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.

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.

'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.

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.

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.