Is it a question of films or MRI machines?

It was announced last week that the federal government has offered Disney over $20 million to film their new epic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in Australia. This follows on the heels of the $12+ million on offer for The Wolverine, and is part of the money highlighted in the Creative Australia arts policy designed to lure international production back to Australia. Suffice to say, then, that while the production is something of a coup for the industry, it was hardly surprising.

Yet within a matter of days, Labor backbencher Ed Husic was speaking out against the decision. “I don’t need 20,000 leagues of sea [sic],” he said. “I need an MRI at Mount Druitt Hospital.”

It’s a compelling argument – giant entertainment corporation vs. sick Australians – but also a flawed one. It’s flawed for three main reasons: that it doesn’t compare like with like, it doesn’t address the problem in the right arena, and it doesn’t properly define its terms.

For starters, this isn’t an instructive to look at the 20,000 Leagues funding. Comparing it to hospitals is an emotional plea, not a logical one, and replace the words “20,000 Leagues” with almost any other project or policy outside of health (and maybe education) and the same argument could be applied.

“I don’t need a bridge/public event/park/airport/tank/etc., I need an MRI at Mount Druitt Hospital.”

This plea relies on the notion that quantity of life is the most important concern; that there’ll always be a sick Australian in need of funds, which isn’t how we should allocate funding.

This isn’t to say that we don’t need more health funding, or that giving grants to Disney is the best use of our arts budget. But health and arts budgets are different, with the former already being significantly larger than the latter. Arguing for a new MRI machine needs to be done when those budget are set, and then within the health budget. Cherry-picking a convenient target from another portfolio isn’t policy-making, it’s PR. That Husic only chose to raise issue with this expenditure once it had a face and name, even though money for such a project was included in the Creative Australia policy announced by ex-Arts Minister Simon Crean only would seem to support this claim.

Lastly, the phrase, “I don’t need 20,000 leagues…” obscures the purpose behind Gillard and Tony Burke’s announcement. We can all make the leap from MRI to healthcare/lives since the connection is relatively obvious; but it might be harder to connect investment in films like 20,000 Leagues to the health of our overall film industry.

It’s probably not too controversial to suggest that most of us think that maintaining a certain level national cultural output is important, whether it be books, music, film, or television. Maintaining those last two requires an industry that has an adequate numbers of highly skilled people. Projects like 20,000 Leagues creates jobs for our industry, keeps people from dropping out, and exposes them to world-leading Hollywood studio productions; benefits from which spill over into our own productions.

Translate Husic’s statement, then, to: “I don’t need investment in Australia’s film industry, I need an extra MRI machine,” and already it starts to look less compelling.

Again, this isn’t to say necessarily that this is the right allocation of funding; but it does point out the flaws in Husic’s statement.

This is hardly the worst example of politicking. It was just a pithy statement. Maybe Mount Druitt Hospital does need a new MRI machine, I don’t know. But if it does, then a genuine debate about the budget and the allocation of healthcare expenditure is needed. Throwaway and unclear lines like this does a disservice to genuine debate, and undermines the goals Husic claims to be trying to achieve.

All this in just one sentence. Imagine how much clarity we miss out on everyday…