Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture.

A network of community-based Indigenous arts centres and an array of cultural activity across Australia have been fostered by these programs, often providing the only positive balance to the destructive impact of a focus on deficit models of Indigenous capability supported by both major parties.

Dancers at the Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land. Performance and music is often one of the few activities which bring people together in a co-operative, positive and productive way to build community through culture

A portfolio of case studies drawn from decades of experience of the Indigenous cultural programs, bolstered by anecdotal evidence, shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement; developing a stronger sense of community; increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability; and by helping to generate income streams however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

In an article at the time of the Budget I flagged that things didn’t seem to add up with arts funding in the Budget, including support for Indigenous culture.

As we head to the announcement of the feared Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook where more budget cuts are usually on the cards, it’s timely to review the current state of Indigenous culture funding provided by the programs managed by the Ministry for the Arts in the Attorney-General’s Department.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When is a cut not a cut – it’s as simple as ABC

What is currently happening with budget cuts to the ABC and SBS will have significant long-term impact as the long-term effect produces the same kind of damage that has occurred with the other national cultural institutions.

In fact the efficiency dividends the other institutions are subject to are much smaller than the cut to the ABC, usually around 1.25% a year – though they have been known to have extra ‘one-off’ components added in particular years. Even when small they have devastating long-term effects because of the way they are compounded, with each percentage reduction being on top of all the previous ones.

Like many national organisations the ABC has a degree of Sydney-centric focus and there is room for improvement but it still does regional better than most

This is particularly worrying because apart from its mainstream flagship programs the ABC produces invaluable projects linked to local communities which no-one else is likely to pick up. Such positive projects - relatively new and not widely known - are likely to be some of the first under threat. A good example is the tremendous series of programs about Indigenous languages being produced by the Mother Tongue project of ABC Open.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The gap in Closing the Gap

The Productivity Commission has played an important role in the Australian Government’s Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage initiative, which became the Closing the Gap Agenda. It undertook a national program of consultation with Indigenous communities over the matter. As one of its Commissioners noted at the time every community they spoke with made a point of saying how crucial culture was in addressing the issues involved in Indigenous disadvantage.

Cultural involvement helps build self-esteem and a sense of community and music is central to engaging the young in co-operative activities that bear fruit.

In this complex area looking closely at what actually worked and why is the only way to find clues on how to progress. Despite this many of my former colleagues spent years while working on the Indigenous cultural programs managed by the arts and culture area of the Australian Government arguing that often it was recognition in practice of the importance of culture that worked.

Education - what does free mean?

At Whitlam’s memorial there was much mention, particularly by Cate Blanchett, of what his reforms to tertiary education had meant – for her personally but for Australia overall as well.

This was timely given the current attempts to make education far more expensive and to push the cost back onto individuals rather than Australia as a whole.

Broad-based access to education is critical to building  a highway to the future

It is sometimes argued that the reforms of the Whitlam Government benefited only middle class children, making free an education that their parents would otherwise have paid for, with the cost picked up by the taxpayer instead.

'Creative Nation' - Keating's cultural legacy

Hard on the heels of the death of Whitlam comes an article about another Labor icon and his policy creation. There was so much focus last year on the second Australian National Cultural Policy of all time that little was said about the first, 'Creative Nation'. In this article a strong point is made that 'Creative Nation' acknowledged two distinct and very different strengths in Australian culture. The first was the contemporary diversity of Australia. The second was the economic significance of the arts and culture sector, including creative industries.


The Keating cultural legacy bridged the disparate aspects of cultural life - encompassing both a recognition of cultural diversity and a view of culture from an economic standpoint.
This is interesting because the widespread public consultation underpinning the development of the National Cultural Policy towards the end of 2011 strongly echoed much of this. According to the overwhelming majority of respondents to the online survey during the consultation process, the most important element in a new national cultural policy was recognition of Australia’s cultural diversity. In fact, if anything, this view was even stronger in the consultation than it was in the final policy itself.

The Melba Foundation and the saga of the magic money

Welcome to the long saga of the Melba Foundation and the magic money.

The natural bias of the current Australian Government in its support for arts and culture was accentuated in its recent decision to refund the Melba Foundation through processes which are being called, at best, opaque. There have been complaints of lack of transparency but it seems completely transparent to me. Let’s cut through the officialese. I presume the Melba Foundation hit Minister Brandis for funds, as it was always certain to do once the Government had changed and there was no longer a Minister with a particular interest in popular music. Brandis agreed because the Melba Foundation is his sort of arts organisation.

Cockatoo Island - music island, a home to a great diversity of musical expression. Once there was no longer a Minister with a particular interest in popular music, the Melba enterprise was back in the game.

I’m sure the Melba Foundation is a very worthy cause and the Minister is quite within his rights to decide to fund it. The issue is whether it should be receiving extra funding in place of many of the other worthwhile projects around. Like most of the other projects and organisations that are close to the heart of this Government, the Melba Foundation is one of the best placed of all arts organisations to reach into the philanthropic bucket so beloved of government, whichever party makes it up. Many other small arts and cultural organisations are far less well placed.

Missing evidence – not spending a penny to save a pound

We live in a time when more than ever we need an evidence base for policy to ensure that resources are applied most effectively and government action reflects real long-term cultural, social and economic trends and dynamics.

Unfortunately, at the same time, we are all too often seeing the very services needed for this to occur being drastically trimmed or redirected. It’s too often a case of not ‘spending a penny to save a pound’.

Without suitable statistics, research and data, decision-making and planning can grind to a halt in a world of uncertainty and lack of history.

During the development of the short-lived National Cultural Policy, one of the most yawning gaps that became immediately apparent was the shortage of good collections of data on the arts and cultural sector – it’s size, its scope and it’s dynamics. In response some efforts were made to identify, collate and augment the information already collected by research institutions, the ABS and cultural organisations themselves.

Sculthorpe - music of big matters

Peter Sculthorpe, who died recently , aged 85, was a genuine great Australian talent (and a Tasmanian), prepared to tackle the big matters of Australia’s history in all its complexity, its darkness and light.

A small recollection related to his work stands out. I remember being in Northern Tasmania in 2003, about to start on the Bay of Fires walk. The drive to start the walk was due to depart from Quamby House near Launceston.

Bay of Fires shoreline - the Bay of Fires walk leaves from Qamby Estate, inland from Launceston in Northern Tasmania.

 Because it’s such an unusual name it stuck in my mind and on the day before in a bookstore in Launceston I found a recording of his piece entitled ‘Quamby’. It was originally Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 14, with a version for chamber orchestra created in 2000. He noted about the piece, “When I was young, my father told me a story about Quamby Bluff, a rather forbidding mountainous outcrop in the highlands of northern Tasmania.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The central importance of cities to the modern economy

Here is something I am getting my head around - a powerful trend that has been operating for a very long time but which has received extra impetus from changes in the nature of modern economies.

A new report by the Grattan Institute underlines how important cities are in the contemporary economy. Underpinning this is the absolutely central importance of the growth of the knowledge economy and the innovation, collaboration and interaction it depends on. Today manufacturing employs only 9 per cent of the Australian workforce and accounts for just 7 per cent of GDP.

This seeming decline in manufacturing has involved only a small and quite recent fall in the quantity of things manufactured in Australia. In other words its importance relative to other sectors has changed.

It's also interesting that knowledge-intensive activities aren't confined to jobs in the services sector, but are also increasing in mining and manufacturing. They often involve coming up with new ideas, solving complex problems or finding better ways of doing things and these roles are usually based in cities.

This is a reality that politicians have to grasp if we are going to see good policies that benefit Australia over the next decades. Unfortunately I think that many are still operating with a view of the economy which was out of date at least a decade ago.

This article was originally published elsewhere in my blogosphere and has been revised for this blog.

See also

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem
‘The issue of venue lockdown to deal with alcohol-fuelled assaults is becoming a major debate. Of course venue owners are concerned and their argument that the policy will affect the hospitality industry may well be valid – but that, by itself, is not enough. It comes down to how effective the approach is at addressing the problem and how badly the hospitality industry is affected. The question is how finely different kinds of venues are distinguished from each other in a strategy to reduce alcohol-related violence. Dealing with it was never going to be simple or easy. However, like all government policy, it’s all too easy to go for the one size fits all approach which might look good but not work’, Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem.

How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink
‘Of late I have been developing a close one-on-many relationship with Centrelink as I fulfill my destiny of sorting out stuff for my elderly relatives. It reminds me of dealing with Australia Post over many years. Everyone at Australia Post used to bend over backwards to help you. The problem was that their systems were so bad that even their own staff couldn’t get them to work. This is what Centrelink is like. In the crazy world of failing public service systems that are being overtaken by reality, the only solution is a work around. The tick the box approach that is being fostered in the new deskilled public service can’t handle complexity. The test of any system – or policy, strategic plan, program – is how well it handles the unexpected, the unforeseen, reality. This looks like failure to me’, How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink.

Diversity underpins the innovation we desperately need
‘I keep writing that cultural diversity is crucial to innovation because where cultures intersect, innovation happens. In a world where change is fast and widespread can anyone afford not to mobilise all they have going for them – to survive, let alone to succeed? Cultural diversity is a big part of that picture’, Diversity underpins the innovation we desperately need.

The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix
‘The heated response to the tax debate around negative gearing debate and capital gains tax shows that if political parties adopt a clear policy, in line with their core values and aligned with popular concerns, then get behind it and explain it, people will respond. For decades negative gearing has been distorting the shape of our cities, our suburbs and our communities. It is an inefficient way to achieve the desired result. These are historical tax distortions waiting for a fix’, The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix.

Unamerican Activities Committee
‘Reading reviews of the new film about the Hollywood screenwriter, Trumbo, I’ve been reminded of the legendary House UnAmerican Activities Committee, set up to hunt reds under the bed – especially screenwriters – in the US in the late 1940s and 50s. Only in America could I imagine something with such a bizarre name. What exactly were ‘unAmerican’ activities – did it include picking your nose in public or forgetting Mother’s Day?’, Unamerican Activities Committee.

Look after pedestrians and the economy will look after itself
‘Public transport is such a central element in a modern city. It has fundamental implications for how productive a city is, how culturally active and just how personally pleasant it is to live and work in’, Look after pedestrians and the economy will look after itself.

Travelling together through the city
‘Public transport is such a central element in a modern city. It has fundamental implications for how productive a city is, how culturally active and just how personally pleasant it is to live and work in’, Travelling together through the city.

Sydney - Australia's most valuable location but public transport its greatest weakness
‘A massive weakness only too familiar to anyone who lives in or has lived in Sydney could derail the whole positive effect of economic growth within different mega regions inside Greater Sydney and hold back innovation and economic productivity. This has serious implications not just for Sydney or New South Wales but for the national economy. Cities have always been serious business but this just got a lot more so’, Sydney is Australia's most valuable location but public transport is its greatest weakness.

Our capital cities are growing and produce most of our income
‘The city is a critical place for cultural life and for the diversity that propels it. It's interesting to see the overwhelming significance of cities in an economic sense as well’, Our capital cities are growing and produce most of our income.

Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed
‘At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. The revival of Newcastle is a reflection of the more general trend towards the revival of regional centres in Australia. Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. The efforts at revival all reflected the critical importance of cities. Each in its own way draws upon creativity and innovation and the cultural diversity which underpins it to create places which are pleasant and interesting to live in and to drive economic prosperity’, Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world
‘My nephew just got a job in Wellington New Zealand with Weta Digital, which makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. This is part of the new knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. This is transforming the political landscape of Australia, challenging old political franchises and upping the stakes in the offerings department’, My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Second language

When I was single I used to say that what I was looking for in a partner included the ability to speak a second language - one other than the language of love. When I was young I admired the romantic languages, like Spanish, with their fluidity and soft sounds. As I became older I found myself drawn to the structure and logic of German. I like most the ‘z’ words, ‘zucker’, 'zimmer', 'zeitung'.

On a plane flight from Vienna to Australia the sound of languages was brought home to me as the passengers bundled their massive bags into the racks over the seats. The soft sibilants of the Slavic languages contrasted with the harsher gutteral sounds of German. The 'z' words redress that balance.

Essen. Trinken. Tanzen - Eat, drink, dance. To which, in Germany and Austria, you could probably add 'Rauchen', 'smoke.





















For many years I have been learning German. To tell the truth I have been learning German since I was at school, where after many years of learning French I added a year of German. This meant I had two languages that I spoke badly. Perhaps I was sacrificing quality for quantity.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture

Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. They are mainly service industries based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also new and innovative ways of doing business. At their heart is the rule of creativity.

The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. They are a central part of the knowledge economy.

Managing meaning
Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not. As part of Australia's culture sector they share the critical function of managing meaning, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

Tobacco drying sheds near Ovens Valley, North East Victoria - the remnants of an ageing industry now abandoned for the promise of industries of the future

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In praise of the Berra

When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere.

When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say ‘if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died’.

Canberra in the rain from Black Mountain

Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The hidden universe of Australia’s own languages

I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.

For almost seven years I worked with hundreds of Indigenous community language activists, some professionally trained in languages, most not, who were working day and night to bring their languages back into everyday use. If they stumbled across a single missing word – in some library archive or vanished book ­ – the excitement was palpable.

'If the language activists taught me one thing it was that underneath the surface language was everywhere and in everything'

It was like finding a long-lost relative. Words for sister, brother, mother, father, long thought lost, suddenly leapt out at them. Ironically, often it was the missionaries, most interested in streaming a message about their religion from English who codified and recorded the local languages and, as a result, laid an unwitting basis for this later work.

Big Talk One Fire Festival, Cairns 2013 - 'there were 250 languages in Queensland alone'

The process these languages activists are trying to reverse – the decrease in the use of the Australia’s own languages over many generations – did not happen spontaneously. As Australia was progressively settled it was common practice to discourage or actively suppress people’s use of their ancestral languages.

If the language activists taught me one thing it was that underneath the surface language was everywhere and in everything.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

After the Budget: Things could be worse

Prime Minister Abbott claimed that the cuts to arts and culture funding would have been greater if not for Arts Minister Brandis. I'm sure that's true. Would the cuts to Indigenous programs have been greater without the interest of the Prime Minister in this area? In this budget we have the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Australia’ presiding over large cuts to such a productive and valuable area as support for Indigenous languages. This is an area of activity which has been crucial to building resilience and a life-changing sense of purpose and identity in communities across Australia.

The problem is not just the level of the cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts. Arts and culture have been cut because the Government doesn’t see a significant and broad role for national government, possibly government at all, in this area. This is particularly the case with support for small scale arts and cultural activity.

The exhibition of Cecil Beaton royal photographs at Ballarat Art Gallery, March 2012 - all the disparate elements the Budget struggles with: regional cultural life, the role of cultural institutions, the link between tradition and innovation.

After the Budget: The future landscape for Australian arts and culture

There will be immediate impacts from the decisions in the Budget affecting Australia’s arts and culture. Unfortunately the real damage will become apparent several years down the track when the cumulative impact of these various measures is recognised.

Autumn - not only in Canberra. 

Compounding effect
There are a suite of cuts, far wider than the arts and culture area, which when combined and also continued over several years will have a compounding affect far more damaging than appears at first glance. There are measures listed under the heading of ‘Cross Portfolio’, which are not specific to arts and culture support but will inevitably affect it. These include an ‘Administered Programme Indexation Pause’ which across Government will save $15.1 million in the first year, $34.1 in the second, $54.9 in the third and $60.9 in the fourth. On top of this one measure ‘Efficiency Dividend – a further temporary increase of 0.25 per cent’ will compound the already deadening effect of the existing Efficiency Dividend, which was itself increased, ‘temporarily’ as well, by the last Labor Government.

The whole notion of an ‘efficiency dividend’ is itself government doublespeak. Organisations, such as cultural institutions inevitably find their responsibilities, their collections, their programs, growing as they expand their outreach and consolidate their roles. They rely on finding their efficiency savings to fund these expanded roles, not to siphon back to consolidated revenue.

Indirect effect
Beyond these measures there are changes in other individual portfolios which are likely to have impacts on the arts and culture sector but which are difficult to assess at this early stage. This includes current support for creative industries through the Creative Industries Innovation Centre under the Enterprise Connect Program and support by the ABC and SBS for content production in the creative industries.

It also includes indirect support for aspects of Indigenous arts and culture through the restructured Indigenous programs which are now part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It’s also worth noting that $3.3 million will go to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to digitise its collection. This is a survivor from the National Cultural Policy, though $12.8 million was promised there. This seems to be the only other extra cultural funding in the Indigenous area and it’s interesting that it’s not part of Brandis’ portfolio.

It’s also noteworthy to see programs continuing that were almost abandoned by the previous Government, like the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project.

Reading between the lines the interesting feature of the Budget is which recommendations of the National Commission of Audit, such as ending support for community broadcasting, were not implemented. Whether that will change in the future will be the next question.

Major and unexpected
It’s easy to become focused on only the issue of funding. This was one of the major weaknesses of the discussion around the National Cultural Policy. Government, particularly national government, plays a highly varied role in support for arts and culture, of which funding is just a part. In many ways a comprehensive and coherent Government strategy to support Australian arts and culture by better coordinating all the support across Government would be more important than the absolute level of funding involved. However that’s definitely not evident here.

The long term impact of these changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the other. In three years, six years, nine years, Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation.

See the other articles about the impact of the Budget on arts and culture

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow

Selective drive-by shooting
‘The Budget was a selective drive-by shooting with easy targets including small arts. Entitlement continues for others.’ After the Budget: a selective drive-by shooting

Things could be worse
‘The problem is not just the level of arts cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts.’ After the Budget: things could be worse

See also

Indigenous jobs
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world

After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow

During the Senate Estimates Hearing on 29 May, Arts Minister Brandis repeatedly stressed that the Government was not cutting any funding that had already been committed. However, from what he said, it seems highly likely that any programs that currently exist that would have had funding rounds in future years will find that there are no longer funds to distribute. Organisations that have funds for the next 12 months, or next few years if they have triennial funding, may find that the programs they have relied on for support no longer exist by the time their current funding ceases.

This is a way of cutting programs without stopping them outright. Instead it allows them to peter out slowly over a number of years, by which time it will be too late to complain.

Ngarukuruwala - Strong Womens' Choir, the sort of local cultural activity that contributes so much to Australia's cultural life

In the arts area this is particularly likely to hit hard because many organisations rely on small amounts of funding from year to year merely to continue their base level of operation and many have been supported this way for many years if not decades. This is particularly true with small local Indigenous cultural organisations. They are then able to use the government funding to attract a broader range of support.

After the Budget: A selective drive-by shooting

Discussion about the impact of the Budget has become bogged down in arguments about degrees of entitlement and ‘sectional’ interests. If you take a simplistic and static view of the Budget in terms of an aggregated series of cuts which affect many different individuals to see what the total savings are then this is inevitable. If you look at the economy in a more dynamic way and consider the interaction of the different components and the likely effects over time it looks very different.

March in May protest against the Budget, Adelaide May 2014

Cuts to education could be seen simply as expecting certain groups to pay more for their use as individuals of social resources that benefit them. That’s true – in part. Individuals want an education because it benefits them but society may also want an educated population. From a macro, whole of society perspective the changes to education in the budget will have the overall social effect of reducing access to and application of education. This in turn reduces the breadth and level of skills and capabilities in the workforce and hence the ability of the economy to function as a high level one, rather than as a crude mine or factory producing basic raw materials or goods.

The big picture
The arts and culture sector is in the same situation. It’s easy to see criticism of cuts to arts and culture support by government as a knee jerk reaction by the sector to loss of funding. However, decades of discussion, including the extensive public consultation during the development of the National Cultural Policy, has made it clear that involvement in arts and culture and the role of artists, arts and cultural organisations and the creative industries has a broad positive impact across society generally for a relatively small outlay by government. These are some of the most important industries of the future as well as playing an important role in representing Australia to the world and to itself.

Innovation
A clear sign of the crude approach to arts and culture in the Budget is the way important areas of innovation have disappeared entirely from the Government landscape. In the screen area, the Australian Interactive Games Fund, an initiative of the National Cultural Policy, has lost $10 million. This is an area which successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, have struggled to understand. It took decades to win Government support and a year to remove it. It is one of the rapidly expanding industries of the future, with great potential for Australia, but requiring a role for government in lifting it to the next level. Now that won’t happen.

Selective drive-by shooting
Like so many things this government does, many elements in the Budget might well be introduced by any government so long as they were part of a comprehensive balanced strategy. This would need to include the whole range of measures, both in the area of spending and of income, required to future-proof the national budget and the economy.

I’m sure this won’t stop the Opposition acting in an opportunist way, even at the price of principle, if there are votes at stake.

Large-scale infrastructure spending might be welcome if it extended beyond the narrow cliché of more roads, looking backwards rather than forwards. Digitisation of our national collections so they become more widely available to individual Australians and our creative industries is a major infrastructure project that has been overlooked, yet would have a profound impact.

Unfortunately what we’ve seen is a selective drive-by shooting aimed only at easy targets – the old, the young, Indigenous communities, overseas aid recipients, Australia’s arts and culture and its creative industries. The age of entitlement still continues if you’re eligible for the diesel fuel rebate or superannuation tax concessions, are grasping opportunities for wealth accumulation provided by the capital gains tax or negative gearing regimes or can extract Australia’s mineral resources while paying tax under an archaic and unrealistically generous scheme.

Even if you are caught up in the tax surcharge for high earners, the one measure included so the budget didn’t look to be completely aimed at the small end of town, that’s only temporary, whereas the cuts to the less well-off are forever.

Make no mistake, there is no ‘budget emergency’ that requires an urgent fix. There are long term structural issues that need addressing in a strategic and thoughtful way. However, this Government has decided to use the excuse of a budget emergency to make the changes they have long wanted to make, including in the arts and culture area.

See the other articles about the impact of the Budget on arts and culture.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging
'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture

Things could be worse
‘The problem is not just the level of arts cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts.’ After the Budget: things could be worse

See also

Indigenous jobs
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Real jobs in an unreal world

'Subsidised jobs in the area of arts and culture and land care are real jobs, with real career paths and they deliver genuine skills and employment capability. Case studies and anecdotal evidence show that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.'

How do you make a positive and lasting difference to the chronic issue of Indigenous disadvantage – the fact that on almost every important measure Aboriginal Australians are worse off than every other Australian? For a long time the view has been that ultimately it’s all about jobs – without ongoing jobs, so the argument goes, there will never be an improvement.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating
We are fast approaching the most serious test of the Government’s commitment to make a real difference in the area of Indigenous employment and to show the imagination and flexibility to actually make it work. The government's review into indigenous training and employment programs, chaired by Andrew Forrest, is expected to report to the Prime Minister on its findings in the near future.

Indigenous art centre in Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land, that spans the whole gamut of new media and film, painting and print-making and crafts.

Yesterday Bruce Martin, one of the 12 members of Prime Minister Abbott's Indigenous Advisory Council, called for a doubling of the number of indigenous rangers working to protect almost 50 million hectares of land across the continent. He said the program was a ‘pivotal’ source of employment in remote areas and should be expanded.

He said the language sometimes used to describe the ranger jobs was inaccurate. ‘When people talk about ranger jobs being “pretend”, I think that does an injustice to the work that's being done,’ he said. ‘Everyone puts a lot of weight in jobs in the mining sector in regional areas, but the fact of the matter is the mining sector employs a quarter of what the health sector employs. ‘The ranger jobs have been absolutely critical.’ He said they got people in areas of little employment out on country and enabled them to fulfil their cultural obligations at the same time.

Arts and cultural jobs
Exactly the same situation exists with jobs in Indigenous arts and cultural organisations. Just like the rangers, these jobs are subsidised by Commonwealth government programs, like the suite of Indigenous cultural programs and related Indigenous jobs programs managed by the Attorney-General’s Department.

Like so many areas where government and communities collide, the views about jobs can seem narrow and lacking imagination and flexibility. The latest thinking seems to be that when we talk about Indigenous jobs we mean jobs in the the private sector, in mining or real estate or primary production.

Yet many of these types of jobs also receive their own direct and indirect subsidies. Publically-funded infrastructure, such as roads and railways and ports, for example, benefits them immensely. The legal and financial framework provided by government that enables them to operate at all in order to generate wealth is critical.

Subsidised jobs in the area of arts and culture and land care are real jobs, with real career paths and they deliver genuine skills and employment capability. Case studies and anecdotal evidence show that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement; developing a stronger sense of community; increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability; and by helping to generate income streams however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

It may involve some paid jobs, it may be more likely to involve income going to artists even if it doesn’t involve jobs as we traditionally think of them. What it does mean is income streams generated by communities themselves, even if the underlying mini-infrastructure of a centre and a manager is subsidised.

This can be seen on a daily basis in the network of Indigenous arts centres across Australia, particularly in remote areas. The income generated by art sales may be the only source of independent income in the community apart from government benefits and the centres are also likely to be the social and cultural hub for the whole community. It’s also true of the complementary network of community-based Indigenous language centres and the cultural centres operating across the country.

Creative industries – mining a new seam of value
An important aspect of many of these jobs is that they are in the crucial new and growing industry sector of the creative industries. For a long time this has been relatively under-recognised in the minds of politicians, who seem obsessed with declining industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, but this has been changing.

What is important here is that one of the most valuable assets possessed by Indigenous communities is their culture. This culture, and the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, is pivotal to these under-recognised jobs. They may not be in mining but they mine a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.

Unfortunately if the jobs concerned are government-subsidised ones, the argument runs, then they are not sustainable and ultimately do not contribute to any long-term solution. Yet if we look beyond Indigenous communities, there are plenty of jobs in the cultural sector that are partially or even wholly government-subsidised. No-one has (yet) suggested that the many jobs in the non-Indigenous cultural sector, in libraries, museums, galleries and arts and cultural centres, should only exist if they are totally self-supporting. Jobs in these organisation have always been and will always have to be subsidised. If not the private sector would long ago have muscled in to turn a buck.

Why are arts and cultural jobs in Indigenous communities any different? If a contribution by government leads to worthwhile jobs that have career paths and useful skills and make a genuine contribution to Australia, is that a better use of government funding than out and out welfare, so-called sit down money?

The question is: are these roles valued enough by the Australian community that they are worth supporting by government?

As Peter Shergold has accurately pointed out, government support for community organisations is a way of delivering services that the government is required to provide far more cheaply than it can ever be delivered by government.

Community organisations leverage the core government funding they receive to enable them to run on a daily basis to attract a wider pool of financial and other support. This is often extremely diverse, from private businesses, philanthropic bodies and individuals. The value of the unpaid volunteer contribution alone to these organisations can be substantial.

If the Forrest review and the government response fails to demonstrate the flexibility to recognise that jobs, such as the arts and cultural (and ranger) positions, while subsidised, are a critical element in the mix of measures needed to address the issue of Indigenous employment, then they will have failed. In the end, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

See also

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. ‘Black Diggers’, ‘the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered’ is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

See also the series of articles about the impact of the Budget on arts and culture

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow.

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging
'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture.

Selective drive-by shooting
‘The Budget was a selective drive-by shooting with easy targets including small arts. Entitlement continues for others.’ After the Budget: a selective drive-by shooting.

Things could be worse
‘The problem is not just the level of arts cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts.’ After the Budget: things could be worse.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Art for arts sake, art for society’s sake or arts as entertainment - value and spectacle

The value of culture has always been viewed through the lens of economic or social benefit. If it doesn’t produce some secondary benefits it has been seen as of lesser importance – a diversion or mere entertainment, with a focus on spectators and spectacle.

I wrote the first version of this article about four years ago after four years working in the Commonwealth’s Indigenous cultural programs. Because I was working in the Commonwealth public service and it commented on policy issues in the area I was directly involved with, I didn't publish it.

Rereading it four years on, in a very different environment, is strangely fascinating. It raises issues about value and impact that coincidentally are related to concerns that have more recently been expressed by the current Minister about focusing on the broader outcomes of arts and culture at the expense of its ‘intrinsic’ value.

Dancers at Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land, 2008
In this he is not necessarily reflecting a unanimous view because it’s clear that in its day to day activity, particularly in the area of Indigenous Affairs, the current Government still has a focus on broader social and economic outcomes, just as it did in the Howard era with the ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ agenda.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nation building - dam busters turned dam builders

The building of community culture is about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in.

Chou En Lai once famously (and perhaps actually) said when asked what he saw as the long term effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. I like that sort of sense of history. We all have different histories that steer us in different (and similar) ways. My uncle was a navigator on the bombers that burned Dresden. My father was an engineer who built dams. He was part of that generation which helped build a modern Australia that embodied diversity and tolerance – his generation turned from dam busters to dam builders.

It’s a mantle I am happy to have tried to pick up. It’s partly why I feel an affinity with Canberra – it’s integral to a sense of national development as opposed to the narrow state-based view we seem to be moving back towards and it is central to the nation-building vision I identify with so closely.


Disused mining equipment near Maldon, Victoria, © Stephen Cassidy, 2012
It’s no accident that Kevin Rudd, despite all his faults, managed to combine that nation-building vision with the requirement for an apology to the Stolen Generation. As in South Africa and Germany, true leaders saw that grasping modernity had to include coming to grips with the past and mobilising that history to take the country forward. A bad history doesn’t have to be a negative for the future as well as the past, it can actually be something that empowers future generations to do better.