America. About half of our boxes arrive without any dry ice in them anymore. You might say that our customs officials are quite efficient. And sometimes we have a hold up there with paperwork. But it’s not a trivial process. Dry ice is very heavy too. And of course, you you’ve got a plane full of co2. So, there’s it’s not the safest thing to be doing in some ways. So this is not a trivial exercise.
O’Brien: We know what’s claimed from the tests so far, up to 90 or 95% effective, which is way more efficient than the flu vaccines that we use. Do we know yet whether one – not one dose because I know – is true for all three of them that you need to do two doses and will that mean that if it works the first time that you are likely then to be immunized into the indefinite future?
McMillan: This is a an incredibly important question for vaccines. And so, we know from people who are naturally infected with normal human coronaviruses, their immunity doesn’t last, we get infected with them each year. With COVID-19 virus or the virus that causes COVID-19, we’re now seeing, in fact as recently as this last week, papers suggesting that immunity is in fact, a lot longer lasting than normal. So, we have an expectation that the vaccine is going to be much better than that. So, my expectation of the vaccines right now, and only time will tell, is that they would last at least three years. And really, after that, we’ll have to see if it wanes and we need a booster. Now, we need tetanus boosters every five to 10 years – flu, we vaccinate for every year. But that’s for a different reason, because it changes.
O’Brien: But the key with this one is to have that first impact that stops the pandemic and gets us back to some sense of normality, by which time hopefully, we can then control the process. So, of course, we’re not just depending on fixing up our own situation, we are hugely reliant at the bottom of the world, on all these other countries that have been savagely hit also getting it under control. And when you look at the madness in the United States, you really wonder how long it’s going to take. Where 200,000 cases are emerging, new cases are emerging every day.
McMillan: The United States right now is on a path that will lead them to around 450,000 deaths. Now that the same number of soldiers they lost in World War Two. And that’s incredible. UK right now are on a path, one in 1000 people in the UK have died from COVID virus. 55,000 deaths. So, they’re in a terrible space. And of course, the United States has a very sort of an independent streak. So, the question is, what’s the vaccine uptake going to be like in the United States? This is right, this is a worldwide problem. This virus is now everywhere, and we’re not getting rid of it. And if one country chooses not to vaccinate, then we’re going to have to ring-fence Australia around. And I would suggest that a condition of entry to Australia will be vaccination for this disease, that would be a sensible decision for our government to make. To allow us to keep being part of the world.
O’Brien: So, an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? But on the one hand, Scott Morrison may be able to enforce a vaccine, a compulsory vaccination for people coming into Australia, which he couldn’t enforce within Australia.
McMillan: I think that when we think about within Australia, is there a need for us to vaccinate everyone? There actually isn’t. If we vaccinate our oldest population, or older people, our most vulnerable people, diabetics and the like, we will eliminate deaths: all the deaths are in those particular groups. Now, we would really like about 70% of the population to be vaccinated. This will stop the virus circulating around and affecting those people who can’t get vaccinated. So, we have, we have some people who just can’t be vaccinated. And of course, older people, their immune systems eventually wear out and vaccines don’t work anyway. Now, we don’t need 100% of people to be vaccinated. So, we can, I think from an infectious diseases point of view, that’s okay.
O’Brien: Given the battering that scientists have taken trying to convince the world to do something about climate change, you as a scientist must have been somewhat reassured, on the one hand, there say political leaders relying so openly on their health experts to guide their fight against the virus. Yet on the other hand, you see Anthony Fauci, who became Donald Trump’s kicking boy, but won wide respect across America threatened amongst other things with the decapitation for speaking truth to his country.
McMillan: Yeah, there’s a huge debate about what is truth. And someone like Anthony Fauci, who is who’s gone through the AIDS pandemic, or the AIDS epidemic at the time, provided a wonderful leadership to his country over many, many years, roundly abused and not believed. You know, if Anthony Fauci was in Australia, he’d be a hero. You know, you look at each state looking to their Chief Health Officers and buying into the advice. I think the reason Australia is in such a great position is because we bought into that advice and the public bought into the program. And that’s why we enjoy the freedoms that we have today. But you raise a much larger issue and that is, you know, who decides what truth is in terms of science and scientists are generally very careful people, where we will never tell you absolutely that this is the way things are, we can never prove anything 100% of the time. We’ve gone through this, 500 years of scientific philosophy, you know, tells us that you can’t prove something absolutely 100% but this of course, doesn’t play well in our 24-hour media landscape, clickbait headlines, etc. Where they only want one fact and the truth and we can’t give it to them.
O’Brien: Mind you, if I had if I had 96 aeronautical, top aeronautical engineers, telling me not to climb on a plane and four others telling me not to, guess which I would do? But Fauci says that even though he believes all Americans should be wearing masks, he’s hesitant to call for a national mask mandate, heading into such a bleak winter ahead, because Americans don’t like being told what to do. It’s not just Americans either, is it? What does that say about the limitations of modern leadership, even paralysis, if you aren’t confident enough, of a leader in such a crisis, to be able to bring people with you?
McMillan: There’s an enormous East-West divide here isn’t there? If you looked in the Pacific Ocean, and if you look at everything east, America and Europe, and you look at the situation there and compare that to New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China. It’s black and white. The populations of those countries, some of them authoritarian, most of them democratic, those countries have bought into what their government believes. In Europe, they’re suffer from a few issues around land borders, but it’s this selfish “me too” generation in a sense, where it’s all about me. And I’m, you know, I’m not buying into helping others. Now, that’s not everyone, of course. But then there is this sort of American stubbornness around how their country is formed. And it’s, you know, my way or the highway and this ration dependence in some ways, that’s got them in trouble, let alone their healthcare system, which they touted as the best in the world, which has abjectly failed them in this particular pandemic, because their lack of a good decent public health system, and the absence of that has led to many of the problems that they have now.
O’Brien I’m going to come back and I’ve got many more interesting questions to pursue with you, Nigel, but I’m going to bring Rebecca Huntley in now. And as a professional observer of people’s behavior and social trends, how do you reflect, Rebecca, on an extraordinary year overlaid on an extraordinary period of history, because although governments knew a pandemic would come at some point, no one foresaw how far reaching the social, political and economic impacts would be.
Dr Rebecca Huntley: Yes, that’s true. And I’ve had a few of my friends observed that I must be loving the pandemic as an example of what human beings can do under stress, that there’s so much that you can absorb and kind of an observed about Australian society when we have been under kind of both a summer of bushfires, and then very little respite before we headed into a pandemic. Just listening to Nigel speak then, I think in terms of what has positioned Australia well through this pandemic, I think one of the things that has helped us – leadership has been part of it but it hasn’t been at all – of Australians are, and have always been extraordinarily good at following orders. And they like rules. And as a result, when a crisis happens, we often pull together and we don’t get too hung up on things like, you know, the freedom to die from a virus. And that’s actually quite a positive thing. I mean, going to that point that you made about making masks mandatory, there’s a lot of work that’s done in different kinds of cultures, to say, the extent to which you need to make things always mandatory, or whether you need to get a critical mass of people doing stuff and the sheer fact that everybody is doing forces most other people to do it. If you actually say everybody has to wear something, what you what you can sometimes create is a minority backlash, that can do a lot of damage. And in some ways, we’ve seen that with immunization in Australia, even though immunization generally is widely supported by the community, there is a destructive, hardcore group of people who are anti-vaccination, I’m really concerned about the damage that they can do when we do have a vaccine available for COVID. And we’ve seen the role that they can play with climate denial, particularly if they happen to be in Federal Parliament, or in possession of significant media outlets. So, you know, it has been an extraordinary year for all those reasons to see, I suppose, the Australian character laid bare and the strengths and weaknesses of our society either amplified, amplified in various ways.
O’Brien: So, what have been the big patterns that have emerged for you?
Huntley: Look, I think the first pattern – and this is fascinating – is that in the initial stages of the pandemic, there was an uptick of trust in leadership of all kinds.
O’Brien: Off a very low base.
Huntley: Off a very low base. But you know, we take it where we can get it, because one of the things that has been concerning me over 15 years of research on Australians is just this deepening cynicism and disengagement from politics. Not people necessarily not voting, not necessarily people not voting formally or thinking that democracy should be checked out. But this increasing disengagement, these siloed and corrosive conversations. And this almost at you know, overhyped cynicism about our institutions. And it’s, it’s worried me greatly in terms of how are we going to navigate the many crises that we face, not just the pandemic, but climate change, rising social and economic inequality, if we are losing faith in the institutions that can actually shape the solutions for those kinds of things. So, you know, initially in the pandemic, it was interesting to see, we almost instinctively as humans turn to our leaders at a time of crisis. And we were, we were kind of following our rules, and we were kind of, you know, knuckling down to lock down. What always interested me ongoing is how long we were going to sustain that. And when we were going to start pointing fingers, and when we were also going to start a bit who was to blame. So there was, we saw it in terms of increasing racism towards Chinese Australians. We saw it at different times, you know, some really ageist narratives around young people being super spreaders or the only people dying from COVID are people over 75, so it’s okay. You know, so I suppose ongoing with, again, started to see those, the kind of the thin lines of social cohesion start to become thinner. And as we go into next year, when all the economists say will actually be far worse than this year for Australia, it will then be interesting to see how whether we start to see different kinds of governments different political persuasions manage that as well as they’ve done this year, when people’s, I suppose patience, for sacrifice starts to wear thin.
O’Brien: Were you surprised by the extent to which state tribalism kicked in? I mean, on the one hand, we had this, at least veneer – and I think real and in the early stages – sense of national unity through the hastily put together National Cabinet but Queensland became a target from New South Wales, and I did have a quiet – despite the overwhelming seriousness of the situation – I did have it as a Queenslander, I did have acquired chortle at the idea that Southern people might think that Queenslanders would be alarmed that they were angry with Queensland in the south. They were delighted by it at one level, but there was the stoush from outside Victoria. So, there was a brittleness, but there was also a tribalism wasn’t there? Again, I mean, you saw it in the Queensland election, and I suspect you’re going to see it early next year in the Western Australian election, were they talking about a landslide for the incumbent government.
Huntley: No, I think that’s right. And again, we see – and whether this is Australian, or whether this is human – our tendency to knuckle down and turn inwards at times of crises. You know, in some ways, I think the other thing that’s happened this year, which has been fascinating, is the extent to which state governments have been competing with each other in the Race to the Top on renewables. Every state wants to be, you know, the renewable superpower state. I always had this theory that because of the recalcitrance of the Federal government and the conservative Federal government on climate change, what we needed the states vying against each other for best possible renewable project. We’re starting to see that tribalism doesn’t surprise me, you know, and as somebody who has families from Northern Queensland, when we talk about the south, we mean Brisbane intra state tribalism. Yeah, um, I think that might be one of those things that that is reasonably short-lived and something that won’t last beyond, much beyond the pandemic, and is in many ways in the same way as we kind of turn to our leaders in a relatively uncritical way at a time of crisis, just how we respond when something so again, yes, predictable, but, you know, unfathomable at the same time for most people happens.
O’Brien: Just briefly, in one of our early conversations for the series. ACTU leader, Sally McManus, talked about the fault lines that the pandemic had exposed in our society. What fault lines would you identify and, in particular fault lines that perhaps we weren’t all paying all that much attention to is a within our own society?
McMillan: Well, at the beginning of the pandemic, I did a conversation at ANU, and I said, at this very moment, other than healthcare professionals, the most valuable person in this society is somebody who cleans a nursing home or a hospital. And they are almost certainly a woman who is on a very, very uncertain wage, probably from non-Anglo backgrounds. And the real fault line and the things that the major parties have not got their head around is who is the actual working class in Australia, who are the majority, you know, who are the people who are providing essential services at times of crisis, who we do value. And so, Sally would talk very kind of articulately about that. But I think that is one critical one. And that’s an intersection of, you know, race, gender, and where you sit in the economy. And those people are at the bottom of the pile in so many ways, but we rely on them so extraordinarily.
O’Brien: I wondered about the genuineness of and it wasn’t just any one leader. I mean, every state and federal leader was constantly thinking, health and other frontline workers and yet, and yet in the middle of all of those effusive “thank yous”, I noticed in one state at least, that they imposed a wage freeze on those same public workers. If I was going to be mean about it , I would say that it smacked of hypocrisy.
McMillan: No, it does. I think it’s very easy to congratulate people and thank them. And then there’s another thing to say, well, what are we actually going to do to ensure that they have safe, secure work, and if they get unwell, they feel safe enough to go and get a COVID test and self-isolate for two weeks because it won’t economically ruin them. So that is absolutely true? Mik Auckland, how has the pandemic affected the arts, from your perspective?
Mik Auckland: It depends on where you live. But as a holistic view worldwide, and probably in Australia, it’s pretty much decimated the arts. The art relies very much on micro businesses, micro economies is a huge, if you think of it as a pyramid, is a huge base of one and two main operations, people who run a truck, or run a prop shop, or make feathers for hats, who have no work, and who may leave the arts industry, and who the big players at the top of the tree rely on to generate the product that they then sell market, put on-stage, put-on film, paint, deliver in museums. So the industry is being devastated. I think there was a report a long time ago, right at the start, that talked about industries that were a V curve or a U curve and in the case of the arts and tourism, an L curve. And the L curve was structural damage. There is not a quick bounce back. And I don’t think there will be a quick bounce back.
O’Brien: And given the very nature that you described, you know, they’re the big companies, and they’re the spectacular kinds of programs. But I would imagine that that a lot of the impact on those small operations would be very well hidden when it comes to trying to measure the damage.
Auckland: It’s hidden in terms of trying to measure the damage. And it really came to light through Job Keeper and some of the government initiatives, certainly in Australia. And also talking to friends in in the UK, in as much as a lot of the arts industry work job to job, they might have three, four five, six different contracts a year, they’ll be set up in a different employment structure, they might be an ABN, they might work part time under a PYG for multiple employees. And they were frozen out of the Job Keeper subsidy system. So, their employers weren’t able to offer it to them because they haven’t been there for a year or they were a husband-and-wife partnership who had a structure as a partnership, and only one of those people was able to apply for those wages. So, they took a massive hit, and continue to take a massive hit until they come back. And I think you’re right, Kerry, a lot of that damage will be hidden, and it won’t surface until we start to find the people we relied on that maybe we didn’t even know we relied on just don’t exist in that chain anymore. Because they’ve had to move on. They’ve had to become an Uber driver, they’ve had to go and start a shop doing something completely different. They’ve had to turn their scenery factory into a factory that makes desks rather than scenery for a show, and they might find that’s more profitable for them in the long run. And so, they move out of an industry that they were an expert in.
O’Brien: So, do you believe that as an almost certain likelihood that some very talented people, who in many cases may have worked and struggled for a very long time to pursue their art, will be lost to the industry forever?
Auckland: I think undoubtedly there’ll be people who have found it too hard to continue in this industry and who made a decision to do something completely different, and their talents and their skills will be lost. And I’ve had discussions with people over the lead up to this. And we talked and we talked about an artist who makes a living from art, but makes a living earning maybe $25,000 or $30,000 a year. But they had an opportunity to make that living. At the moment, because the shows where they might normally display their art of being closed, the markets where they might normally have gone to aren’t there anymore, and so they’ve gone from almost subsistence to nothing. And they’ve had to find a different way of subsidizing their life. So, they’re gone, and institutions around the world will be gone. I read, again, I was doing some reading today and an estimate of about 85,000 museums and cultural institutions around the world closed, and about 10% of those won’t reopen. So those 8500, if each of them just employs 20 people, there’s 17,000 people around the world, 17,000 people who worked in a museum, that museum may have been an integral part of a city or a village or a suburb, attracts tourists gives the city something to deal with and to hang on to and to be proud of, it’s gone because they couldn’t open their doors, they can’t have people in, and they can’t sustain themselves. They have no government subsidy, they have nothing. Philanthropic subsidies have continued, but they’ll drop off because everybody is suffering in some way, shape, or form. There’s some very, very big end of town who you see the headlines, have made a lot of money out of the pandemic for very different reasons. But overall, I would say we’ll see a decrease in philanthropy, we’ll see a decrease in sponsorship because there’s less product to sponsor. People are wary about: will that product actually make it to the stage or film or screen or public event?
O’Brien: There was a very real sense that governments were tone deaf to the problems of artists and in the arts in Australia. And when the government did come good with some money, I still hear stories of how that money still has not filtered through to people. What do you think that says?
Auckland: I think that along with the premium that’s been placed on arts degrees says a lot about how the current federal government views the arts industry in arts and culture in general. I think it’s a government-by-government case, I think some state governments have stepped up in major ways to support their artists and their art industries, I think the Federal government will make a lot of noise about over $700 million dollars in art support. But if you start picking that apart, the amount of that makes its way to the grassroots or to people who are trying to create practices, is very small. Most of that money, $400 million – so over half of it – is dedicated straight towards trying to attract large scale foreign films to Australia, which is a great endeavor, I won’t diminish that industry. But if you go, right, we’ve given you $700 million, but $400 million if it just going to that lot. By the way, here’s another $50 million, that’s going to that lot as well. And $90 million of it is for guaranteed loans. And there’s no producers that I know of who are willing to take a loan at the moment. So $90 million of it is just sitting. Yeah, fluff.
O’Brien: So, it’s easy to blame government and governments are a reflection of us in the end, aren’t they? I wonder, do Australians really value the depths of an arts industry anyway, apart from the popular stream of say, cinema, the Netflix phenomenon, the mainstream music industry and reality television?
Auckland: I think if you ask anyone in Melbourne, if they’ve missed the opportunity to go out and hear a live band or go to the cinema, or go and see a show or go to a museum, then you get a very rapid response. Uh, yeah, we value the arts and we didn’t really know how much until it was taken away from us.
O’Brien: But, we let governments get away with it. No, I mean, historically, we do. I did some did a little trawl through my own memory and, looking at what history would suggest about the seeds of Australian creative, artistic life. I think most of those seeds in modern Australia were planted when the arts have had a champion at court. The film industry came alive when it was championed by John Gordon, the arts generally, again, under Whitlam and then under Keating, that’s three prime ministers showing a serious interest in the arts over about eight years in the last 50. What does that say about how much this nation not just its politicians, but this nation genuinely values its art and culture apart from getting a little swell of pride when we see Kate Blanchett an Oscar or something?
Auckland: I think, Kerry, without sticking the knife into the industry that I’m very proud of, I think it says as much about the industry and our inability to tell our story and the story of how valuable we are to the soul of the nation, the salve that we can be to a nation in times of great trouble. If you look at the way that the arts industry responded during the bushfires, for instance, who were the first people out there with concerts on with charity relief efforts. I think it says a lot about our inability to tell our own story in a meaningful way, without telling our story as a, I’m a poor struggling artist, you need to support me, you need to give me state support to survive. So, I think it says a lot about our inability to tell that story. I think COVID has been a real push along for the art industry. We’ve started to understand what we mean in terms of financial gain to Australia as a whole, $112 billion annually. $112 billion annually, in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, one in every 50 people, one in every 50 people works in the creative industries. So, we’re a big part of the population. But we haven’t told that story effectively. And we need to find ways to do that. And you think we’ll be able to because we’re really good at storytelling getting like we can’t tell our own?
O’Brien: It’s getting late, Mick.
Auckland: Well, it’s not because we’re coming out, we’re coming out of a horrible situation. And that is the time to push them.
O’Brien: You’ve had a long time to tell the story, the sort of, modern renaissance of the arts does go back to Gordon’s time.
Auckland: Now’s the time to push that reset button.
O’Brien: I’d agree with you. Rebecca, and before I go to Rebecca, who is also closely involved with the arts, just briefly how quickly you expect to see your recovery.
Auckland: I think it’ll be on a number of levels, Kerry, I think we’re seeing green shoots already. We’ve got projects down in New South Wales announcing they’re coming back for like big musical projects coming back. We’ve got concerts being booked in the concert promoters, asking about HOTA. I think that the touring art circuit will take a while to come back. So, those smaller productions that rely on having a series of events across a 6, 12, 18-month period, all lined up before they can go, they will take longer because they rely on festivals that aren’t yet of any certainty, and on organisations like HOTA, who can’t yet commit to some of the full house requirements that they might need, although we’re very close to doing that.
O’Brien: So, Rebecca, you are closely involved with the arts, you’re on the board of Bell Shakespeare, you’ve advised the Australia Council, with all the pent-up restlessness from all the restrictions over the last 10 months that we’ve had imposed on us, do you think the arts are going to come roaring back?
Huntley: Look, I think some of them, organizations that are already well placed both to take advantage of you know, the ability to deliver arts continually in both a live and digital stream and kind of combine them will be able to do that. Organizations that are good at getting the philanthropic dollar, which is gonna start to dry up. I mean, I’ve got to say I don’t think philanthropists in Australia have been particularly good at supporting the arts in this country compared to other countries. So, I think it will be an uneven and shaky return. There’s absolutely no doubt that people, there’s only so much Netflix and chilling you can do. And by actual Netflix and chill. I mean, actual Netflix, there’s only actually, there’s only so much Netflix that can sustain you. There is nothing like being in a live environment and seeing something and feeling the interaction around you. And people will miss that. I think the larger question is, have we lost through COVID the storytellers that are going to actually accurately explain what we’ve been through, you know, there should be a raft of interesting stories that is music, and plays, and writing about reflections on COVID that will support people as they try and work out what we’ve been through and what we’re going to go through. But have we lost some of those storytellers? Because in so many ways, those people are also people who are artists, are also reliant upon jobs in in sectors like education, which has been ravaged, hospitality and elsewhere. I mean, not all artists can marry, marry corporate lawyers, and not all artists want to. So we’re in a really difficult situation. And you’re right to identify that the arts do well, when you have leaders that would pay for theater ticket themselves.
O’Brien: I didn’t say they paid for their own tickets.
Huntley: And who knows, you know, whether they disclosed where they get those things, those freebies? I think, you know, having done a lot of research on community attitudes towards the art, I would say that people value the arts in theory, but what they don’t see are champions in across political, across public life in Australia who work diligently talk about the value that the art brings. Not just the economic value, the arts employ people, you know, the arts industry is an employer. It’s a contributor at every level. And so we need those constant voices that champion that in the way that we have those in sport across the nation. It’s almost inconceivable to have a political leader who doesn’t own at least one football staff in this country and we just don’t have the power in the arts.
Auckland: Yeah, maybe we need scarves.
Huntley: No, we don’t need scarves.
O’Brien: Only if you’ve got a draft theatre. Now, universities feed Australia’s creative industries and creativity and imagination and learning. At the center of our universe, really, whether it’s arts or engineering, yet, universities have been knocked rotten by this pandemic. Rebecca, how do they recover?
Huntley: I don’t know. You know, a political leader can look at the arts industry and think these, you know, these lefties don’t vote for me, I’ll ignore them, you know, they can diminish the economic value of the arts, they can do that very easily. Any clear-eyed economist would look at what the tertiary education sector provides to the Australian economy, its opportunity to provide that in the future. The solutions, for COVID, and any pandemic are not going to come from Google, and they’re not going to come from Gina Rinehart, they’re gonna come from universities. Ability to adapt and mitigate climate change is going to come from universities. And what is so extraordinary to me, and I can only see it as ideological, that the Federal government would actively exclude the university sector from Job Keeper, and from any kind of support, and it is a decimated sector across the board. We’re seeing talented young academics walking away, we are seeing mid-career academics taking voluntary redundancies, ending their careers in their early 50s. We’re seeing it across every single profession. And this is not a sector that was particularly well supported to begin with. But it’s a sector that is a huge employer. It’s a huge generator of valuable kinds of intellectual ideas of educating the next generation. I just cannot understand it, it makes no sense. And it doesn’t stem from the community. It really doesn’t. And again, it’s not necessarily something that people vote for. But I just, you know, that continuously 15 years of listening to Australians, what are the institutions that they trust, the institutions they turn to, the institutions they want their children to aspire to go to, and those are universities. And actually one of the most heartwarming political statements around universities was Jacqui Lambie’s speech saying that she didn’t want, you know, she did not support what the government is doing around higher education because she wanted every kid, no matter if they’re a poor kid from regional Tasmania, to aspires to go to university, and that is the general community view about universities and the value of the tertiary education sector. The view of economists, but not of our Federal leaders and I think it’s appalling.
O’Brien: So, Nigel, suddenly the scientists working on vaccines are heroes. So, have Australian science and medical research institutions, most of them attached to universities, been quarantined, from the hit that university generally have taken?
McMillan: Sadly, not at all. And I agree with the previous comments, you know, this government almost seems to have an ideological bent against higher education. You know, when people were put in the first pandemic lockdown, what do they all turn to? They all turned to the arts for entertainment. Absolutely. And the government turned to universities for solutions. And yet, some of the legislation that has recently gone through is essentially ripped almost $5 billion out of research support. And the government has said we’ve sorted their problem out because we’re putting a billion dollars back next year. Well, you don’t need to have an advanced mathematics degree to see that doesn’t quite add up, does it? Over time. It’s clear that every time we do an economic study into the value investment in, in medical research, let alone in the other research is that this pays us back in spades. So, the latest from the AAMRI, the Medical Research Institute of Australia, shows that we get $5 back for every dollar we invest in research. And you know, there’s the old story that, you know, the polio vaccine itself saved so much money, it could pay for all medical research that will ever be done. But of course, that’s not how politicians think. So, you know, I feel a little disheartened that this particular Federal government seems to almost, not have turned their backs but that there’s no windfall on this. And yet they turned to us for solutions and you know, UQ’s vaccine is going to be in a very important part of our recovery. And certainly they’re throwing some money into that, but as a sector, you know, we feel ignored, in some ways.
O’Brien: It’s sad but true that the older you get, the more memories you collect have of long, endless recurring debates about various things, particularly for covering politics. And one of them is about the importance of research and development in Australia. And, it’s one of those things where if you had a chart with a graph, it would be like that endlessly. I mean, we never seem to be able to learn about how to maintain some important critical elements of our society and our economy. And that would be one of them, surely. And we show ourselves, time and again, to be in the front of the world, when we’re given the opportunity to expand our own minds and make our own discoveries. How do you get the message through?
McMillan: And when you’re talking about the arts not telling their story, I’m reminded that I think that we as researchers to have a job to do and telling our story. So, I run a class for advanced research students, and I asked him at the very beginning of this class, can you name significant Australian medical research discoveries? And they struggle, and they’re science kids, and if we can’t find out from them, so you know, things like Gardasil, the hematocrit, you know, the first chemotherapy trial, cochlear ear implants, we bet so far above average. And as I say, this is all investment that’s, that pays itself back in spades. So, we, as a group, I guess, have to keep pounding at the door to say, this is fantastic. We have some of the world’s leading scientists in lots of great areas. And just think of Queensland, you know, in terms of vaccines, so Gardasil came out of Fraser’s lab, we have the UQ vaccine, we have a fantastic new company called Vaxis, who have this painless, nano-patch needle, that is going to be a huge thing in the future. We have an incredibly proud history, just within our own state, and let alone all the fantastic things that happen around the country. So, it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the government door and reminding them that this is not, this is not money poured down the drain, this is an investment that pays itself back.
O’Brien: It sounds like working at the ABC and knocking on the government’s door. I mean, they must have, they must be very heavily lined on the inside. Because it just seems to me it’s almost criminal. And I’m not just talking about one government. Can you remember a time in your professional career when there has been a sense of uniformity in government’s approach to this issue of scientific and medical research?
McMillan: Not at all. And I think, you know, perhaps this comes out of the way that we think about how government invests its money. So, you know, in terms of the way Treasury, who all departments bow down to get money out in their budgets, essentially, as to where we divvy this money up, and how we see it, we can blow up, you know, a few billion dollars on water in the Murray Darling Basin, but essentially not oversee how any of that actually occurs. And we have countless examples of wastage in government essentially. And yet, you know, you look at things like the arts, like the ABC, like medical research, which have clearly proven their case many times over. You know, perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, perhaps it’s the immediacy of elections that really, I want something to show you next election cycle to say, you know, I’ve got this vaccine out, a certain world leader perhaps would have liked announcements to be made a week or two earlier, you know.
O’Brien: Well, he was making them anyway.
McMillan: True enough.
O’Brien: I want to bring you back to what we started talking about, which is why we’re here: that’s the pandemic. You’re very much a part of society, as well as being the scientist, you’re not remote from society. What are the big picture patterns that have emerged for you about how we’ve handled the pandemic so far, and what it’s told you about our society.
McMillan: So, there’s been some incredible lessons out of this pandemic. So, there are a number of things that were previously not thought possible, that are now completely possible. So, think about changed work patterns. So, you know, I’ve said before that I think the NBN has actually been the best government investment in this pandemic, in the long run that we ever made. Because people can be productive at home, this idea that you could work from home, employers didn’t like it.
O’Brien: Some people will say despite NBN, but go on.
McMillan: It depends. Your mileage may vary. But generally, I think without the NBN with our old system, we would have been pretty snookered here on that sort of productivity, I think working at home. So, our work patterns are going to change completely from this pandemic, I think that you’ll find big companies will now perhaps deescalate their inner-city presence, they might regionalize out. A lot of companies have taken opportunities to restructure themselves, you know, never waste a good crisis, sort of thing. So, I think that’s been one lesson. Another lesson is, look what happened to the flu. We have had less than 5% of our annual flu cases. And that’s just because people wash their bloody hands. And you know, sanitizer was out there. And people covered their coffee. Like it’s really simple stuff that we banged on about and isolated themselves, banged on about for years and not made much of a difference. But hey, the pandemic comes along, suddenly, we’ve had hardly any flu deaths this year. People often ask me, well, what will people keep that up? I’m cynical that in five years’ time, we’ll be back to where we were. But we’ll see how that works out. And then other fractures, I think that I’ve noticed. So, we’ve seen young versus old, perhaps in a more worldwide sense. So older people clearly suffer the mortality of this disease, and young people don’t. And so, you know, you see partying in Miami Beach, etc, I’ll be fine. But you know, we’re not thinking about grandma and granddad, and nearly everyone has one. So, generally, so young versus old, and the debate about health versus economy. So, there’s this endless debate where we, if we lock down our economies stuffed, we’ve got to keep that economic activity and you see approaches from Sweden about how they went about that, which really hasn’t worked out really that well for them. So, do you take the short-term economic hit? So, I think that rich versus poor and racial disparities, so at the end of the first wave in New York, 3%, of, of white patients had antibodies to COVID and 21% of black patients and black people overrepresented in terms of deaths and hospitalizations in that city. So, there’s been lots of lessons, I think books and books will be written about this as time goes on.
Huntley: You know, I agree with all of that. And I think there was no doubt that the crisis would expose the big gaps and weaknesses and strengths and of our community. The question is now, is how do we respond when we vote? And how do leaders respond to that? Is it that we simply say, oh, well, you know, once it’s all going, when it all goes back to normal, we’ll still put up with those kinds of questions? You know, if we think that if we think that the pandemic exposes the inequalities in our society, wait for climate change. And the issues that happen there in terms of the people least responsible for climate change being at the forefront of its effects. So, I think it you know, there could be books written about the about what it’s shown about our society. The question now is what will leaders do? And our leaders particularly, I think, almost interestingly, because what the pandemic did is, I think, in the minds of Australians is kind of what the, the GFC did in the minds of Australians, which is we’re affected by the world, but we’re kind of lucky. It’s never quite as bad for us. So, it boosts a bit of hubris that we have that will kind of skate through okay. And we don’t know, we don’t know why that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the corner of the world. Maybe it’s because we’ve got reasonable leaders, maybe it’s because a certain amount of affluence, but there’ll be a moment where our luck runs out. And that’s got a lot to do with climate change, and I wonder what our leadership will be like, when that comes, just pointing out but the, you know, inequalities in our society will be insufficient, at that stage. We really have to do a lot to ensure that as we move into the climate age, we don’t look wistfully back at the pandemic, as you know, a nice time where we got to stay at home, bake banana bread and work from home in elasticated pants.
O’Brien: In elasticated pants?
Huntley: Oh, yeah, definitely. I’m wearing them right now.
O’Brien: I’m glad it works for some. And Nigel, it must have just struck you: the contrast between the way politicians, broadly speaking, have failed to embrace the science of climate change, and yet see many of those same politicians almost eagerly embracing and surrounding themselves with health officials to give them the kind of official stamp of approval on their policies to do with the pandemic.
McMillan: It’s, it’s stunning, in a sense, isn’t it? And you know, so what is this pandemic going to do to our climate change debate? You know, I think in certain countries, it’s not going to change anything at all. You can see this huge distrust of authority in the US, for example, where they won’t even you know, wearing masks became a political statement rather than an actual public health measure to save people. The fact that health officials are seen in a better light than climate scientists, and is that because of the way climate scientists have prosecuted their case? And we inherently trust health officials, because we all go to the doctor and have to do unspeakable things, sometimes? I’m really not sure. But I think in the long run, I’d like to think that politicians would, you know, my rose-colored world, I guess, would perhaps start paying a lot more attention, because the evidence around climate change is, is pretty incontrovertible. And it is going to happen. And the sooner we do something about it, the better. I mean, and yet we see states now deciding they’re gonna put taxes on electric cars, for example. I mean, the only country in the world that’s going to actually tax green technology in a sense.
O’Brien: We used to be seen as a country that embraced new technology. Well, I suspect if the circumstances were properly set, we would again with electric cars. But anyway, let’s not get too distracted. And before we come to a question to end on with all three of you, Nigel, one last one for you. That somewhere in all of this is the specter of other pandemics, because we’re told there will be others as a certainty, for which we might not so easily find a vaccine. How real is that concern? And how can we prepare better for that than we did this one, because there was a national committee set up in about 2000, the early 2000s, to prepare for this event. And it just got eroded and eroded and eroded because the pandemic didn’t come soon enough.
McMillan: So, every country in the world, thinking about that sort of worst-case scenarios, nuclear war, invasion and pandemics, it’s in the top three. And you point out rightly, that Australia, as essentially had forgotten a lot of its history, because it didn’t come along. We didn’t, you know, in America, they completely disbanded in the office. There’s no sure thing we are going to get pandemics in the future. Is it going to be 100 years? Is it going to be next year, it’s like the San Andreas fault, it’s going to happen, we just don’t know when. And I mean, we have had a major pandemic in 1968. We’ve had minor epidemics in as soon as 2010 with H1N1. So, it’s this is a constant war. The irony about almost the abuse of the Wu Han Virology Institute was that they were doing exactly what we need to do. We need sentinel places who are going to be surveying what’s going on with wildlife. And the more and more we encroach on wildlife territory, the more interaction we have, the more likely this is to occur. And you know, in Australia, we have a huge bat population. And we have people out there surveying what’s going on with the viruses all the time. So, it’s that really important work to see what is coming down the road that we need to be aware of, that’s going to be our first port of call having a pandemic plan. I think every government will have that now, for sure.
O’Brien: Will they still have it in eight years’ time?
McMillan: Well, maybe not in 80 years’ time or see if nothing happens. But in terms of technologies and vaccines, this has been a game changer, this particular pandemic to go from, from nothing to ready to go in humans in 10 months is, it’s unheard-of speed. I was involved in the development of Gardasil that took 15 years.
O’Brien: Well, you know that’s just there’s another side to that coin, Nigel, and that is that we think, oh, well, we did it in 10 months this time. We’ll just do the same next time.
McMillan: I think we have the technological capability to make vaccines to pretty much anything now. So, I’m not particularly concerned that we won’t to be able to make a vaccine. But we look at diseases, we are constantly attacked, HIV, you know, flu virus, this particular virus. I shamefully said very early on this, this is not a very good virus, and we were talking about whether it was man made or not. And I said if I was going to design a virus to cause mayhem, it wouldn’t be this one. And I shamefully recant that because it’s damn good virus and it’s caused a lot of mayhem.
O’Brien: Now I’m going to jump ahead two years for last round of questions. The vaccines have been successful. Global travel is just about back to normal. We’re clawing our way out of recession. Are we really going to be living life any differently than we were a year ago because we’re constantly being told it’s going to be a new world from here on in? Why won’t we just return to what normal used to be? Mick Auckland.
Auckland: Experienced at HOTA has told me that people want to feel safe during the pandemic. I think that we’ll hang on for quite a while. I think that there’ll be a mammalian memory, the effect of, you know, I’m not comfortable in a big mosh pit environment, I want to have my space, I want to have my wheat crop circles out, everybody fell in love with their crop circles because they had their own piece of land. I think that will hang around for a while. And we’ll see that effect definitely through the next couple of years. And that might impact on the return of people to the arts and the return of people to sit in close in a dark, confined room for an hour or two hours at a time. Although, if you look at the football, my case gets shot in the arm because you know.
O’Brien: I could not follow that, while we’re still socially distancing there’s 50,000 of us allowed to go to a stadium.
Auckland: Well, not only go to a stadium, but stand next to each other and sing the national anthem at full voice, while a choir who’s training has to stand four meters apart.
McMillan: And 200 a funeral.
Auckland: You know, so there was some slight inconsistency in policy there, I grant you.
Huntley: Look, I think one of the things I worry about in two years’ time, is even if we do return to normal, and then go back to my hobby horse of what’s happened to higher education, is that we’re going to have people having left higher education, having had people perhaps not the best experiences, students in higher education. All of the other challenges that faces us social, economic and otherwise, we need the best smartest, cleverest people turning our minds to those questions. Will we be able to deal with them adequately if we don’t have the personnel to deal with it? And if and on the arts question if we don’t have the diverse voices to interpret our present and our future. So, I worry that even though it’s been only two years, the damage done to some of those sectors will have a very long tail.
O’Brien: Are our work pattern’s going to continue to be much more flexible?
Huntley: I think yes. And I think there’s good and bad things about that. I think that there’s going to be, you know, the perhaps decentralization of cities, less commuting. But I also think there are questions around social isolation as well, that are going to increase, and the ability to work from home and elasticated pants as I said is not a privilege that is afforded to a whole lot of people. So, I’m aware that when I talk about the upside of flexible work, that doesn’t have a lot of resonance for the people that are still cleaning hospitals and still cleaning aged care facilities.
O’Brien: Is aged care going to be better? What have we learned? What have we learned as far as aged care is concerned and a pandemic, are they going to get instant access to hospitals like anybody else if they get sick?
Huntley: What I’ve realized, having done a lot of work in aged care, and spent a lot of time in aged care facilities, is I don’t know if we have an effective economic model to care for our aging population, if we also don’t have a community model for care. You can have the best possible care for somebody in an aged care facility, but if you don’t have people that they know and love to come and visit them and interact with them, you’re never going to have quality of care. It’s not just the staff. It’s not just the staff to, you know, resident ratio, it’s the people that have the time and have the relationships to come and visit people when they’re older. So, we need a whole of community response to care, we can have a government response we can have, we can throw a whole lot of money at it. But unless we spend time with people, older people, we’re not going to be able to care for them.
O’Brien: Nigel McMillan, are we going to be living life any differently as far as you’re concerned?
McMillan: I think we will. And I guess this question of working at home and work disturbing into our home life, we need to definitely find a balance there. I think that in terms of international travel, I think that the leisure traveler will jump at it, I think they’ll really be into it. But I suspect the business traveler will be more reluctant to travel. The idea that we can do business quite efficiently, the video conferencing has come of age. I think that will mean, I think a lot less international conferences for Nigel Macmillan. And, and then perhaps the best thing in a few years’ time is you won’t need to be hearing from me because there won’t be any pandemic to worry about.
O’Brien: I do hope you’re right. a terrific discussion. I thank Rebecca Huntley, Nigel McMillan, Mick Auckland. Thank you all very much for engaging in this conversation tonight. Thank you.
Criena Gehrke, CEO at HOTA: Hi, I’m Criena Gehrke. I’m the CEO here at HOTA, Home of the Arts. And I get to say the “thank yous” tonight, which is always a great privilege. Kerry, thank you for guiding us through a global pandemic, both literally and metaphorically over the last conversations that we’ve had the great privilege to host here at HOTA. As for the panel, Nigel, Rebecca has disappeared, have you? Somewhere out there in cyberspace, and the absolutely delightful Mick Auckland who I have a vested interest in. I just want to recap things that I have learnt tonight and it’s a pity that Rebecca has gone because elasticated pants are good. Right? So that’s my top takeaway, and I’m going to actually bring them to work as well as at home. You too?
McMillan: We didn’t discuss work dress patterns that may change, for the worse.
Gehrke: I feel like making you three stand up and go-
McMillan: And although let’s face it with science, the standards are pretty low, let’s face it.
Gehrke: Well, that leads me to the first thing that I’m going to take away from tonight, which is trust the science people. Absolutely trust the science, even if it isn’t 100% perfect. And I always disclose that I have the great privilege of working with a chair who is a scientist and through this whole pandemic has reminded me of the science time and time again. The other one was seek the truth. The third one was tell the stories and tell better stories and tell them loudly and clearly and scream them from the rafters. Be curious about our humanity. And I do wonder whether, when we combine all of those things, that what we’re actually seeking is the new Renaissance, where politics, academic pursuit, the arts, philosophy and the very humans that we are, all come together to make the world a better place. So, thank you for a wonderful conversation this evening. To Carolyn Evans and the team, we have been delighted with this partnership, to be able to have these exquisite conversations during what has been an extraordinary time and we needed them and required them more than ever. So, thank you to you and your amazing team. To the HOTA team, you are incredible. I’m very grateful to work with all of you and I’m very pleased to say that we will be continuing these conversations next year, and we can’t wait to welcome you back to HOTA. Wash your hands. Good evening.