Speech at the NSW Public Libraries Association Pre-Election Forum, 28 October 2014, Customs House, Sydney
Thank you Veronique for that introduction, and thank you all for the opportunity to be part of this forum discussing libraries and library funding today.
I acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Gadigal of the Eora nation and pay respect to elders past and present and acknowledge that I am from Bundjalung Country.
I’m grateful that the NSW Public Libraries Association – as a newly amalgamated organisation bringing together councillors and library officers from the city and country, is continuing the important work that the Public Libraries New South Wales and New South Wales Metropolitan Libraries Association, specifically the campaigning for library funding to be a key election issue, and so it should be.
Congratulations on the success of your petition and the focus this has delivered to this issue, and on your letter to the editors of newspapers around the state in response to the Minister.
It’s amazing that we have not only the audience in this room, but people joining us as virtual participants. It wasn’t too long ago that there was a widespread perception that libraries would become obsolete as technological advances allowed people to access information online.
Instead we’ve seen that libraries have embraced technology and enhanced accessibility to everyone in our communities, transforming the nature of the services libraries offer and contributing to the ongoing importance as a fundamental community service, and we know their use by the community is increasing.
Those of you who were at the NSWPLA conference in November last year, which I was honoured to open, heard me speak about my personal connection with campaigning for libraries to support in my local community, my commitment to deliver a new library and keep the other existing libraries open.
I’m proud that I was able to work in my community as a member of the Friends of the Library, and then as a councillor and mayor on council’s Library Committee, to deliver a state-of-the-art library in a five-star green building, which not only includes space for the library’s physical book collection and a range of digital technology, but two meeting rooms, an exhibition space and a dedicated space for archives and meetings of the Bundjalung Arakwal people of Byron Bay, who provided the site for the new library as part of their negotiations for an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. The Byron Bay Library was opened in February 2013, just after I finished my time on council, but I was thrilled to open it with the new mayor. It is offering information, education, community connections and cultural enrichment to our community.
I know the financial pressures on local government first-hand and have experienced the need to make decisions about competing priorities. But libraries are essential and the community knows that.
Since coming into Parliament in 2011 and taking on the role as the Greens’ spokesperson on the arts and community resilience, I’ve continued to raise library funding as a key issue where our state government needs to do better. I believe that at the state level, government undervalues the importance of local public institutions – not just libraries, but also art galleries and museums – as contributors to the wellbeing of the community. An investment in ensuring that the services and cultural vibrancy these public institutions provide, and the opportunity to access information and engage in lifelong learning and social and cultural connections, will pay dividends in the social and economic health of local communities across the state.
I know that everyone in this room is all too well aware, the state’s contribution to funding has been in decline. This isn’t just about the actions of any single government or party – the state’s share of total library expenditure has dropped over a period of several decades, across both Labor and Coalition governments.
Based on the State Library’s statistics, in 1980 the NSW Government’s funding accounted for 23.6% of total library expenditure, but by 2013 their share dropped to 7.1%. This means councils have been left to cover a greater share, resulting in a shifting of the cost burden onto local government.
So, I initiated a petition and placed a motion on the Parliament’s record calling for a funding increase. I wrote to all councils to find out about their individual funding situation, and I thank those councils who responded. I also produced a sticker that has gone far and wide across the state, stating the need for funding increases for library.
The motion that was debated in the Upper House on 24th October 2013, it called on the Government to review the base subsidy prescribed in the Library Regulation, which has been fixed at $1.85 per resident since 1997, and index it to the Consumer Price Index, and to review restoring NSW Government funding to be 20% of total library expenditure. The motion was successful, and if you check Hansard you will find that Members of many different political persuasions said very positive things about the importance of libraries and their personal experience with library services.
But the motion in itself doesn’t deliver Government action, but I’ve continued to press for the Government to explain its position on library funding. My office made a GIPA application to gain access to information about library funding. In Budget Estimates hearings this year I was able to ask the Arts Minister – who is now also the Deputy Premier – whether the Government is reviewing the subsidy and looking to increase their percentage contribution.
Unfortunately the answers you get in Estimates don’t always bear much resemblance to the questions you ask, and the Minister spent some time explaining that the actual funding that goes to local councils is more than the prescribed $1.85. This is true, but it also misses the point, which is that overall funding has continued to slide.
After this discussion with the most recent Minister, in my office we decided to take another look at the overall funding trends, and I want to present an analysis of the data that I think makes the problem facing councils incredibly clear.
We used the State Library statistics for local and NSW Government contributions to library expenditure, which are available at five-year intervals from 1980 through to 2010, and we then took the most recent 2012-13 figures as well. There are two things that have changed over time that we need to control for to get an idea of the real value each level of government is putting into library services – the first is that inflation changes the value of the expenditure, and the second is that the population has grown. So we calculated how much local and state governments were contributing per capita, and we then used the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator to adjust for cost of living changes.
From 1980 to 2013, the real value per resident of local government’s funding of library services expressed in 2013 dollars has risen from $21.37 to $47.31. This reflects the increasing costs that are associated with delivering modern library services – not just maintaining a collection and employing staff, but investing in technology, providing new services and delivering a broader range of programs to the community than a “traditional” library needed to provide.
Across the same time period, the real value per resident of the NSW Government’s contribution – again, expressed in 2013 dollars – went from $6.56 in 1980 down to $3.64 in 2013. In other words, while councils have more than doubled the value of their spending per person on library services, the value of NSW Government funding has been nearly halved.
This brings me back to the comments I made earlier about viewing library services as an investment in our communities. Research by SGS Economics, commissioned by the Australian Library and Information Association and released last year, analysed the benefits of libraries, which include not only services and programs but:
- the social interaction they facilitate
- the sense of place and enhanced local amenity
- the environmental savings generated through re-use of library collections
- their contributions to language and computer literacy
- the contribution of libraries to improved education, career development and health outcomes
They estimated that the annual expenditure of $335 million by NSW public libraries returned benefits to the community worth more than $1 billion – which means that every dollar spent on public libraries delivers a community benefit of around $3.20 and are, as the Australian Library and Information Association pointed out in their media release, “a better investment than gold.”
I’ve been a strong supporter of the importance of investment in supporting communities across all of my portfolios. This includes challenging areas like child protection, disability and Aboriginal affairs. In many of these areas the experts repeatedly tell us that early intervention support services – programs that aim to assist everyone in our community, with targeted services for those who are at greater risk of harm – are worth spending additional money on because they save money across a whole range of issues that happen when people reach crisis point.
I see libraries as offering a similar kind of universal support for our community that has broad benefits. The SGS Economics research backs that up. And it shows us that any Government that defines its key priorities as I would define them: to look to the wellbeing of our citizens, and to deliver services to the community that result in long-term good; should ensure that they contribute their fair share to library services.
The Greens NSW policy on Arts and Creative Industries, which we revised in consultation with our members and ratified in May this year, identifies several goals we will work toward that relate to libraries and other public institutions. First, we will work to increase the per capita funding to local government for libraries. Second, we will work to promote equal and adequate access to cultural and educational institutions. And third, we will work to ensure access to public cultural institutions, including libraries, galleries and museums, remains free of charge.
As an upper house member with an 8-year term I’m not up for re-election in 2015, so I can already assure you all that I will be working toward those aims for the next four years. But additional Greens representation – including both the Legislative Assembly where we have some fantastic candidates contesting elections in the city and across the regions, as well as the possibility of holding the balance of power in the Legislative Council – will strengthen our capacity to make the case for long-term reform and investment to serve the public good.
The need for library funding reform is clear and the work has been done to point us in the right direction. It’s not just about increasing the quantum of funding, but ensuring it is directed in a way that ensures all communities have access to the quality library services they need. The Parry Review, commissioned by Frank Sartor in 2007 but sadly neglected when its recommendations were delivered, highlighted that the existing funding model, including the Disability and Geographic Adjustments, are flawed. Parry noted that:
Only about 12% of the $6.2M that comprises this adjustment is distributed based on the disability factors of isolation, population distribution and demographic composition (NESB, elderly and 0-5 years clients). It is clear that stakeholders do not understand the basis on which the “disability and geographic adjustment” formula works and incorrectly assume that this factor does directly deal with equity of access to basic library services across the state. The existing disability and geographic adjustment component is not an effective means to ensure equity of access to minimum levels of public library services across the State.
What is clear from the NSW Public Libraries Association’s work is that since that time, stakeholders have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of what is wrong with the current funding approach, and what is needed in terms of reform. The Library Council’s 2012 recommendations – what has come to be called “modest proposal” – would provide a way to begin undoing the cost-shifting and improve fairness in funding.
A model that delivers population-based funding but includes a base level for small communities, a funding component based on widely-accepted measures of disadvantage and service needs, and a component for state-wide programs that recognise that modern library projects are often interconnected across communities, would ensure that libraries can continue to deliver for their communities. As the Greens spokesperson on the Arts I can assure you that we will continue to work toward achieving those goals.
But before I finish I also want to pick up on another suggestion that came out of the Parry Review, and it again relates to a focus on what library services deliver for community wellbeing and resilience. In his 2008 report, Parry recommended that the Government should give consideration to a comprehensive review of the benefits library services provide across a broad range of portfolio areas, including health, aged care, education and e-commerce.
I agree. So I will move to establish a Parliamentary inquiry that takes up Parry’s suggestion and examines the evidence and arguments for whole-of-society and whole-of-government benefits that are delivered by public libraries. For those who aren’t already as convinced as we are that libraries deserve funding that reflects their role as community hubs for learning, interaction and enrichment, I’m sure that an inquiry will make the case for the gains that come from delivering the necessary support to allow public libraries to fulfil their purpose in our communities.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that I am showing my commitment to the campaign for improved library funding by producing a range of materials. I’ve produced stickers, booklets and bookmarks – with book-bags in the planning stage right now. I will be travelling to communities to meet and discuss the importance of this issue.
I’m also launching a new website to support the campaign, which has more information about libraries and about the work I’ve done in the Parliament. You can access http://www.janbarham.org.au/libraries and the new site will soon be available.
Thank you for your time today, congratulations once again, and I look forward to library funding and services becoming a priority election issue.